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Freeing the Log Jam
Assistant Keeper at the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow and founder member of the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies.
Over a quarter of a century has now elapsed since the publication of Worlds in Collision and since the beginning of that extraordinary furor which the appearance of this controversial work stimulated among eminent members of the scientific and academic professions. What place do the ideas of Immanuel Velikovsky occupy now in the world of science and scholarship? It is probably fair to say that, while the majority of the experts in the relevant fields are still either actively hostile or apathetic towards the concept of a catastrophic history for the Earth and the solar system, the number of those who believe that Velikovsky may have said something very important indeed appears to be steadily growing, at least in English-speaking countries. Interest among the general public also apparently continues undiminished, judging by the sales of Dr Velikovsky's books.
The evidence for this increase of interest—not only among the lay public but also among members of universities and scientific institutions—is to be seen primarily in the journals which have sprung up to accomodate it (of which Pensée was the first) and also in the several conferences devoted to aspects of Velikovsky's work which have been held in North American and British universities since 1972. Both these phenomena show clearly that a steady rise in both the quantity and the quality of the debate about the new catastrophism is taking place.
In the twenty or so years after Worlds in Collision appeared, and after the immediate reactions to it had died down, published discussions about the issues raised in the book were rare. The Velikovsky Affair, a composite work which appeared in 1966 (and in a revised British paperback edition in 1978), was an expanded presentation of a selection of articles published in the American Behavioral Scientist in 1963 under the editorship of Dr Alfred de Grazia: this for the first time documented in detail the many examples of unscientific and near-hysterical reactions which Velikovsky's first book provoked. Much of The Velikovsky Affair was taken up with this, and also with reflections on the nature of science and of the scientific mentality; actual discussions of the hard evidence were few, although an impressive list of the correct anticipation by Dr Velikovsky of new discoveries in various fields formed a valuable appendix. In 1967 one issue of the Yale Scientific Magazine was devoted to a discussion of Velikovsky's ideas by various qualified people, both for and against the new views. Articles were included dealing with the recent discoveries concerning the Sun and the inner planets and their significance; yet neither of these attempts to focus attention on the value of using historical and mythological evidence to throw light on astronomical, geological and archaeological problems was systematically followed up.
In 1971, however, the editors of the newly revived magazine Pensée — a publication originally written by and for students at Oregon universities—decided to commission an article, and later to devote a whole issue, to assessing Velikovsky's work in the light of the many apparent vindications of his views which had appeared among the new astronomical discoveries. Thus in May 1972 was born the first of an eventual series of ten issues broadly titled "Immanuel Velikovsky Reconsidered", a series which may eventually be seen to have begun a revolution in 20th-century science. At first, inevitably, the contributions to the new journal were drawn from a fairly restricted group of people; the quality of the articles printed varied, as did the degree of scientific detachment of the writers, and the magazine could not help occasionally appearing to sceptics like the house journal of a small, revolutionary sect. But by the time the tenth issue had appeared—early in 1975—this situation had quite evidently changed. The range of the contributors had widened and their ability increased; and one could detect a subtle shift in the orientation of the journals avowed aims. A major interest in the series, of course, was the various contributions by Dr Velikovsky himself: these are clearly the ideas of a unique mind with a breadth of learning which few can match.
Of more immediate concern perhaps are the attitudes and considered opinions of the established experts in the many fields affected by Velikovsky's theses, the people whose attitude towards his catastrophist theories will ultimately determine their fate. To what extent are erudite and skilled specialists now admitting that the insights of one learned polymath, which cover many fields, can force drastic reappraisals in their own? The rising number of established university staff who were contributing and promising contributions up to Pensée's demise shows that the value of Velikovsky's synthesis was already being rated highly.
Important too is the fact that many of the contributions to the last few numbers of Pensée presented reasoned arguments against Velikovsky's ideas, and without resorting to sarcastic or dogmatic condemnation. These provided opportunities for constructive debates of a most stimulating kind. At the end, the journal seemed to be evolving steadily away from a position of discussing whether Dr Velikovsky was wrong on some particular point towards a position in which its contributors could discuss for themselves the fundamentals of scientific theory, many of which have not been properly debated for decades, even centuries.
Broadly, it seems that, even if Dr Velikovsky's theories ultimately prove to require some major modifications, one of his greatest services to science has been to force the great log jam of established scientific theory to start moving again, with incalculably beneficial effects for both rational thought and true scientific investigation in general. That the jam has begun to move at last is clearly shown by Pensée.