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The Velikovsky Story
a paper detailing some childish reactions in the scientific community to the published works of Immanuel Velikovsky
The Scientific Mafia
This paper, delivered before the Aristotelian Society in Sydney, Australia, was first published in Honi Soit (September 7, 1967). It was not revised for Pensee, so the reader should keep in mind its date. David Stove, an Australian, is senior lecturer in the department of philosophy, University of Sydney, and author of Probability and Hume's Inductive Skepticism (forthcoming, Oxford University Press).
The story of Velikovsky's theory, its reception, and its subsequent confirmations, constitutes one of the most fascinating chapters in the entire history of thought; and it is one which is still unfolding. This paper can be no more than a sketch of a sketch of it. Those who wish to know more can best begin by reading "The Velikovsky Affair," ed. A. de Grazia.
A book called Worlds in Collision was published in the USA in 1950. According to its author, Venus as a planet is only some 3,500 years old. The proto-planet, in effect an enormous comet, had originated, at some earlier time, by disruption from Jupiter. It moved for centuries on a very eccentric orbit, and about 1500 B.C. made its two closest approaches to the Earth. During the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., the comet-Venus repeatedly approached Mars, and Mars in turn menaced our planet. Only after all these encounters did Venus finally lose its last cometary characteristics and settle down to its present planetary behavior. The effects of these encounters, especially the earlier ones, on the Earth, are portrayed as truly catastrophic. Oceans were displaced, continents drowned, mountains built and demolished, organic populations extinguished, civilizations overwhelmed, the diurnal motion interrupted, the month and year lengthened, the axis of rotation changed—etc., etc.
The author was one Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian Jew, born in 1895. He graduated in medicine in Moscow in 1921, and after various other occupations and places of residence he was to be found practicing psychoanalysis in Tel Aviv in the Thirties. A book he projected on Freud's heroes was the unlikely germ of all his later work, for it led him to think about Moses and the Exodus. Now the Bible portrays the Exodus as taking place amid a series of extraordinary natural disasters; and especially when Velikovsky found an Egyptian document which seemed to refer to the same events, he began to wonder whether the disasters might not have been real.
Ten years later Worlds in Collision presented his evidence, accumulated from testimony, tradition, legend, and religions the world over, for the story of the birth of Venus as a planet after a period in which earth, sea and sky were convulsed. The next few years saw the publication of his Earth in Upheaval, which assembles geological, paleontological, and archaeological evidence for the same theory; and of Ages in Chaos, Velikovsky's revised chronology of Egyptian history (which he needs to shorten by 500 years).
It does not need an expert in the history of geology to recognize in Velikovsky's theory a revival of 18th century catastrophism. It differs from most earlier catastrophisms, however, in not attributing catastrophes to a supernatural agent; in attributing them to an extraterrestrial agent; and in supposing catastrophes to have occurred in historical times. There have been other theories, in this century, of catastrophes due to a natural extra-terrestrial agent. But I am sure that no catastrophism has ever been developed with so much ingenuity and comprehensiveness as by Velikovsky. The range of subjects on which his theory has led him to novel suggestions is really almost incredible: from the chemistry of Mars' atmosphere to the original of the "plumed serpent" of Mexican mythology; from the nature of manna to the cause of (the ending of) the quaternary ice age; from the origin of species to the identity of the Queen of Sheba; and so on, forever.
Worlds in Collision quickly became a best-seller. Such a book has, of course, enormous appeal to what I call the "anti-fluoride belt" in modern societies. But it also quickly became the target of nearly universal abuse and derision. The Dallas News thought it was a Russian propaganda ploy. The Daily Worker saw in its popularity a sure sign of the dying days of bourgeois society. Well, one doesn't expect a great deal from the Dallas News; or anything at all from a communist newspaper. But what of that mighty intellect, J. B. S. Haldane, in Britain? He thought that the book was an attempt by the U.S. warmongers to soften us up for the atomic war they were preparing to launch!
The professional scientists' campaign against Worlds in Collision began well before the book appeared. Harlow Shapley, probably the best-known American astronomer alive today, led an energetic attempt to stop the publisher, Macmillan, from publishing the book. He arranged for denunciations of the book, still before its appearance, by an astronomer, a geologist, and an archaeologist, in a learned journal. None of them had read the book. When it did appear, denunciatory reviews were arranged, again, in several instances, by professors who boasted of never having read the book.
Velikovsky was rigorously excluded from access to learned journals for his replies. Then Shapley and others really got busy on the old-boy circuit. They forced the sacking of the Senior Editor of Macmillan responsible for accepting the Velikovsky manuscript. (He had been with the firm 25 years.) They forced the sacking of the director of the famous Hayden Planetarium in New York, because he proposed to take Velikovsky seriously enough to mount a display about the theory.
Then Macmillan representatives all over the country began to report that science professors in the universities were refusing to see them. Macmillan finally caved in, and prevailed on Velikovsky to let them transfer their best-selling property to a competitor, Doubleday, which, as it has no textbook division, is not susceptible to professorial blackmail.
The process thus begun did not stop. In 1964 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—that famous organ of the kind of scientific conscience of which the late Robert Oppenheimer was the most adored representative—hired an ignorant journalist to deride Velikovsky on his Egyptological expertise, and other matters equally atomic. But Velikovsky could not get space for a reply.
All this belongs on the level of what the Russians call "administrative measures." What of the intellectual level? Well, a great many "refutations" of Velikovsky's theory have appeared in print, some by very famous people, such as Donald Menzel at Harvard, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, also of Harvard, the author of the well-known astronomical textbook. I cannot enter into any details of them here. They are chiefly remarkable for dishonesty or incompetence. They misquote the text they are criticizing. They willfully misrepresent the theory Velikovsky advanced. And they are replete with errors of fact and theory.
But they are now of only historical interest, for they aimed to prove too much, far too much: that a theory of this kind is impossible. Whereas it would, I am sure, now be generally admitted that a story like the one Velikovsky told cannot be excluded on grounds of its conflict with any deeply-entrenched law or theory; for there is no such conflict. The theory is a local, historical one, and has to be assessed as such.
What, then, of the positive evidence for the theory?
As to the evidence assembled in Velikovsky's books—well, you must read them, and see for yourself what you think that great mass of evidence is worth. For my part, the books convinced me of two things: that a thesis of extraterrestrial catastrophes in historical times is at least a distinctly live option; and that in historical times Venus has done something peculiar, at any rate.
"The process of 'borrowing' Velikovsky's ideas began as soon as he first published; but...with everything going his way, this industry became enormous. (One distinguished archaeological career has been made out of a single paragraph in Worlds in Collision.)"
But I must mention some of the more startling pieces of evidence that have come to light since Velikovsky published.
According to Velikovsky, there were tremendous electrical discharges between the earth and the giant comet, and between the comet's head and tail. This, among other things, led him to ascribe an altogether novel importance to electrical and magnetic forces in the solar system. You must remember that this was in 1950—i.e., before the dawn of the space age; these were the good old days when inertia and gravitation were still thought to be equal to every task (plus only a little help from the sun's light-pressure, to blow comet-tails the right way.)
Well, the whole trend of discovery since then has of course been Velikovsky's way. He did not actually predict the Van Allen belts, but he said that the earth must have a magnetosphere much stronger, and extending much further into space, than anyone else believed possible. He did predict that Jupiter would be found to be a radio source, long before the astonished radio-astronomers found it so. And there is much more like that.
According to Velikovsky, there were all over the world, as folklore alleges, rains of burning pitch. This, among other things, led him to assert in 1950 that the clouds of Venus must be very rich in petroleum gas. All contemporary knowledge of the chemistry of the planet's clouds was flatly against it. Yet it has turned out to be so. If you think this is a bit creepy, you have heard nothing yet.
According to Velikovsky in 1950, Venus must still be very hot, because of the circumstances of its recent birth and subsequent career. The astronomers had long "known" that it was cool, and as late as 1959 accepted estimates of its temperature, such as 59 degrees centigrade, were still being revised slightly downward. Yet it has turned out that the planet has a surface temperature around 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
This would be hard enough to reconcile with any "uniformitarian" theory which requires a common origin for all the planets. But worse was to come. For Mariner II put it beyond doubt that the rotation of Venus is retrograde—that is, while it revolves in the same direction as that in which all the other planets both revolve and rotate, it rotates in the contrary sense! No doubt ad hoc amendments will be tried, to fit this fact into conventional theories of the origin of the planets (just as desperate ad hoc amendments to a "greenhouse" theory are still being made to account for the temperature); but this one will test their ingenuity, that is certain.
Of things that have come to light since the de Grazia book was published, two deserve mention, however briefly. First, the fantastically turbulent and hot state of Jupiter—the enormous explosions it suffers, the changes in its speed of rotation, and a surface temperature perhaps around 1,000 degrees F. (Remember your astronomical textbooks, and all that ice, miles thick, on Jupiter? We all "knew," ages ago, how cold and dead Jupiter is.) Second, what appears to be a vestige of an earlier gravitational "lock" of the earth on Venus: for Venus is found to turn the same face to us at each inferior conjunction! (For references on these two matters, see Yale Scientific Magazine, 41 [April, 1967]).
Well, this is how things are going. The process of silently "borrowing" Velikovsky's ideas began as soon as he first published; but as can easily be imagined, with everything going his way, this industry has become enormous. (One distinguished archaeological career has been made out of a single paragraph in Worlds in Collision.) But still no power on earth, apparently, is strong enough to oblige a single professional scientist to give Velikovsky the smallest footnote acknowledgment in a learned publication. The stony silence continues perfectly unbroken.
Psychoanalysis and Fundamentalism
There are certain observations I want to make which are quite independent of the question whether Velikovsky's theory is true.
First, on the reception of the theory, and the light this throws on the intellectual and moral quality of contemporary science, and contemporary life.
Consider how different the reception of Velikovsky's work would have been if it had been Christian fundamentalism, say, or fashionable French metaphysical anthropology. Or psychoanalysis; suppose Velikovsky had interpreted the folklore of catastrophe as distortions of infantile or intrauterine experience. Of course it would have gone down smooth as silk! You could get degrees in it by now. Think about that.
Consider, again, how different the reception would have been if Velikovsky had produced a work of literature. Who can imagine science professors conspiring to suppress an avant-garde play or novel, however vicious or insane its contents? Far from it, they would be scandalized by any such attempt at censorship, and would rally to the author's aid. You think about that! C. P. Snow was wildly wrong here: scientists have not succumbed less than the rest, but if anything more, to the aesthetic propaganda of the present century. The treatment accorded to Velikovsky is one of the pleasant fringe-benefits we get from 50 years of popular preaching in praise of art.
But it is on professional science itself that the case throws the most revealing light. We all grizzle about specialization, professionalization, departmental-empire-building, etc. But unless and until you read the details of this case, you can have no idea of the pitiless ferocity or the organizational muscle that organized science can display. Talk about the "military-industrial" complex! We need a Wright-Mills to begin to do justice to this almost unacknowledged locus of power in modern society. The great Italian probability-theorist, de Finetti, speaking in 1964 about Velikovsky's case, compared the scientific complex to a "despotic and irresponsible Mafia."
Second, some brief observations arising from the theory itself, but still independent of its truth.
One is this, that if anything remotely like Velikovsky's theory is true, what vistas it opens up for the whole study of religion, and of the fear of the skies in general! (Though Velikovsky himself never says a word about this.)
Another is this. If anything remotely like Velikovsky's theory is true, the whole range of humanistic studies, classics, history, archaeology, psychology, anthropology takes on an entirely new interest, through being brought into living connection with astronomy and the earth sciences. The 18th century convinced men that old books—the Bible, etc.—were "literature." Thereupon mankind quite properly lost interest in them. Now, however, it becomes possible to regard them as something else; and suddenly old books are important again.
Finally, thanks to the degree of success that Velikovsky's theory has already had, even if it has no more, we can begin to see in perspective the character of the world-wide view which has just died, but into which everyone here was born. The solar system as a gigantic clock, the parts of which are separated by perfectly clean space, and among which only gravitation and inertia operate; with all the planets originating together, and subject thereafter to no disastrous mutual interference whatever.
This is the world view which Newton bequeathed almost single-handed to the following centuries. It is the world view of the French Academy, which until 1803 continued to classify all stories of the fall of meteorites from the sky with astrology and superstition. It is the world view of the conventional historians of astronomy, who confidently compute the time and path of eclipses thousands of years ago, down to the second and the inch—for all the world as though they were Laplacian calculators.
As Livio Stecchini points out in the de Grazia volume, it is a neo-Aristotelian world view. It sets a gulf between the heavens, where all is perfect order and perpetual peace; and this lower world of ours, where disorder and strife are not unknown. It furnished the basis on which the 18th century could set aside revelation, put all its money on the argument from design, and proclaim the religion of reason and nature. Alas for the Voltaires! What they insisted on taking for a demonstrated consequence of Newtonian laws—the stability of the solar system—was something agonizingly different for Newton himself: viz., an absolutely essential premise for the argument from design, yet one for which he could never find adequate support. Hence, inter alia, his terrible falling-out with his former protégé, Whiston, who ascribed the Nochian deluge to the close approach of a huge comet!
Anyway, that's all over now. The neo-Aristotelian age of Newton died as the space age came in. We can even date its demise specifically to 1962, when Mariner II confirmed the retrograde rotation of Venus. The new air is wonderfully exhilarating; but also chilling. Of course, the Copernican new air was dreadfully chilling, in its time. But then, when Newton had completed the Copernican revolution, the earth, although it was no longer still, and no longer at the center, had received a great compensating advantage: it was safe. Now that's gone too.
PENSEE Journal I