A story about our common humanity


T.M. Doran

TEDDY MADE HIS COFFEE ON A CAMP HEATER. He didn’t have the right oil so it took him a long time to get it ignited and the instant coffee wasn’t as hot as he liked when he sipped it on the sofa.

Lady wouldn’t bother him till he’d had his coffee, got dressed, and went to the cabinet where they kept their dog walking paraphernalia. This morning, he decided to let her roam without a leash. She wouldn’t stray far and he wasn’t worried about traffic.

Stepping outside, Teddy was struck by what a lovely summer day it was: cool but not chilly, early sun, bright blue sky, no wind to speak of. Perfect! He decided to leave his jacket behind.

Perfect weather for the dog too, who stretched her legs and then joined Teddy as he made his way down the street. He loved walks in Milltown and their neighborhood, especially on days when it wasn’t too cold or stormy to observe the houses and yards: hundred year-old homes next to brand new models, every architectural style imaginable, big and small side by side. Sure, the yards needed some attention but he was more interested in the personal touches he’d never noticed before.

He didn’t hinder Lady, letting her go wherever she pleased. There were fewer squirrels and rabbits than usual; maybe they sensed something.

Lady had no sooner finished her morning meal than Susan came down the stairs. This morning, she was already dressed in her favorite outfit, the one with the flowery blouse. Somehow, she managed to look radiant at this early hour.

They had dry cereal and juice boxes for breakfast, Teddy telling her about Lady’s exploring. He said, “Did you know the Rodriguez’s corbels are a different color than their house?”

“They did that two years ago. It’s called an accent and it’s supposed to draw the eye.”

“Well, I just noticed.”

“Better late than never,” she said, and they both had a laugh.

It was almost noon when Teddy said, “You haven’t been out. Do you feel like walking?”

“I certainly do. We don’t want to waste this beautiful day.”

“Mind if Lady’s off the leash?”

“Why should I? Let me find my shoes.”

“Shall we apply our sunblock?” he asked her.

“I’ll pass today, you silly fool.”

They went in the opposite direction from Teddy’s morning walk, and they hadn’t gone far when they saw Charlie on his tall handled bicycle decked out with ribbons and other colorful adornments, Charlie’s long pony tail extending to the middle of his back.

They waved to each other and Charlie said, “It’s today!”

They hadn’t ever known Charlie to think about any day but today.

“It’s good to see him out,” Susan observed.

They walked further than usual, and on the way home Teddy pointed to a red dot in the sky. “There it is.”

“Mars?” she asked him.

“Let’s assume so. Are you hungry?”

“Not especially,” Susan said, “but I’m thirsty.”

Inside the house, they had big glasses of water and sat next to each other on the sofa.

“The bathtub water isn’t bad,” he said.

“We should have saved two bottles,” Susan replied.

“We enjoyed them…remember?”

Susan said, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, what shall I fear. The Lord is my strength, of what shall I be afraid?”

Teddy said, “I like the story where Saint Paul lists all his troubles: shipwrecks, prison, stonings…then says how happy he is.”

“Yes, and Jesus with the children. I worry about ours.”

Teddy didn’t want her to worry. “I’m sure they’re doing their best. They have their children to consider.”

He went to the window and looked out. “It’s as big as the Moon now.”

She joined him. “And how red it is. We should set our camp chairs on the lawn. We’ll open that bottle of wine and I’ll spread some peanut butter on crackers.”

“Sounds like a feast,” Teddy said.

“It will have to do. I’ll make enough for Charlie in case he rides by.”

Teddy said, “I’ll put the chairs out and uncork the wine.”

They didn’t see Charlie but they knew he was apt to wander for miles on his bike. They sat close to each other with the crackers and wine between them.

“How long?” she said.

“Less than an hour. This one is bigger than the dinosaur asteroid. I guess we shouldn’t complain since it’s been sixty million years since the last big one.”

Susan said, “Couldn’t it have held off a measly hundred thousand years?”

“Hah! You’re always thinkin’.”

“Do you think humans will survive?” she asked him.

They were both thinking about their children and grandchildren. “I hope so. Many have gone to the other side of the world.”

“Not the kids. They only got to Georgia,” Susan said.

“Maybe that’s plenty far. People are resourceful, especially young people. How long since you’ve seen anyone but Charlie?”

She said, “A month or so…about the time the water and power stopped working. Not a soul since, or they’re bunkered down.”

“Bunkered in what…and for what?” he said.

“Exactly,” she agreed. “Does it feel warmer to you?”

“It’s summertime. It gets hotter when the sun is up.”

“It’s bigger than the Sun now,” Susan said.

“I guess so,” Teddy said, taking her hand.

“I love you, Teddy. I’m very grateful for everything…our forty years, our children, all our blessings.”

“It’s been a wonderful trip, hasn’t it?”

Lady usually sought the shade when the summer sun was up, but today she sat sphinxlike at Teddy’s feet.

“It looks like they were right,” Teddy observed.

“About what?”

“About a direct strike on Milltown. Quite a distinction for our home to be the epicenter.”

“Couldn’t we have deflected or destroyed it?” Susan asked him.

“We had more important fish to fry, mainly fighting with each other and building the next distraction device. Anyway, we didn’t do any worse than the dinosaurs did.”

They laughed so hard that Lady joined in with barks.

It was huge now. They couldn’t see a tail because the asteroid was coming right at them, but they could see a spectacular multicolored aurora surrounding it.

A hot breeze wafted over them.

Teddy raised his wine glass. Susan did too. They tapped glasses, then she gave him a sip of her wine and he gave her a sip of his.

“To us,” he said.

“To us and ours. God bless us everyone.”

“Goodbye old girl.” Was he speaking to Susan or Lady?

She never knew.






The Coronavirus & Big Disaster Avoidance

Many dedicated and talented people are working furiously to contain and cure the Coronavirus, but are we missing something when it comes to such disasters: Flint water, Boeing Max, Fukushima nuclear reactor, California PG&E fires, and other disasters with big impacts but less press attention? For many of these, a word or two is enough to evoke public anger, and what many have in common is What Went Wrong might have been identified and rectified long before disaster struck.


Pie in the sky, impractical thinking? Not if companies and governmental agencies required a What Could Go Wrong review that examines programs and activities affecting public health and safety with a critical eye, drawing on the expertise of independent experts whose only mission is to identify vulnerabilities; not hindering progress or innovation, making sure big risks are identified as early as possible.


Many will insist we are already doing this but my experience and deep-dive looks at these disasters reveals no-holds-barred What Could Go Wrong assessments are rarely done. Studying these big disasters, what surprised me is they didn’t occur because technical mistakes were made, or work was shoddy, or contractors were incompetent, and none of these were in the category of virtually unpredictable “asteroid strikes”. These programs or activities went forward based on assumptions that turned out to be flawed or didn’t consider a broad enough range of risks.


Why? The prevailing culture rewards short-term results, conventional thinking, political considerations (corporate and public), and is too dependent on legal cautions rather than establishing a disciplined process to ferret out faulty assumptions and blinders.  Don’t companies and governmental agencies have quality programs and checklists to make sure things are done as they ought to be? Quality programs identify what should be done whereas a What Could Go Wrong review asks what are we missing. This means people with deep knowledge of the subject matter, people with big picture perspectives, are brought in for no-holds-barred risk identification, even risk imagination. I know Michiganders who could have prevented the Flint water disaster and all the misery that ensued in a one day What Could Go Wrong meeting.


Lastly, an awful death on a white sand beach at a deluxe resort, “trap and release” the checklist measure to control alligator access. What Could Go Wrong? Without an unbreachable (meaning, environmentally “unfriendly”) barrier to prevent these predators from getting into resort waterways the possibility that alligators would migrate into these food-rich waters and that some would avoid capture was likely, if not inevitable. An expert reptile scientist prompted to imagine what are we missing and with no incentive to tell the company what it wanted to hear could have identified this risk in short order.


A WCGW review, properly planned and facilitated, can be done quickly and inexpensively. Disasters can’t be eliminated but many can be prevented or mitigated by having the right people ask What Could Go Wrong.


Thomas M. Doran has managed hundreds of projects for companies, communities, and states for 40 years. He is a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit, was President of an engineering company and an adjunct engineering professor at Lawrence Technological University.


“The Obsolete Man” in the 21st century

Can a half-hour TV show be a masterpiece? The genius of Rod Serling’s best work is he isn’t taking aim at left or right, patriot or rebel, believer or unbeliever. If you’re displaying the behavior, it’s about you. Minus commercials, twenty minutes to tell a story that sucks you in and often turns you inside out. What’s more, in these times of trigger warnings and public vilification for a careless word or unpopular perspective, The Twilight Zone is at least as relevant as when originally broadcast in 1959-64.


The Obsolete Man, emblematic of Serling’s best work, features Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith), a librarian in a state without books, judged to be obsolete and sentenced to death. The warehouse-like courtroom is a gray beehive with buzzing drone-like people. Serling introduces this dystopian state as a place where “Logic is an enemy and truth is a menace”. We learn the “State has proven there is no God”. When he’s judged to be obsolete, Wordsworth responds, “No man is obsolete. I am a human being. I exist”, to which the Chancellor responds, “Delusions that you inject into your printer’s veins with printer’s ink…the state has no use for your kind…no more books means no more librarians”. When the state lets him choose the manner of his execution and permits the broadcasting of his death for its “Educative effect on the population”, Wordsworth chooses to die in his book-laden room, invites the Chancellor to observe him prepare for his “educative” death. But unbeknownst to his executioner, Wordsworth has locked the door so both men will perish. The oblivious Chancellor poses the question: “How does a man react to the knowledge that he is going to be blown to bits?” With the locked door revealed and the clock on the wall ticking, Wordsworth counters with a word of his own: “Let’s see how a Chancellor of the state dies…let’s have a little chat…just you and me and the great equalizer.”


Wordsworth proceeds to read from Psalm 23, from the Book of books forbidden by the state, the Chancellor smoking in nervous silence, both men defined in the moments the clock ticks down to the blast.


Serling’s postscript sounds quaint today: “Any state that does not recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, is obsolete.” In the verdict the state levies on the disgraced Chancellor, we might recall the Robespierres and Trotskys of history, the “Chancellors” in our day dragged down by their ideological brothers and sisters for one false step, one moment of weakness. In black and white and in 30 minutes, Serling depicts flashpoint issues in ways that chips away at our psychological and ideological biases.


In his time, no one would have called Serling a reactionary or religious zealot, but his views about human dignity no longer correspond with those who apply gender, sexual orientation, religious, psychological, racial, ethnic, or class struggle lenses to every spoken or written word. He was from a generation that witnessed the “obsolete” eliminated by the millions. The Chancellor says the problem with Hitler and Stalin was they didn’t go far enough. Serling was a humanist who knew that liberty, justice, and solidarity can only be built on a foundation of “The worth, the dignity, the rights” of every human being.


The Wall (T.M. Doran, Copyright 2019)

The Recruitment Center was a dingy little room with one glassless window looking out at the Wall. No chairs in the room because the presentations were brief. Once a week, Of-Agers assembled in the soot-laden room to hear the Parties pitched in anticipation of the decision they would soon be compelled to make.

Lyn had already heard most of what the Party Pitchers would say, but it was an obligation of Of-Agers to attend orientation, as it was an obligation to make a choice of Parties.

The Pitchers came into the room, all looking much the same, all four glancing at the Wall before facing their audience.

The Siege Serf stepped forward first, saying, “Our byword is Attack and Conquer. Why try to go over the Wall, or around it, or under it when you can go through it? We operate three-dozen drills. We’re constantly developing harder drill heads. Just discovered a new diamond mine in the Wilderness. Once we have a hard enough drill and a powerful enough engine we’ll be through the Wall like a hot knife through a slab of butter.”

“How much penetration have you achieved?” an Of-Ager inquired.

“Nine inches plus,” said the Siege Serf, proudly.

“How thick is the Wall?” was the next question.

“We’re not sure. How thick can a wall be?”

The Siege Serf was elbowed aside by the Tower Serf, who said, “Our byword is Construct and Conquer. The Wall may be a hundred feet thick, a million miles long, and who knows how deep the foundations are, so why try to go through it, or around it, or under it when we have the know-how to go over it? Twenty Towers and counting, youngsters.”

“How high is the Wall?” an Of-Ager asked.

“Not so high we can’t get over it,” said the Tower Serf.

“Times up,” said the Track Serf, pushing through the other Party Pitchers. “Tracking is the only sensible way to breach the Wall. Our byword is Explore and Conquer. Diamond mines, deeper and deeper foundations, mining, don’t make any sense when you can lay track in a jiffy and go around the Wall.”

“How long is the Wall?” came the question from a youngster who didn’t know better.

“Not so long that we can’t get around it with enough track, and building track is easy compared to drilling, towering, and digging. We’ve laid thousands of miles of track so far. You can bet we’re close to one end or the other.”

Next, and last, was the Tunnel Serf, who said, “Slogans aren’t getting anyone past the Wall. If you’re going to dig for iron, diamonds, foundations, why not dig for what matters, go under the Wall? Tunnel Serfs can dig deep in the time it takes these drillers, track layers, and skyscrapers to gain a foot on the wall.”

“A question,” hollered a pale young thing in the back of the room. “What makes you think you can find the bottom of the Wall?”

A moment’s hesitation before the Tunnel Serf said, “Ever heard of footings with no bottom? Didn’t think so, youngster. They’re down there all right, and when we find ‘em…zip, we’ll be on the other side and living high.”

A bell went off and the Party Pitchers trotted out of the room. At the door, the Of-Agers dispersed, with Lyn looking up and down the Boulevard that paralleled the Wall at a distance of exactly one thousand feet.  From where Lyn stood, neither the top of the Wall nor either end could be seen, the same as every other vantage point along the Wall.

Not your typical dull-witted Of-Ager, Lyn had decided to talk to working Tower, Siege, Tunnel, and Track Serfs before deciding on a Party.

Down the smoky block went the youngster, passing massive siege-works, observing piles of dirt and slag that surrounded and buttressed tower foundations, tracks extending in both directions, a deep deep pit for tunneling.

The Tower Serfs hostel-tavern was in the shadow of the gargantuan Wall. Lyn waited there for Jean to finish work, drinking one of two grogs allocated each day to those who lived on the Serf side of the Boulevard.

Lyn recognized Jean from the photograph that had been provided and hailed the Tower Serf. “I was told you know a lot about Towers,” said Lyn.

“Twenty years can teach you a lot when you’re paying attention,” Jean said. “And I pay attention.”

“Do you recommend it?”

“Paying attention, or Tower Serfing?” said Jean, guffawing and rapping an empty mug on the tabletop.

Lyn said, “I’m Of-Age, choosing a Party.”

“Then listen to me, youngster. Tower Serfing’s better work than Siege, Track, or Tunnel Serfing, and we’ll get over the Wall sooner than they get through or around or under it. We’re too high up for hoodlums to bother us. Hard work, but what work isn’t, and you can go high…and I mean high.”

“Have you gone high?” Lyn asked the Tower Serf.

“High as the sky, chum.”

“When you’re high, you can see what’s beyond the Boulevard,” said Lyn.

“Sure…mines, slag, ash mountains.”

“Then what? What’s beyond that?”

“Can’t see no further through the smog and soot. Anyway, our business is the Wall. You show me a Tower Serf looking the other way and I’ll show you a goon on half rations. Up high, we see everything that needs seeing.”

“Except over the Wall,” said Lyn.

Squinting at the youngster, Jean said, “You won’t be so smart in six months. Too tired at the end of a Shift to think or talk. Not too tired for grog though. Take up Tower Serfing. That’s my advice. You’ll go high…hey, give me the rest of your grog and I’ll tell you a secret.”

Lyn pushed the half-filled mug in Jean’s direction, hoping this secret would help make a decision. Several gulps later, when the grog was gone, Jean said, “Ever hear of windows, chum?” When Lyn said no, Jean stepped to the bar, brought back another mug of grog, and said, “Everyone that’s worked ten, twenty years on the Wall has heard of windows. Well, I seen one for myself. At least, I thought so.”

Lyn said, “There aren’t any windows in the Wall, just stories about windows, grog dreams, breakdowns, delusions. That’s what they told us.”

“Think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? Well, who’s to say you ain’t right? Still, years ago, I woke out of a dead sleep a couple hours before my Shift, couldn’t get back to sleep neither. Set out to walk along the Wall, and what do you think I found…a window, maybe four foot square, dark on my side, glowing on the other.”

“How much grog that day?”

“No more than usual, thank you.”

Nor less, I bet, the Of-Ager thought. Lyn fought down the urge to laugh. “You must have seen how thick the Wall was.”

“That’s just it. Only a foot or so thick, at least at this window, and on the other side, green hills, a river, music—I heard it…not a speck a’ soot neither. I was opening the window before I caught myself quick and said, “Wait, old thing, you’ll be late to your Shift if you don’t get a move on. This ain’t approved, you can be sure of that. Bang, I slammed the window shut and ran back to my room. Now, this was strange—still had two hours before my Shift, so I went back to bed, and slept too.”

“How do you know you weren’t dreaming?” said Lyn.

“Too real. That’s what I told myself then. Now, I’m not so sure,” said Jean, babying the dregs of grog in the mug.

“Did you try to find the window again?” asked Lyn.

“Too busy Tower Serfing. And told myself taking a shortcut was cheating. Stiffing my Party like that isn’t my style. We’re going over that Wall, like I told you.”

“Why didn’t you go through, then come back and report what you saw?”

“Maybe I mightn’t of come back once I seen the other side.”

The youngster concluded that a bad bargain had been made when the grog was traded for Jean’s loony secret. Walking out of the tavern, Lyn had already dismissed Jean’s window as nonsense or madness. On the other hand, the ability to Go High was exciting to an Of-Ager.

Though rooms in the hostel had been reserved for Of-Agers like Lyn, some rooms were permanent habitations, and the Siege Serf Lyn was seeking was among the permanent residents.

Lyn knocked for several minutes before the Siege Serf said, “Hold your god-damned horses. I’m putting my pants on.”

The door opened, with Lyn quickly explaining the purpose for being there.

“I suppose I can spare a few minutes,” said the Siege Serf.

“You’re Carol?” said Lyn.

“Been ever since I can remember,” Carol said.

If this was a Siege Serf’s room, Lyn was inclined to select another Party. A small table, two chairs, bed, icebox, stove, and privy in the corner.

“Not much, eh?” said Carol, “I doubt you’ll do any better. Only good rooms are on the other side of the Boulevard. What do you want to know?”

“How long have you been a Siege Serf?”

“Well…I won’t say too long, and I won’t say long enough. Let’s say enough time to learn Siege Serfing inside and out, inside the mines and outside the drilling machine.”

“What do you like about it?” said Lyn.

The Siege Serf gave him a queer look. “I like that we don’t pussyfoot by going over or around or under things. We’re attackers, and we’re going through that Wall. You can bet on it. And we don’t have to worry about collapsement, or de-trackification neither.”

Lyn said, “Your Pitcher said you haven’t penetrated a foot into the Wall. Tower Serfs have gone up thousands of feet, Track Serfs have laid thousands of miles of track, Tunnel Serfs have gone hundreds of feet deep…”

“So what?” countered Carol, “If they’re never getting over it or around it or under it.”

Lyn pressed with, “How do you know you’re going to get through the Wall?”

“Have you heard about the super-diamonds we’ve discovered? Have you heard about Leslie’s super-power plant? When we combine them, getting through that Wall will be a piece of cake. Bosses say if we can drill an inch, we can drill a mile…just a matter of time.”

“Think you’ll have to drill a mile?”

“Just a figure of speech, kid-o. Walls ain’t that thick. Now, here’s a secret”—Lyn cringing at hearing this word again—“Those scaffolders, putt-putters, and moles are nervous, I’m telling you. Pretty soon, there’ll be one Party—ours, so don’t make a stupid decision. You may be the last Of-Agers to have a choice.”

This was something Lyn hadn’t considered, though the discoveries and inventions involving diamonds and power plants were widely known. So were reports that train speeds would soon double and super-strong materials would double tower heights and depths of tunneling shafts.

“Why do you want to get through the Wall, Jean…I mean, Carol?” Lyn said.

Carol squinted and said, “They say the good life’s on the other side. Whatever’s there must be better than this hell. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Siege Serfing’s the life for me.”

There was time for one more interview that day. By all rights, Lyn should have left the Tunnel Serf for last, as they were the smallest and newest Party, but as their one-and-only mine was right next to the hostel, why not let the moles make their pitch?

Alex lived in a honeycomb hostel three hundred feet below the Boulevard, ensuring, as Lyn had been told, that Shifts weren’t affected by getting to and from the bowels of the mine. If it was gray and sooty on top, it was far grayer below, even with the hydrogen lamps that were attached to every wall.

Lyn met Alex in the Tunnel Serfs’ rock-hewn cafeteria. “Let me tell you something,” said Alex, after a lengthy coughing fit. “We get three grogs a day down here. If that doesn’t convince you to take up tunneling, nothing will. And we’re too deep for varmints.”

A Tunnel Serf wearing a soot-stained apron brought them more grog. Just as Lyn was taking a sip, one of the lamps went boom, the Of-Ager falling off his chair, though no one else seemed to notice.

“Just one mine?” said the youngster, back in the chair.

“And why not?” said Alex. “We Tunnel Serfs are thinkers. That’s what sets us apart. What’s the point of all those towers and drills and miles of track when the Wall is the same everywhere? Why not put all our resources and ingenuity to work at one location? Maybe we’re young compared to the others. How many thousand years have they been at it?”

“But the darkness, the…” Another lamp blew up.

Alex waved dismissively, coughed, and said, “Gets so you don’t even notice, and the extra mug of grog helps. The important thing is the work—undermining the Wall, knowing the rest have no hope of getting over, through, or around it. How deep can the Wall foundations be anyway?”

More than the six hundred feet the Tunnel Serfs had excavated so far, Lyn reflected.

“Think of it this way, youngster. The others are always up top, so they don’t appreciate how sweet and glimmerin’ it is compared to down here. When we go up, we think were in paradise…so to speak. Specially with three grogs in our bellies.”

It was hard for Lyn to imagine the Boulevard as paradise, but not so hard to imagine this lamp-laden hole as inferno. Lyn said, “At least you don’t have stories about windows down here.”

“Wanna’ bet? Even us thinkers have a few knuckleheads.”

The next day was sootier and darker than most. Lyn had to take a train to meet the Track Serf, the Explore and Conquer Party member. Frequent lurches and bumps as the train rattled down the track made it imperative for Lyn to hold onto the steady-bars that lined the walls.

The passenger opposite Lyn was smoking a red cigar, identifying this person as a Boss.

“You a Track Serf?” said the Boss.

“Not yet,” said Lyn. “I’m Of-Age, making a decision.”

“No decision to make, youngster. Only Track Serfing makes sense in this day and age. Explore and Conquer. We have it all over those stay-putters. Take my word for it.”

During the hundred-mile trip, Lyn’s eyes were often drawn to a Wall that was exactly the same mile after mile. Needless to say, there weren’t any windows, or anything else that would mar its hypnotically smooth surface.

Weaving toward the train exit, hearing the toot toots and seeing bursts of steam through the windows, a hairy passenger in gray and green blocked the aisle and said, “Where you going, kid?”

Lyn said, “Meeting a Track Serf near the depot. What’s it to you?”

“Track Serfs can’t do anything for you. Maybe can,” said the stranger. The Parties are worthless. Sooner you learn that, the better.”

“The Wall…”

“…don’t matter none. Get as far from it as you can.”

Was this a Scoffer, Lyn wondered, those outliers who didn’t care about the Wall, had their allocations suspended, preyed on Party members or subsisted in the Wilderness? Lyn said, “There’s nothing in the other direction except Wilderness. Who wants to live there?”

“Some does.”

“I’ll be late. Let me pass,” said Lyn.

“We don’t trust the Parties, none of them. We depends on ourselves. That’s the life, kid.”

“You have a house, a bed, a heurto?”

“We make do.”

“How do you make do in the Wilderness?” said Lyn.

“Follow me…you’ll see. This Wall’ll eat you alive, and there ain’t no windows neither. Take my word on it, kid.”

Lyn pushed past the green and gray stranger, exiting the train, never looking back, checking every hostel in the vicinity of the station before learning the sought after Track Serf lived in a lean-to against the Wall. Did this mean Track Serfing was an even more penurious occupation than Siege, Tower, or Tunnel Serfing?

The shack door swung open as soon as Lyn began knocking.

“Come in. Make yourself comfortable,” said the Track Serf.

Surely, the Track Serf wasn’t serious, as there were no chairs in the shack, just a mattress and a chamber pot.

“Cris?” said Lyn, skeptically.

“The same.”

“Why do you live here?” asked Lyn, rocking from foot to foot, as if still on the train.

“I prefer being close to the Wall,” Cris said.

Lyn surveyed the tiny space. “You built this…house against the Wall, so why can’t we see the Wall?”

Looking over a shoulder, Cris said, “If you want to know, I’ll tell you.”

The Serf and this hovel were making Lyn nervous. “I guess not, but tell me why I should be a Track Serf.”

“We are explorers. We’re far from sootification. Do you want to be an explorer?” said Chris.

Explore and Conquer.”

“That’s our slogan. Myself, I prefer exploring to conquering.”

“Why go around the Wall?”

“Not many bother to ask. New lands, new opportunities, new discoveries; that’s the answer I’ve often heard, though it’s not based on anything substantial, anything we know. Just blind hope.”

“Then, why shouldn’t I go with the Siege, Tower, or Tunnel Serfs?”

“They won’t get past the Wall,” said the Track Serf.

“And Track Serfs will?”

“We won’t either.”

“Don’t you care about getting past the Wall?” Lyn said.

“More than anything. What have you heard about windows?”

Oh, oh, thought Lyn, another crackpot. What were the odds of running into two of them? “Enough to know they’re children’s stories, grog dreams. I have a decision to make. Is there anything about Track Serfing you care to pitch?”

“It’ll keep you busy, it’ll make you so tired you’ll sleep at night.”

“That’s all?” said Lyn.

“Want to see what’s behind that wood panel? The Wall…and something else. A window.”

Another knucklehead. The sooner Lyn got out of here, the better.

“Wait. Don’t go yet,” said the Track Serf. “I can open the window whenever I desire, put my head through it. The other side is amazing…no words can describe it. You can see, hear, smell…well, it’s unbelievable. I can’t go there yet, but I hope to go some day.”

“That’s swell,” said Lyn, making for the door, and whispering, “Crazy!”

“Do you want to open it? See for yourself? What can it hurt?”

“Some other time. Exploring and Conquering, who wouldn’t go for that?” said Lyn, his back to Cris.

“Yes, exploring,” said Cris.

The inquisitive Of-Ager was already through the door when the Track Serf spoke these words. A burst of soot went up Lyn’s nostrils. The decision that had to be made, and soon, wasn’t easy: Tower, Siege, Tunnel, or Track Serfing, but the choice—Party-wise—if not the air, had gotten clearer with each interview.

With springy steps and burning eyes, Lyn made for the train station.

Photo/art by Chris Van Allsburg

God and Science, Science and God


Even a person of deep faith can sometimes be intimidated by the astounding proclamations that come from the scientific community, to the extent that we may be inclined to tune them out, or reject them out of hand.


Science has become so specialized it’s difficult for laymen, even those with technical training, to wrap their minds around modern scientific concepts—a universe packed with dark matter and dark energy we can’t “see”, evolutionary adaptation, extra dimensions suggested by string theory, mind boggling time scales when talking about the history of the universe or the number of galaxies and stars.


Christians believe all reality and truth originates in God, so how can we fear anything that proceeds from honest science grounded in evidence? Rather than being intimidated by huge numbers—billions of galaxies, a 14 billion year old universe, quarks so small you’d need to line up trillions of them to make a grain of sand—we might marvel that God is the Creator of a universe far more impressive and dynamic than a single world around which a handful of celestial bodies move in perfect rhythm. As one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia characters says of Aslan, “He’s wild, you know. Not a tame lion.”


We can respect scientists, like athletes, who play by the rules, limiting themselves to observation, measurement, and evidence. Scientists “playing by the rules” cannot endorse invisible realms because such realms cannot be measured, because they aren’t testable. However, science has a rich history of discovering previously undetectable realms—microorganisms, atoms and even smaller particles, ultraviolet light. Not to imply that every invisible realm is discoverable by science if only we could invent the right tools. Rather, an image of how things can be real and affective without being measurable, as the vertical (“up”) dimension would be undetectable/invisible to flat plane creatures.


With much of science obscure to those not steeped in advanced mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, it’s even more important to distinguish between evidence-based conclusions, and speculation. Some scientists, prominent voices among them, are not as careful as they ought to be at distinguishing what evidence supports from speculative conclusions. Today’s scientific consensus: about 14 billion years ago an unimaginably huge amount of “stuff”, in which matter and energy were indistinguishable, at an unimaginably high temperature, compacted into an unimaginably small space—if time and space even existed—“exploded” to initiate the universe (the Big Bang). From whence did this “Micro-speck of Everything” originate, what caused it to “explode” and expand? Science has evidence for what happened immediately after the “explosion” but can only speculate about the nature and source of this “Micro-speck of Everything”. Speculation isn’t a bad thing so long as the difference between evidence and speculation is made clear. We have to be especially careful about an ideological scientism that goes beyond science to construct a God-less belief system about the universe, man, ethics, and morality. Unharnessed from biblical principles, man is free to make his own rules, but history demonstrates that when man makes the rules, “unencumbered” by the Gospel, bad things happen, and with more powerful technologies, even worse things happen (tens, if not hundreds, of millions tortured and murdered in the 20thcentury).


Science has evidence for evolutionary adaptation, for living things evolving new qualities and capabilities, testable evidence when it comes to rapidly reproducing organisms like viruses—how they evolve resistance to antibiotics. Many scientists embrace a theory of “chemical evolution” that preceded, and then produced life on Earth, a theory that largely relies on statistics: given enough organic “soup”, enough time (3.5 billion years), energy rich environments, living organisms that could reproduce were produced from the chemical soup, similar to using statistics to “prove” life elsewhere in the universe based on the age of the universe and number of planets.


Lest we think a billion years is ample time for anything imaginable to occur, even the earliest of these theoretical transitions: chemical soup to the most primitive cells containing DNA, to photosynthetic cells, to more complex cells that could survive in the oxygen-rich environment produced by photosynthesis, would have required astounding increases in levels of complexity, and these only involving the simplest forms of life.


Christians consider life a gift from God, even if God used millions or billions of years to accomplish it. Do now well-understood “mechanical” processes preclude the need for a benevolent God, or worse, mitigate against such a God? We don’t need modern science to inform us that bad, unexplainable things happen to good people, as this was known in Moses’s time and by early Christians—human clocks rapidly ticking down, grief pursuing us, even the longest lived. A better question for believers is how do such events and developments play out in realms that are invisible to science and mankind? Is there a deeper meaning, as Christians embrace a deeper meaning for the apparent absurdity of the Cross? Some are willing to concede the possibility of a Creative Agent, a kind of Divine Watchmaker or Mathematician. As to a benevolent God, the Father icon Jesus reveals, only Divine Revelation or a personal experience of the invisible realm where God resides (Paul on the road to Damascus) can reveal such a Deity. The human paradox is we cannot discern this benevolent God with our senses and intellect alone, or with any macro or microscope.


The size and age of the universe, number of galaxies, may make us feel insignificant—cramped and small, but we can view these numbers from a different perspective. 1) You and I are infinitely larger than the “Micro-speck” that contained the universe before the Big Bang; 2) Science has yet to discover life beyond Planet Earth, much less self-aware, self-reflective life; 3) As Christians, we believe God Himself occupied the brief moment of time that’s allotted to human beings; 4) Science itself recognizes that human beings represent the highest level of complexity discovered thus far in the universe, more complex in terms of elements, chemical processes, and energy flows than the largest stars and planets. Viewed this way, numbers tell a different story, and whether our ancestors’ smaller numbers or today’s very large numbers, theologians suggest the Creator is outside of time and space, and unrestricted by these created dimensions.


What is the responsibility of believers, especially theologians, philosophers, and pastors? Theological and philosophical principles and perspectives may go beyond measurable evidence, but ought not to contradict reason and evidence, not at war with honest science.


Scientists and believers alike are creatures that seek resolution of questions and mysteries. This desire seems hard-wired into us. The more we learn about Planet Earth, our solar system, the universe, the more questions and mysteries we encounter. An honest scientist and an honest believer have much in common, each questing for deeper knowledge and meaning. This world and universe may be much different (less tame) than our ancestors could have imagined, but wonder at its majesty and beauty hasn’t diminished. To the extent that science keeps in its lane—the relentless pursuit of evidence, and conclusions that fit the evidence—it is an occupation believers ought to heartily embrace.