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Open letter to science editors



Back to the Drawing Board?

Summer 1979

Only sketchy preliminary reports of the Pioneer and Venera missions to Venus have yet been disclosed, but already the new data, especially the finding of 200 to 300 times more primordial argon (Ar-36) than expected, have invalidated basic assumptions about the nature and origin of what was once blithely called "our sister planet"; and astronomers have been sent "back to the drawing board" (1) in search of new theories about our brilliant neighbor in space.  At that drawing board they find already seated a most discomforting companion, a scientist whose views about the history of the solar system, long condemned as heretical and crackpot, continue to receive confirmation from each discovery.

Thirty years ago, Immanuel Velikovsky proposed a revolutionary cosmological reconstruction: our past has been marked by repeated cataclysms caused by the shifting of planetary orbits, the most recent of which - the signs and wonders and miracles described in the Books of Exodus, Joshua, and Isaiah - were precipitated by the eruption of Venus into the inner solar system as a gigantic cometary protoplanet.

Though Velikovsky established his thesis on a worldwide concordance of myths, traditions, records, and classical literature, defenders of conventional opinion in astronomy, history, geology, and even theology treated his work as unworthy of thought because it violated a fundamental article of faith, namely that our solar system was created in its present essential form.

If Venus did indeed originate quite recently in the way suggested by Velikovsky, certain facts about it were to be expected: its surface would be extremely hot; the principal source of its heat would be an even hotter interior; its atmosphere would be extremely complex and active and would contain significant quantities of hydrocarbon and derivative gases.

The very first probes to reach Venus confirmed that its surface temperature is about 900F, exactly the value expected if Venus had been cooling for some 3,500 years from an initial temperature of 2,500-F.  But this fact has not led orthodox astronomers to accept the internal-heating thesis, because they have been able to formulate an alternative that would perhaps preserve a great age for the planet the "runaway greenhouse effect" theory, according to which trapping by atmospheric CO2 and H2O of solar radiation would be sufficient to raise surface temperature to its present level and keep it there indefinitely.

The crucial part of this theory is expressed by the term runaway: the massive envelope of Venus would have been formed when, after Venus lost its primordial atmosphere thus exposing its surface to the intense heat of the young Sun, solar radiation boiled the CO2 Out Of surface carbide rocks, increasing the massiveness and hence radiation-trapping capacity of the envelope until all available C02 was released and temperature-equilibrium attained.

It is this "runaway" mechanism that has now been invalidated by the argon-36 discovery.  According to Pioneer experimenter Dr. Michael McElroy, "The atmosphere of Venus contains as much argon36 as you would expect from a planet's original atmosphere".  But if Venus never lost its primordial atmosphere, the "runaway greenhouse" would never have had the chance to get started because the surface of Venus would always have remained shielded from direct solar radiation.

Although the existence of a powerful internal heat source can be definitively proven or disproven only by direct measurement of the subsurface thermal gradient, this contention also received positive, though indirect, support from upper-atmospheric temperature measurements.  Above the poles, temperatures are now shown to be 40F higher than at the equator, and equatorial night-side temperatures 4F above the day-side level.  But the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that heat cannot flow spontaneously from a cooler to a warmer region, leads to the expectation that, if Venus gets its heat from the Sun, we would find the most heat where most solar energy is being absorbed - at the equator on the day-side.  Higher temperatures on the night-side and at the points on the planet receiving least solar energy could scarcely be expected, unless one assumes that Maxwell's demon is alive and well and living on Venus.

The third, perhaps crucial, Velikovskian prediction held that hydrocarbon and derivative gases would be present in the Venusian atmosphere, and the first results seem to point strongly to confirmation of these expectations as well.  Prof.  Thomas Donahue, one of the Pioneer experimenters, described the Venusian atmosphere as "a chemical soup".  He went on to express his belief that "there are some other chemicals present even more important than water vapor in inhibiting the escape of heat radiation".  In 1963 Dr. L. D. Kaplan of NASA deduced the presence of hydrocarbons precisely because of their heat-reflecting properties!

The most striking disclosure by Prof.  Donahue, however, is his statement that "as we approached the surface of the planet from a distance about ten miles above on the night-side, a faint glow was detected that got brighter and brighter and brighter until the probes touched down.  That glow, I think, is almost literally the surface and some of the gases in the atmosphere on fire.  Chemical reactions that produce light, I think, are occurring in that high-temperature environment where many reactive gases were found by our mass spectrometer".(3)

This picture of a "chemical soup" containing "many reactive gases" and "almost literally on fire," supports the thesis of an extremely young Venus.  If its atmosphere were many millions of years old, reactive gases would have been consumed aeons ago.  Only as a newborn planet could Venus reasonably be expected to have an atmosphere still on fire.

Let there be no mistaking the momentous nature of these discoveries.  Pioneer Venus is telling us that our whole past needs to be rethought, rediscovered, rewritten.  But how fitting it is that the Space Age, in offering mankind a new future, should simultaneously offer us an equally new understanding of our real history!

Author's Note: This paper was first submitted to the NY TIMES Op-Ed page January 25, 1979.  In March the author was informed that the TIMES editorial board had decided not to publish it.


(1)        Prof.  Thomas Donahue (U. of Michigan) quoted in Washington Post, Dec. 11, 1979, p. A6 and Dr. Michael McElroy, quoted in Popular Science, April 1979, p. 175.

(2)        Washington Post, Dec. 11, 1979, p. A6.

(3)        Radio interview (NPR,) Dec. 20, 1978.  The previously cited Popular Science article contains the following passage (p. 67); "Dr.  John Hoffman of the University of Texas, Dallas, whose mass spectrometer, a device sent along to analyze the spectral properties of the Venusian atmosphere and hence quantify and locate noncorrosive gases, was turning up unexpected results .... found indications in his data that the lower atmosphere of Venus may be rich in methane.  Could methane, either burning or reacting with other organic compounds, be the source of that strange glow?  Of course, said Donahue.  'But we're being very skeptical about the methane reading,' he added.  'It could be an artifact or it could be an important finding.  It will take quite a while to verify.' " This question received no discussion whatsoever in the issue of Science devoted to Pioneer Venus' findings.

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