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Open letter to science editors

 

KRONOS Vol V, No. 1

Vox Populi

ASIMOV, VELIKOVSKY, SCIENCE FICTION, AND "Worlds in Collision"

To the Editor of KRONOS:

The first issue of KRONOS (I:1), published four years ago, included a feature by Lewis M. Greenberg entitled "Phobia, Amnesia, and the Psyche" (pp.21-26), which discussed the Velikovskian nature of two stories by the well-known Isaac Asimov .

The two tales in question were Pebble in the Sky (1950), which provided a fine illustration of the concept of collective amnesia, and "Nightfall" (1941), possibly the most perfect portrayal ever written of the calamitous effect abnormal cosmic events can have on human behaviour and collective memory. It is hardly necessary to labour the point that the especial irony of this lay in the fact that the author of these pieces was and remains an intractable opponent of Dr. Velikovsky, who has attempted to elucidate these processes for the general consciousness. Yet, as we shall see, Asimov's capacity for allegory transcends his antipathy.

Stories which depict worldwide, Earth-shattering catastrophes are, of course nothing new: H. G. Wells wrote at least two. "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" echoes the feat of Joshua ben Nun: by some transcendental gift, the hero is enabled to halt the rotation of the Earth and the result, naturally enough, is flood and hurricane among other things. Fortunately, our hero also has the gift of undoing what he has done and reinstating the old order, thus enabling Wells to publish the story and collect his royalties. Another of his stories, "The Star", is even more directly evocative of Velikovskian catastrophe: this time, events are set in motion by an incandescent visitor from outside the solar system. Inevitably, it nearly collides with Jupiter before falling towards the Sun. This path brings it perilously close to the Earth; the destruction it wreaks is said to be caused by its intense heat, but the point is academic, as the outcome is the same: hurricanes, tidal waves, land falling into the sea. . .

The genre has never really slept: Fred Hoyle's Black Cloud has been followed by Larry Niven's "Inconstant Moon", Allan W. Eckert's The Hab Theory and Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer (a substructurally suggestive one, that !).* We may never know how big a part the unconscious memory may have played in the writing of these stories, but one of the best evocations of a world in catastrophe was written fully consciously: this was "Truth to Tell" by Joe Haldeman, and what is interesting about it is the context in which it appeared. A tale of a world devastated at long intervals by a cosmically-induced, planet-wide flood (shades of Solon!), the survivors unable to remember and learn from the events of the past encoded in their myths, it was specially written for the October 1974 issue of Analog, which was moulded around Asimov's infamous broadside, "CP".

[Footnote: *To the above, one may add Cataclysm by Don Pendleton, In the Days of the Comet by H. G. Wells, In the Ocean of the Night by Gregory Benford, Meteorite Track 291 by Gary Paulsen, and the co-authored When Worlds Collide, to name a few. - LMG]

So we return to Asimov; and we shall do so again: this man is difficult to avoid, and my latest find may be the most ironic of all.

He surfaced this April, meanwhile, despite his distaste for publicity, on BBC television. He was among the mentors of "cuddly" Dudley Moore in a programme examining some of the oddities of time and subtly titled: "It's About Time".

Among the numerous pronouncements attributed to Asimov in the BBC's programme journal was one which though far from original encapsulates one of the modern scientist's most common illusions about science:

Speculation is a vital part of first-class science. And science fiction has battened on it. Science-fiction lives on the speculations of science, and science is helped on by the further speculations of science-fiction. They're in a symbiotic relationship. I was brought to science by science-fiction.

This touching recitation of a professional credo leads us to consider an interesting paradox. Many successful science fiction writers are also scientists: well-placed professors or indispensable links in the aerospace chain. And it is almost as if science fiction and workaday science are two sides of the same coin: the imagination these people bring to bear in their fiction is matched only by their total lack of it in developing explanations for the enigmatic universe in which we live.

Jung may have provided the answer though it is not one which professional scientists care to refer to. Mankind, in his opinion, was divided into "thinkers" and "intuiters". And he considered that real progress in human thought was almost always achieved by the intuiters: it came in a flash of insight, not as the fruit of laborious, structured study. (These are two incompatible types of personality, and this might well explain Velikovsky's unacceptability to establishment science, as well as the passions his ideas can arouse on both sides.) Is it far-fetched to wonder whether the exponents of science fiction might not possess both a logical and an intuitive brain within one "split personality"? The uneasy symbiosis between science and science fiction might be a most fruitful field for study.

(As an aside, we also note that science fiction writers unceasingly remind us with pride that the most startling advances in scientific knowledge are invariably anticipated by SF. And one of the most compulsive themes of creative science fiction - at the same time one of the most ridiculed ideas in science itself would appear to be cosmic catastrophe! A consideration of this paradox certainly lends credence to Velikovsky's proposal that such things have truly happened, but have been repressed in our subconscious as a result of the severity of the associated trauma, and that the retelling is the result of a deep-seated psychological compulsion.)

It is not the speculation on which science smiles, then, that holds the key to progress. For all the lip-service paid to the place of speculation in science, any proposals which trespass beyond the limits imposed by an accepted paradigm are quickly shown the door. Real advances, as history shows, are made by speculators who persist against the odds. Their ideas are not accepted easily; they must fight every inch of the way.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I find Isaac Asimov providing an illustration of just this fact! This is to be found in a story I happened on in a collection edited by none other than Ben Bova, past editor of Analog and one of Asimov's greatest admirers. The collection bears the title Exiles, and the story, dating from 1959, is "Profession".

Briefly summarised: the action takes place in a not-too-distant future, when children are taught to read by a brief application of electrodes-about-the-head at the age of eight, and taught a profession i.e. absolutely everything they need to know for the command of a specialty, except for reading, which they already know by the same method at age 18. The hero (those who remember the evocative name of the Observatory Director in "Nightfall" Aton will be disappointed to learn that the protagonist of "Profession" is called George Platen - Plato?) has a premonition of his future on Reading Day, when a special machine has to be brought to bear on his brain to enable him to read (though the result is that he reads more fluently than most). Nevertheless, he is sure that come Education Day he will be a Computer Programmer (the choice of metier is made by the machines on the basis of aptitude) and a better one than last year's, of course, as his tape will incorporate the intervening year's advances. The fateful day, however, sees him shepherded, along with a minute percentage in the same position, professionless, into an institution where he is to live out his days laboriously learning "in the old way", but with no prospect of a useful life. He only retains his pride by refusing to accept the name of the place: "House for the Feeble-Minded".

His, however, as befits an Asimovian hero, is an indomitable spirit: so far is he from accepting his lot and so sure is he that it is based on some terrible mistake made on Education Day, that he walks out of the House determined to find a way of putting things to rights. Suffice it to say that each confrontation with the outside world sees him as far as ever from his goal: he has no profession, and his notions are considered crazy. But his movements have been monitored: he is returned to the House and told that it is his ability for original thought that has set him apart from the toiling masses, and that this plus his determination and imagination have earned him entry to the very small and select group who know the House for what it really is: the "Institute of Higher Studies", where a very few gifted people do humanity's thinking for it (presumably, they write science fiction). Who, after all, makes the advances to be incorporated into each new year's Education Tapes?

At its meanest level, the story is yet another illustration of how vital to science the intuitive, creative thinker is: let the mass of mankind amble along in its root is the men of genius who make progress. But, on a higher plane: am I misguided in reading it as a veritable allegory of Dr. Velikovsky's own struggle against unthinking Science?

Those who consider Velikovsky's ideas worth consideration should not be discouraged from pursuing their "feeble-minded" speculations. Intuition may be by far the better guide.

Malcolm Lowery
Editor/SIS Review


TO ESCAPE OR NOT TO ESCAPE: THE 71% FACTOR

To the Editor of KRONOS:

The rebuttals to Carl Sagan in KRONOS III:2 (1977) regarding the escape of Venus from Jupiter contained an error that should be acknowledged. Velikovsky [pp.32-33], followed by Juergens [p.84], claimed that a reduction to 71% of escape velocity would enable Venus to escape Jupiter but not the Sun and thus be retained in the Solar System. Even Crew invoked this reasoning.(l) In this context, however, the 71% factor is used incorrectly. What has been overlooked by everyone - both pro and con is something that has been pointed out by James Oberg (in a private communication to KRONOS) and which will now be elaborated upon in the following commentary.

Sagan was properly corrected in KRONOS for stating the escape velocity from Jupiter as being "about 70 km/sec" [SCV, p.61]. Subsequently, Sagan revised his figure to "about 60 km/sec" [Broca's Brain, p.97]. However, the discussion in KRONOS about reducing the more correct 59 km/sec to 71% of that value is in error. The 71% factor comes from the relationship in which a circular orbital velocity equals 0.71 (or more precisely, 1/SQRT2 = 0.707) times the escape velocity from that orbit.(2) Escape from the surface therefore implies an orbit at the surface. For an orbit at the surface (rather the cloud tops) of Jupiter, the circular orbital velocity would be 0.71 x 59, or about 42 km/sec. Thus, this factor only pertains to an orbit about Jupiter. It says nothing about the velocity at Jupiter's surface required to enable the development of an orbit about the Sun.

Interestingly, an initial velocity away from Jupiter equal to 71% of escape velocity would lift a body just one Jovian radius, or 71,370 km, before it fell back to Jupiter. It should be noted that the escape velocity applies to a two body situation in this case, Venus and Jupiter. In any real case, the Sun's gravitational field needs to be taken into account.

In a simple ballistic escape it can be envisioned that, for Venus to be captured by the Sun, she would have to be propelled to a distance at which the Sun's gravitational attraction at least equals Jupiter's.(3) This would be the radius of the Tisserand sphere of action,(4) which for Jupiter equals 48.1 million km. The initial velocity required to lift a body just to that distance is 0.9993 of escape velocity. Therefore, for proto-Venus to escape Jupiter and be captured by the Sun implies an initial velocity very close to escape velocity. (The specification of feasible trajectories for proto-Venus is beyond the scope of this letter.)

However, the escape of Venus was most likely no simple, purely gravitationally determined single-stage rocket-like shot. Simple ballistic arguments do not do justice to the complex dynamics and multiple force interactions implicit in a Lyttleton-type fissioning,(5) a core ejection aided by electrical repulsion described by Crew,(6) and other processes, as yet unpublished, being investigated by Milton. This correction regarding the 71% factor in no way vitiates the possibility of Venus having escaped Jupiter and ultimately attaining a heliocentric orbit without violating any physical laws.

In reviewing the arguments comprising this particular rebuttal to Sagan, no other errors were found.

C. Leroy Ellenberger
Landover, MD

NOTES AND REFERENCES:

1. E. W. Crew, "Stability of Solid Cores in Gaseous Planets", KRONOS III:1 (1977), pp.18-26 (p.22).
2. Conventionally, the relationship expresses escape velocity as the square root of two times the velocity necessary to maintain a circular orbit at the same altitude. See the Encyclopedia Britannica, Micropaedia III (1974), p.955.
3. A point of elucidation: A ballistic trajectory results when all the thrust is imparted at the beginning of flight, theoretically instantaneously. In the presence of a gravitational field, the upward velocity constantly decreases to zero, at which time the body begins to fall back into the field from which it was launched. However, if the initial velocity is great enough, i.e. escape velocity, it will reach zero velocity at infinity and never return. This holds so long as no second force acts on the escaping body, e.g.the Sun's gravitational field.
4. A. E. Roy, Orbital Motion (Halsted Press, N.Y., 1978), pp.160-162.
5. R. A. Lyttleton, Monthly Not. Roy. Astron. Soc. 121 (1960), p.551.
6. E. W. Crew, loc. cit.


IN MEMORIAM: Livio Stecchini

We regret to announce the untimely passing of Professor Livio Stecchini, world-renowned scholar and long devoted to the work of Immanuel Velikovsky. He was co-author of The Velikovsky Affair.

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