Rabbi Akiva, “The cold equations”, and “The gods of the copybook headings”

There is a Talmudic passage (Bava Metzia 62b, reference via http://www.dvar.org.il/the-obligation-of-self-sacrifice) concerning the hypothetical of two men in the desert, of which only one has a water flask. (Like law school today, the Talmud is big on hypotheticals.) There is not enough water for both to survive, but enough for one.

R’ Ben Petura said that it was better that both should die than that one would see the death of the other. R’ Akiva, however, overrules him, saying that the man with the bottle should drink the water, quoting Leviticus 25:36 ‘Your brother’s life is with you’

Elie Wiesel is reported to have commented on this: “Rabbi Akiva was very hard, very hard on the survivor.”

I was reminded of this while reading the classic, chilling short SF story “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The first time I read it, I was shaking all over, and it still elicits a strong emotional response whenever I read it.

Briefly, here’s the plot. A survey party on an alien planet sends out a distress message that they are about to die from a plague, and that their supply of vaccine has been destroyed in a natural disaster. The nearest source for the vaccine, a spaceship in hyper transit, sends out a shuttle into normal space to deliver it. The shuttle has a precisely calculated amount of fuel for a one-way trip (the pilot will, nolens volens, have to join the survey party), with a negligible margin for error. After he has left, he discovers a stowaway: a young girl who was hoping to pay a visit to her brother on that planet.

If he leaves her aboard, both they and the seven people awaiting the vaccine will die. There is no way to hand off the vaccine in-flight. The pilot gets on the (presumably hyperspace) radio and runs through all possible options with the mothership, and all conclude that the only ‘solution’ is an extremely unpalatable one: for the girl to be jettisoned into space — for her to die that eight others shall live. Even for the pilot to do the chivalrous thing and sacrifice himself is not an option, because she doesn’t know how to pilot the shuttle and cannot be taught quickly.

The story is a heart-rending one to read precisely because it is devoid of sentimentality. Eric Flint, who has been editing Tom Godwin’s work posthumously for republication, points to the implausibility of the shuttle being sent out with no margin for error on the fuel. And anyone reading this who is not heartless hopes for a ‘deus ex machina’ solution to avoid the heartbreaking end.

But of course, that would have defeated Tom Godwin’s purpose, which as far as I can discern was twofold. First, it was to present a moral dilemma akin to that of R’ Akiva, but with the stakes changed from “one vs one” to “one vs many”.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, to express his view of the Universe as a cold, uncaring place that has no particular interest whether the laws governing it are emotionally comforting to human life. And where nobody can ignore ‘the cold equations’ in the long run, or the Universe will present the bill.[*]

The famous Kipling poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, expresses this latter thought. Its full text can be read here.

 

A ‘copybook’, I am told, is the British English term for a preprinted book in which elementary school pupils learned penmanship by copying out short phrases — usually pithy proverbs, sayings, or admonitions. Interestingly enough, both Glenn Reynolds (an American law professor better known as the “blogfather” Instapundit) and yours truly (likewise born on the seam line between Boomer and Gen-X) interpreted “copybook headings” as something else, namely column sums on a balance sheet. And passages like these sure admit of such a reading:

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

 

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
[…]
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

“The gods of the copybook headings” or “the cold equations”: They are neither good nor evil. They just are, and we ignore them at our greatest peril. No matter how much those of us of a liberal temperament (some of whom may actually be conservatives by conviction) might like it to be otherwise, the Universe (and human nature) are what they are, not what we would like them to be. And of course, like in science or engineering, for every “cold equation” we know there are ten, or a hundred, that we don’t know.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome…
[*] I note in passing that Godwin’s writings display a fascination with human survival in inhospitable environments. This bio wonders whether this stems from Godwin earning his keep as a surveyor around the Mojave Desert.