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Open letter to science editors
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD?
by SHANE MAGE
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
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 derivitive
The very first probes to reach Venus confirmed that its surface temperature is about
900°F, 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 CO2 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 argon-36 as you would expect from a planet's original
atmosphere".(2) 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 40°F higher than at the
equator, and equatorial night-side temperatures 4°F 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
derivitive 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"
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.