Ben Carson may seem like a viable alternative to Donald Trump, but his pretense of practicality and knowledge is troubling.CREDITLUKE SHARRETT / BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY
There are theories, out there, that the pyramids of Egypt are really giant batteries, or even electric generators. Think about it: their granite blocks were originally encased in limestone, almost as if they had been insulated, as a power conductor is, with rubber. They once had golden capstones, a bit like the copper-tops on Duracells. All that granite piled up creates a magnetic field or a radioactive one, depending on which engineering schematics one favors—this reading of the pyramids takes a number of forms—and has a profound effect on negative ions. The King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid contains what may look like a sepulchre but is really where all the gold wiring that ran through the pyramid met—a pharaonic circuit board. The pyramid is a cross between the Tower of Babel and the Tesla Tower: a massive source of wireless power, which explains why the torches that figures carry in Egyptian wall paintings aren't plugged into anything. Delve too deeply, and the question seems less whether the pyramids are big and intricate machines built by ordinary hardworking Egyptians than whether they were built (perhaps, originally, upside down) by extraterrestrials, who might someday return to activate their force fields or laser beams. But that might be a bit much, as Ben Carson, who is running for President, would be the first to tell you.
"Various scientists have said, 'Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that's how they were," Carson said, at a graduation speech at Andrews University, in 1998. (BuzzFeed found the video.) "You know, it doesn't require an alien being when God is with you." The explanation for the pyramids was not only divine but laid out in one of the best-known Bible stories, which tells how Joseph, after his brothers had sold him into slavery in Egypt, had interpreted a dream of the Pharaoh's to mean that Egypt would have seven fat years followed by seven years of famine. The Pharaoh then assigned him to do some emergency planning. (Genesis 41: "Lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.") "My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archeologists"—here, Carson waves his hand dismissively—"think that they were made for the pharaohs' graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don't think it'd just disappear over the course of time, to store that much grain." Carson had his own take on the engineering: "When you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they'd have to be that way for a reason." The King's Chamber, as he saw it, was not an instrument panel or a power substation, but a big Tupperware container.
"It's still my belief, yes," Carson said, on Wednesday, when CBS News asked him if he still held to this theory. Then, with an almost pitying smile, Carson explained again, as if to a child, that "the pyramids were made in a way that they had hermetically sealed compartments. You wouldn't need hermetically sealed compartments for a sepulchre. You would need that if you were trying to preserve grain for a long period of time."
"That was a strange deal," Donald Trump said, when asked about Carson and the pyramids. This time, the Donald is right. There are problems with Carson's theory. For one thing, there is very good archeological and historical evidence that the pyramids were built as monumental tombs with a religious function; they were first built among complexes of tombs. There is also pretty good evidence of an extensive network of granaries, often associated with local temples. It's odd that Carson, a critic of big government, would assume that the only way to manage the storage job was with a giant four-faced bubble—but since the pyramids are not actually hollow, and don't have all that much storage space relative to their size, perhaps they would be an example of statist inefficiency. (Putting aside the question of whether those chambers were ever "hermetically" sealed, the dry climate of Egypt did mean that such sealing would not have been necessary.) A pyramid also takes longer than seven years to build. Also, the pyramid-building dynasties—the Third Dynasty (c. 2700–2600 B.C.), with its step-pyramids, and the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2600–2500 B.C.), with the great pyramids at Giza—do not match many of the guesses for when a historical Joseph might have lived, which range to the Eighteenth Dynasty. The counter-argument to that might be that, since we know almost nothing about Joseph, we might as well place him anywhere. Why not treat all of Egyptian and Biblical history as collapsible, and shuffle their incidents and artifacts as much as we like, under the general rubric of ancientness?
There are mysteries about the pyramids—they were built, after all, nearly five thousand years ago—and we don't know everything about how workers (free or not) were deployed, or what the geometry of the layout symbolized. Archeologists and engineers are still learning things from, for example, the found remnants of nearby construction camps. But that sort of study is not Carson's project. In the 1998 commencement address, he moved quickly from the pyramids to doubts about the Big Bang theory, saying, "That's the wonderful thing about having a relationship with God. You know, God has already told us what happened, so we don't have to come up with fanciful theories about things."
When Carson speaks about pyramids, he does so with the same pretense of practicality that he brings to many topics. He is a doctor, and a bearer of knowledge, including the news that the standard stories Americans are told, whether about economics, history, or science, don't add up. Joseph was a better model, a slave who "ended up as the Prime Minister of the most powerful nation in the world at the time"; because he persisted and listened to God, he "was basically able to save the entire world with his big thinking." Does Carson think that there is someone else who might do that? (It might interest him that the historical figure actually credited with managing the work on the earliest pyramids, a civil servant named Imhotep, was also thought to be a medical doctor.)
Thursday, the day after his CBS News interview, was a busy one for Carson, who is leading or close to Donald Trump in many polls—between them, they've got half of the Republican-primary electorate covered. His campaign released a radio ad with a rap beat ("Go and support Ben Car-son/For our next President and be awe-some") and was working to counter a CNN report that suggested that, despite what Carson wrote in his autobiography, he might not have been a violent teen-ager who once almost killed his friend. It seems strange for a candidate to be offended by the idea that he had actually been a nice kid—Romney had to answer to the opposite charge—and a little like being puzzled that an ancient torch has no wires attached. But, in the context of this campaign, in which Carson has made a point of how God changed his character, there is a rationale for both the exposé and for his response. The whole business stopped making sense some time ago. A certain number of Republicans turned to Carson because the other candidates seemed even less plausible to them. As the granary theory is to the idea of the pyramids as a giant battery or the work of alien architects, so is Carson to Trump—although, some days, it seems like the other way around.