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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 2


Reviewed by


Stargazers and Gravediggers is a book of memoirs. As such it neither achieves nor attempts to claim the status of an objective history. But, by portraying the events as seen by the main participant in the drama, it does give a unique insight into one of the most remarkable episodes in the modern history of science - the reception of Worlds in Collision. In turn, this sheds light on an important question: how does a revolutionary thesis travel the path from conception to promulgation to its initial destination, rejection? Subsequent to the volume's publication, a burst of new documents have become available which demonstrate that much of the story still remains to be told. Yet, this account, which relates how the central figure perceived the events, is particularly revealing, sometimes for what it says, other times for what it does not say.

Like many other pages in his writings, Velikovsky answers a hundred questions and raises a hundred more, leaving the reader thirsting for more information. Among the gains contributed by this work are a clearer picture of the steps leading to the formulation of Velikovsky's bold hypotheses, the way they came to be presented, the precise nature of the reaction to them during the 1950's, and finally, the author's own response to the controversy he created.

It appears that initial discovery resulted from a conjunction between intuition* and accident. Beginning with the possible correlation between Oedipus and Akhnaton, Velikovsky came to the United States in 1939 to investigate that link in the libraries of New York. He had completed his research and was in the final stages of preparation to return to Palestine when, in the early Spring of 1940, he was delayed by a lively prospect that his still incomplete manuscript might receive speedy publication. Had he followed his original intention to leave, it is now clear that he would have been trapped by World War II. The delay proved fortuitous. It redirected his whole life, that of his family and countless others; perhaps the reverberations have only just begun.

[*According to Albert Einstein: "There is no logical way to the discovery of the elementary laws of nature. There is only the way of intuition" (see Gerald Holton's study [ 1969 ] in the American Journal of Physics) . The above was cited by Leo Rosten in The Power of Positive Nonsense (N.Y., 1977), p. 69. - LMG )

Shortly thereafter, in a casual conversation, Velikovsky began to speculate on the origin of the Dead Sea in Palestine and, consequently, whether some sort of natural catastrophe had created it. If so, he also wondered whether a catastrophe had been instrumental in the events of the Exodus. A test of that idea would be whether there existed any Egyptian sources that portrayed comparable events. Quickly he found a source - the papyrus Ipuwer - which seemed to echo the Biblical account, even that most colorful detail in Exodus relating that the river turned to blood. It soon became clear that a possible independent eye-witness report of the Exodus existed; further, that phenomenon could be correlated - thanks to the papyrus - with the subsequent invasion of the Hyksos. This gave Velikovsky a synchronization between Egyptian and Israelite history - the Exodus occurred at the end of the Middle Kingdom just prior to the invasion of the Hyksos. When he found additional support from other Egyptian sources and from Arab historians that further identified the Hyksos with the Amalekites, Velikovsky with surprise and delight constructed a working hypothesis which attempted to solve an ancient enigma - what was the time of the Exodus?

For thousands of years, this question had been the bottleneck preventing a thorough understanding of Biblical history. A solution was too enticing a prize to be cast aside lightly, even though the spectre of an unorthodox chronology was raised. At this point most scholars would have said: "All these similarities between the various sources are very interesting, but they must be merely coincidental, because we know from accepted Egyptian chronology that the newly suggested link places the Exodus much too early."

However, Velikovsky had the singular courage to ask himself: "But what if it is true?" Suppose the reason that the time of the Exodus has remained unsettled lies in the circumstance that everyone has been looking for it in the wrong places in Egyptian history, where it could never be found.

Before proceeding it might be well to ask a question, because the answer might save some misunderstanding. When an investigator has come across a working hypothesis in the field of historical studies, as Velikovsky had done in the first half of 1940, and which unexpected evidence strongly suggests must be correct at least at one point in time, what is his scholarly obligation with regard to it? Does he look at the negative factors and say, "impossible", overlooking the positives? Or contrariwise, does he jump to the conclusion that he has indeed found the key that unravels the mysteries of the universe? The first response is typical of pedantic scholarship; the second that of the typical crank. Velikovsky did neither. He met his obligation. He chose to explore the implications down the ladder of time to see whether one ran into a dead end or whether later periods could be correlated as well as his starting point. He found the latter to be the case. Of course, every new synchronization posed new issues, but it also solved a plethora of old difficulties. These, then, gave additional support. The important thing is that he chose to persevere and track down the leads. Most other scholars would not have done so and it is here that Velikovsky becomes unique.

To be sure, there were problems. The Ipuwer papyrus was dated by some scholars to the First Intermediate Period, by others to the Second Intermediate Period, as required by Velikovsky. The shrine of el-Arish was interpreted mythologically, though he believed it to be historical. The Ermitage papyrus was taken as a prophecy, not a history. The Arab sources were treated as legendary, not factual. Velikovsky's working hypothesis necessitated some revision of accepted scholarly opinion on all these matters. Yet, the thesis was so promising that he kept working, placing these obstacles into perspective, not allowing them to halt his study.

Interestingly, it was not until he had identified Queen Hatshepsut as the Queen of Sheba that Velikovsky became convinced that he was not on the wrong trail. He did not know for several years that his revision of Egyptian history did not end with the Jewish exile (p. 36).

This combination of boldness and caution became characteristic of Velikovsky's endeavors. Perhaps one should ask why he, rather than another, should have been the one to stumble onto such a discovery. A clue is found in Eric Larrabee's introduction: "He gave a strong sense of relating to the European academic environment, which is less rigid and formalistic than the American in certain ways" (p. 17). Indeed, the European tradition, especially earlier in the century, was quite deductive in style, while the American is highly inductive.

In the deductive approach one formulates an hypothesis (which must be right, by the way), then searches high and low for evidence to back it, minimizing the objections one encounters along the way. If the total structure has more strength than weakness, it can be accepted as an important contribution to knowledge. It is a high stakes game and some of the products of the method did not recommend it. But the tradition has one virtue; at least it left open the possibility that a revolutionary thesis might be developed.

In the inductive method one builds from the ground up, one limits conclusions strictly to the evidence on each point, and - by the nature of the method - the possible results are confined to relatively modest dimensions. Indeed, the rules of the game preclude any far-ranging or penetrating departure from accepted norms. It is fortunate Velikovsky was trained in the European tradition rather than the American, but at the same time, this helps explain why his work met such resistance on these shores. American scholars tend to view with suspicion revolutionary conclusions of any nature. Actually, both conventions have their value and their shortcomings. Ideally, both should be pursued and held in balance, but, for reasons of temperament, this is difficult to do.

Within six months Velikovsky could not restrain himself from asking and answering another question: what was the nature of the catastrophe at the Exodus? Again, looking for corroborative sources, he found them in abundance from all over the world. From these searches, carried on simultaneously with the preparation of Ages in Chaos, came an independent theory revealed in Worlds in Collision. The same procedure netted the same fruits. First, the sources suggested unusual orbital behavior for Venus and Mars, having enormous consequences for the Earth. Second, as Velikovsky allowed the thesis to guide the investigation, he found additional proof as well as more problems. But, with each resolution, the thesis gained credibility. He recalled: "Almost every day there was something in the books I opened that gave support to some of my points" (p. 43). Now he was stuck with two revolutions; and while he could be right about one and not the other, both would be tied to him thereafter.

Choosing to publish Worlds in Collision first, Velikovsky sparked a most unusual tale of stimulus and response. The story, though, unfolded gradually. First he showed his manuscript to certain qualified people: Horace Kallen, John J. O'Neill, Gordon Atwater. Their response was encouraging. Next he tried to interest publishers: eight rejected it, most because it was heavily footnoted and, hence, not suitable for the general reader. Nevertheless, he adamantly insisted on the footnotes being included. Then he went to Macmillan and found an eager reception in the persons of Harold Latham and James Putnam of the Trade Department. Macmillan had not become the leading publisher in the country by overlooking good publishing opportunities.*

[*In 1950, Macmillan was the No. I publisher with 426 titles and Doubleday was No. 2 with 402. - CLE]

From the beginning these men pushed the manuscript along, carefully selecting reviewers known or suspected to be sympathetic. None of the readers had been shocked, though they freely expressed reservations about this or that point. Macmillan was anticipating with glee the prospective high sales of the book, so much so that it was listed under the heading "Science" in a special catalogue sent to college professors in the hope of multiplying receipts by numerous textbook adoptions. Velikovsky never learned of this maneuver, it being confirmed only recently. Though opponents referred to it early in the controversy, Velikovsky believed the accusation to be unfounded because he knew the book was listed in the general catalogue under the heading, "General Interest" (p. 65). A more accurate special listing would have been "History". [See C. Leroy Ellenberger, "Worlds in Collision in Macmillan's Catalogues" elsewhere in this issue.] Given his experiences up to publication, no wonder Velikovsky remarked that the violence of the reaction "when it came, surpassed my expectation" (p. 67).

Repercussions from some scientists were sharp, which might be expected given the heavy dose of heterodoxy delivered to the reader. That the response was also exceptionally violent creates a puzzle. What made this episode stand out with such singularity? To be sure, the book's departures from conventional views varied in the degree of strain they imposed. The solution appears in part to be that, quite by accident, the most scientifically shocking implications hit the public audience early in the presentation of the thesis, while the more acceptable portions trailed behind after the damage had been done.

Velikovsky had reluctantly agreed to have the book synopsized for magazine publication. The first appearance was in Harper's, January, 1950 in an article by Eric Larrabee which appeared three months before the book became available. It was exceptionally well-written, but contained information not in the final manuscript on a most sensitive point: how does one explain the stopping and restarting of the Earth resulting from the close approach of Venus. Larrabee's exposition definitely conflicted with Newtonian physics. Shortly after its appearance, conversations with physicists convinced Velikovsky that an explanation contrary to conventional physics was not necessary to account for the planetary behavior recorded in Worlds in Collision. Consequently, he revised the Epilogue to dispose of the anticipated charge, but also insinuated that a different solution was possible which would contradict Newton.

Velikovsky attempted to make peace with conventional physics because he did not want astronomers to become the arbiters of a book of history (pp. 77-78). Unfortunately, the compromise did not work. In the Harper's article scientists were hit by the most radical portion of Velikovsky's ideas first, without the benefit of argument or proof. Later, the injury was not healed when Velikovsky in the revamped Epilogue pointed in two irreconcilable directions. No wonder opponents demonstrated "unscientific fury" to this challenge to the precepts which, they believed, kept the Earth - our presumably safe habitation - afloat. Larrabee now thinks that such a reaction was inevitable in any case (p.16), and he may be right, though it could have been moderated had a better strategy been executed. When dealing with such a monumental reordering of accepted postulates, however, mistakes are to be expected

Even before the book appeared, Harlow Shapley, carrying with him the enormous prestige of the Harvard College Observatory, tried to dissuade Macmillan from publishing the volume by hinting that doing so would damage the company's reputation (pp. 81-84). This was enough to alert George Brett, the President of Macmillan, that he had a potential liability as well as an asset. Shapley did more; he set Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin to composing a rebuttal and he activated contacts throughout the circles of science to launch a protest against publication. The campaign further resulted in the dismissal of Gordon Atwater as Curator of the Hayden Planetarium. Thus, legitimate debate was combined with illegitimate repression and reprisal. Shaken, but not yet subdued, Brett tried to put off Shapley by a promise of a last-minute review. The company then chose new reviewers who also passed favorably on the book. thereby allowing it to go to press.

It hit the best-seller list, a point of further consternation. By May, Brett had become alarmed by the violence of opposition from the scientific community. Some scientists were writing that they would not buy any more textbooks from the company so long as it published Worlds in Collision. It did not take many to terrify Brett. Seventy per cent of its sales were in textbooks and the loss resulting from many books would have been greater than the success of only one. Brett took action: he dropped the book, transferring the rights to Doubleday,* afterwards firing James Putnam, a veteran of twenty five years and the man in charge of shepherding the manuscript. Putnam received a year's salary in place of notice.** However, Putnam quickly found a new job at World Pub. Co. Charitably, Velikovsky does not mention that a situation existed that probably would have led to Putnam's departure soon in any event. Yet, the willingness of Brett to pay a year's salary could be construed as a symbol of Macmillan's submission to critics, thus signifying how effective the campaign of discreditation had been. The reverberations hardly ceased with Macmillan. Similar pressure was applied on Doubleday without success. Reviews appeared in scientific journals and sessions were conducted at academic gatherings all chiselling away at Velikovsky, but frequently misrepresenting his views.

[* Legally, Macmillan transferred the rights and plates to Velikovsky who then signed with Doubleday; but physically the transaction was between publishers. Although the transaction was a transfer, not a sale, to Doubleday, Macmillan did sell the sheets for its sixth printing of 5000 copies to Doubleday for 27l/2 cents each, according to Brett's undated memo to file in the New York Public Library collection of Macmillan documents. - CLE)]

[** Disclosed in Brett's undated memo to file covering the events from May 25 to lune 8, 1950 deposited with the Macmillan papers in the New York Public Library]

These developments provoked an over-reaction in Velikovsky, but one that drove him to greater passivity than activity. Stung by the spectacle, he entered the debate only once. A year later he answered Professor John Q. Stewart of Princeton University in the pages of Harper's. Otherwise, he hesitated to participate in the battle because of the emotional atmosphere. When he did write rebuttals, they were turned down; when offered the chance to rebut, he procrastinated. He decided to write the present book to set the record straight only after a reply to Payne-Raposchkin was rejected (p. 275). Though substantially completed by 1956, he withheld publication during his lifetime.

There is therefore a sense in which the small outraged circle of scientists, who demythologized themselves with such careless abandon, nevertheless succeeded to a greater extent than recognized. True, Doubleday took over publication, but Velikovsky deferred to the criticism by imposing self-censorship. He withdrew manuscripts already completed in order to rework them, anticipate more arguments and buttress with more evidence. Once one begins that process, there is hardly any place where an author can be content to say, "enough is enough, for now, at least - let her rip". Every problem resolved leaves ten new ones in its wake. Velikovsky became reluctant to admit, in practice at least, that it was impossible to disarm all criticism in advance. He wanted the product to be irrefutable. Hence, he took to an old Russian custom, "writing for the shelf". Interestingly, the memoirist hardly mentions this aspect. That habit was most congenial because it is evident that he despised notoriety far more than he enjoyed it. Though his soul craved recognition and acceptance, another part of it longed to be able to take walks and go to the drugstore without being pestered for autographs. There was no good answer to the consolation offered him by Einstein who asked, "Don't you feel fine being alone?" (p. 289). And if one indeed concludes that the siege was not to be merely ten years, or even a lifetime, but perhaps a generation or a century, timing becomes unimportant. At least the thesis would be well presented when it appeared.

A different strategy would have been advisable. Even today the lesser portion of half of the cosmological and chronological theories are on the record. The promised book on earlier catastrophes, still not delivered, should have appeared shortly after Worlds in Collision; the second volume of Ages in Chaos should have, as originally planned and as Harvard Professor Robert Pfeiffer recommended, appeared simultaneously with the first (p. 260). This would have placed the entire thesis essentially before the public and the academic world, flushing out criticism and leaving his readers with solutions, instead of dangling with question marks. Then if desired, Velikovsky could have buttressed the structure with a series of detailed volumes, answering critics and supporting with more evidence. As it was, scholars dismissed Ages in Chaos for twenty five years with a shrug of the shoulder saying: "That is a book no one can finish." Even friends assumed the delay was caused by insurmountable problems unexpectedly encountered. The chief problem was Velikovsky's search for the best answer to the difficulties.

Realistically, one has to admit that what the reader makes of these memoirs will depend largely on his own reactions to Velikovsky's synthesis. One must have read at least Worlds in Collision to appreciate the nuances of this work. If one has done so, there is here ample meat to set the jaws of friend and foe alike to chewing. The perceptions of Velikovsky, some rather surprising, and those of his opponents as well, come through these pages in a way that clarifies the motives and actions of both.

Some of Velikovsky's attitudes will startle even sympathetic readers. Many who note the highly effective use of sarcasm in his writings will be amazed to learn that he did not believe in employing the technique (p. 66). What others saw as sarcasm, he saw as "irony" (p. 220). It is of interest to learn also that at times he contemplated suing for defamation as a means of forcing consideration of the issues, but he was advised against doing so by a lawyer who coincidentally served as counsel in the Scopes Trial. He decided to make the American people his jury instead (pp. 233-34).

Then, too, the man who impressed devotees as one who must have known everything there is to learn shows up as being charmingly naive in certain fields - marketing, for instance. He believed that a negative factor for Macmillan in publishing his book was that it might antiquate so many of its textbooks, thereby hurting sales (pp. 131, 135). The reverse is closer to the truth. If something should come along suddenly making a list of texts obsolete, the prospect of rapid adoptions of new texts would brighten the sales outlook considerably. Further, Macmillan would have been ahead of every other house in that situation. But his early optimism at achieving such monumental acceptance so soon is also instructive. Textbooks in fact become obsolete very slowly and new texts are essentially copied from old ones. Thus, when he had to revise estimates of progress, he did so drastically.

Other of his views will jar, or perhaps amuse. He regarded telepathy and water dousing with a divining rod as real phenomena, although he had no explanation for the latter (p. 249). Not everyone will agree with these views, although the present writer happens to be one who does, for reasons not pertinent here. He accused one of his most vigorous opponents, Martin Gardner, of being after a dollar, a strange echo of the same accusation Gardner levelled against him (p. 183). In both cases their activities arose from strong conviction; and the desire for monetary compensation represented the need for a symbol of success rather than greed.

There are also passages which might lead some to conclude that Velikovsky had a gigantic sense of self-importance, bordering on egotism. Einstein, he says, likened himself to Velikovsky (p. 299). The activities of the AAAS and the article by Lafleur in the November, 1951 issue of Scientific Monthly were caused by a "consternation" at the inability of Stewart to dispose of the heresy satisfactorily in the pages of Harper's (pp. 221-22). A review of the sequence of events might lead an objective observer to question whether this was the most accurate ascription of motivation. To be sure, Velikovsky's self-confidence was amazing. He believed that he stood at the vortex of history. But there is a difference between an egoist, which he was at least, and an egotist. It turns on whether a person's actual importance exists in reality, as in the case of the former, or whether it is overestimated, as characteristic of the latter. In the final analysis disinterested observers may come to view the struggle the way Velikovsky did, depending on the outcome.

In his desire to write readably, Velikovsky sometimes commits minor lapses that annoy scholars. He refers, for example, to an article by Otto Struve as a "survey of astronomical theories and observations for the year 1950" (p. 119). Actually, it was only one of Struve's monthly articles, and was a survey of collision work, entitled "Dust in the Solar System".

On the more positive side, Velikovsky constructs a most interesting technique, that runs throughout the book, of confronting criticism. Without comment or drawing the obvious conclusions, he presents quotations from the writings of adversaries or those authorities cited adversely that are strikingly inconsistent with the thrust of their particular points of criticism. Laplace, the authority who established the stability of the solar system, also wrote on the effects of a comet encountering the Earth in terms very similar to Worlds in Collision. He believed that such a prospect over the centuries must accumulate to become "very great" (pp. 106-07). Velikovsky also cites Kugler, frequently used against him, as writing that ". . . the traditions of antiquity, even when clad as myths and legends, are not to be dismissed lightly as fantasy or even as senseless fabrications" (p. 175). Finally, Harlow Shapley, who led the fight for scientific orthodoxy against this heresy, is quoted from a commencement address as saying that the blind following of accepted views ("running in trails") creates a path that results in no progress (pp. 89-90).

In many ways there is much to learn from a study of this book. One item concerns the issue touched upon earlier in this review which is, indeed, a valid consideration for science - namely, how does one tell when a new idea has validity, but is ahead of its time, from those cases where the new idea will stand eternally as nonsense. In other words, what is the difference between a pioneer and a crank? Einstein believed that there is no way to make certain at the time and he is surely right. And yet, several lessons pertinent to the issue stand out in the way both sides conducted themselves.

As for his own comportment, there is evidence that Velikovsky respected the integrity of scholarly processes. He eagerly sought out expert advice and though frequently brushed off, he just as frequently received it. Science is not monolithic. There were qualified experts who were at least partially supportive of him from the beginning. He notes, "The truth is that every statement in the book relating to matters of science was checked and re-checked with scientists in various fields" (p. 190). Cranks do not seek out advice and persist until they find it. They have no greater difficulty in communicating with scientists than Velikovsky encountered. Secondly he admitted fallibility: "I may have made errors and my conclusions may be vulnerable" (p. 275). The crank not only has confidence in his theory, to which he is entitled if the proof impresses him, but an absolute certainty that he cannot be wrong, to which he is not entitled because no one has omniscience.

Furthermore, the way a revolutionary hypothesis is received by the scientific community differs from the reception of crackpot proposals. Truly half-baked ideas engender no significant reaction - after all, why bother? But important new contributions arouse an irrational fury and incoherent, inconsistent response. When the opponents ceased their name-calling and tried to point out specifics, when they stopped relying on intuition which told them he must be wrong - being guided by the accepted paradigm - then they invariably made mistakes, either in reporting his theory or in stating some postulate of accepted science. Not just a few fell into this category; every single one. Perfectly rational men became irrational. This is characteristic of contemporaries when an idea of great importance first hits the scene. As Velikovsky noted, ". . . there has been a storm every time a leaf in the book of knowledge has been turned over" (p. 331).

Finally, there is an odd aspect that characterizes the critics of Velikovsky that does not apply in the usual case. Those opponents who took the time to read his books seldom failed to find some parts appealing. Stewart, who confronted him in a public debate, admitted that the bad thing about the book was its being well-written (p. 210). Whipple confessed, "I must say that in areas of the book where I am not fully informed the writing seems almost convincing" (p. 154). Lafleur admitted the same thing: "Even the present critic finds him convincing whenever the material dealt with lies in a field in which he is ignorant" (p. 229). It appears that touching upon the unquestioned premises of one's own discipline is a dastardly offense; trampling on the assumptions of someone else's discipline, which one has not been trained to accept, results in considerable plausibility. But when a wide variety of intelligent laymen find a particular postulate plausible, perhaps it is time for the specialist to re-examine basic principles. Common sense has its virtues, and it is possible that the exercise of it may be inhibited in one so immersed in a field that he lacks perspective.

By no means does all this mean that the book is perfect, as a memoir, as an account of events, or even as an apologia. There is much detail one wishes were included and some that could have been omitted without loss. The organization of the material is poor, due to the piecemeal manner in which it was composed. This imposes a heavy burden on the reader. The excellent Epilogue should have been signed, not only because the reader has the right to know its author, but, more importantly, because it is only fair to assign proper credit and responsibility for work that is presented to the public.

Still, the value of Stargazers and Gravediggers exceeds the shortcomings. It illuminates and actually entertains while doing so. It is the first book that reveals the author's sense of humor. It is a delight to readers and a sourcebook for historians. Finally, it renders a clear view of the origin and development of this most remarkable episode in a way no other author could have done. That is quite an achievement.

The Book Case

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