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Shapley, Velikovsky and the Scientific Spirit
"As you probably suspect, I find little happiness in reading or thinking about Velikovsky. He seems to be one of our most erudite charlatans."
Harlow Shapley in a letter (July 2, 1967) to Albert Burgstahler
"All professional astronomers consider Velikovsky a fraud. Can't you find a reputable subject for your research paper?"
Harlow Shapley in a letter (March 8, 1969) to Katherine Lindeman.
Many writers have commented on the furor provoked by the publication of Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision in 1950. The name of Dr. Harlow Shapley, then director of the Harvard Observatory, has arisen in connection with unethical attempts to suppress the book and defame its author—a charge Shapley has denied. Here Dr. Horace Kallen, a friend of Shapley's in 1950 and himself a figure in the events surrounding Velikovsky's book, attempts to clarify the record.
Kallen, a cofounder of the New School for Social Research and former dean of the graduate faculty, is one of America's most respected scholars. He was named by William James to edit that writer's unfinished book, and he became the literary executor of Benjamin Paul Blood. His own books on philosophical, religious, and sociological subjects number over 20, including Art and Freedom (2 volumes), The Liberal Spirit, The Education of Free Men, and Liberty, Laughter and Tears. Currently Kallen is professor emeritus of philosophy, and research professor in social philosophy, New School for Social Research.
This article is an abbreviation of a considerably longer manuscript.
One day late in March, 1970, Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky called me on the telephone from Princeton. Among other things, he mentioned that in April it would be 20 years since the publication of the first of his controversial books, and that the assault on his personal integrity based on disbelief in the conceptions which the books expound had not ceased. I asked for concrete facts. He named Harlow Shapley, quondam professor of astronomy at Harvard, now emeritus.
Because I expressed surprise and shock, Dr. Velikovsky offered to send me copies of correspondence between Shapley and Albert Burgstahler, professor of chemistry at the University of Kansas, exchanged in 1967; and between Shapley and a girl student at Bay Village High School, Ohio, exchanged in March, 1969. To Burgstahler Shapley wrote: " . . . I find little happiness in reading or thinking about Velikovsky. He seems to be one of our most erudite charlatans." To Burgstahler's request for proof of his statement Shapley failed to reply. His reply to Miss Lindeman's question was: "All professional astronomers consider Velikovsky a fraud. Can't you find a reputable subject for your research paper?"
Shapley's recent comments on Velikovsky, false on their face, seem to me variations of a persistent libel begun over 20 years ago practically with the libeler's first contact with Velikovsky. It happens that I had a part in furthering the contact, and I cannot help feeling chagrin and disgust over its unbelievable consequences.
To Dr. Velikovsky, disagreement regarding facts and theories was integral to the scientific enterprise; he expected his views to be met with dissent; constructing them as working hypotheses, he hoped that others in the field might help him to get them tested by observation and experiment. He did not expect that soi-disant scientists would, without reading and reflection, blacken his reputation and libel his character because of his scholarly views.
For, as in practically no other vocation, the relations between those who engage in any one of the sciences are presumed to exemplify the principles of equal liberty and equal safety in the cooperative competition and the competitive cooperation on which its achievements depends. But this presumption seems more a compensation in idea for the facts of scientific behavior than a description of science seen "like it is."
By and large scientists, however they begin, work at their vocations as organization men, serving the vested interests of their establishment, and defending the diverse doxies on which they rely in their personal rivalries for place, power, and prestige. Via these rivalries, scientific "truth" becomes a function of the "success" which the establishment awards. Alternatives which challenge such sanctioned "truths" get condemned without examination as "unscientific heresies, mad inventions, dishonest fabrications." Their proponents get denounced as crackpots, charlatans or frauds. And this is what the establishment has done to Velikovsky and his reconstructions of astronomical processes and human events.
On the record, Harlow Shapley was the initiator and instigator of this exemplification of scientific fair play. The Ureys, the Whipples, the Gaposchkins, the McLaughlins and the rest but followed his strange, unpredictable lead.
Reading the exchanges between the emeritus Harvard astronomer, the Kansas chemist and the Ohio high school girl, I began to feel that I may well have made a mistake in trusting time and the authentic scientific spirit to dissipate the Shapley infection. Maybe only court action would stop Shapley and clear Velikovsky's name and fame. I hope still, however, that telling the story "like it is," at least in terms of my part in it, will help toward a purer air.
I myself had been acquainted with Shapley from my days at Harvard and had come to regard him as a true believer in the method of science, with a concern to popularize the knowledge which it brings. Dr. Velikovsky came into my orbit soon after his arrival in the United States, by way of an introduction from Judge Morris Rothenberg, a leader in Jewish affairs.
Velikovsky had only seen Shapley's name in the papers in connection with libertarian causes. Having read that Shapley was to be the principal attraction at a college forum luncheon which the magazine Mademoiselle was holding in New York on April 13, 1946, Velikovsky sought him out. He told Shapley that, as a result of six years of research, he had come to believe that there were changes in the constitution of the solar system. He now had written down his findings, drawn from mankind's ancient records, from geological treatises, and the like, and asked that Shapley might be good enough to read his manuscript and, if he thought the data sufficient, to advise about having "one or two uncomplicated spectroscopic analyses" made.
Shapley demurred; he was very busy—but if some one he knew were to read the manuscript first and recommend it, he would read it, too. And the spectroscopic analysis might be made either by him or his colleague, Professor Whipple of the Harvard Observatory.
Among the tasters mentioned to protect Shapley from intellectual poisoning, I was one, and Shapley agreed that if I read Velikovsky's manuscript first and recommended it, he too would read it. After canvassing another nominee, Velikovsky brought his work to me. Meanwhile, Shapley had withdrawn his offer to make those spectroscopic analyses because what Velikovsky had written him in a brief letter about the atmosphere of the planets did not justify an examination of his claims. On May 23, at Velikovsky's request, I wrote Shapley, expressing the hope that he would make the proffered analyses.
Concerning Velikovsky's manuscript I wrote: "I have just finished reading it. From the side of the history of ideas and social relations, it seems to me that he has built up a serious theory deserving of the careful attention of scholars—theory and fact showing a kind of scientific imagination which on the whole has been unusual in our times. If his theory should prove valid, not only astronomy but history and a good many of the anthropological and social sciences would need to be reconsidered both for their content and explanation. If it should not prove to be valid, it would still be one of those great guesses which occur far too infrequently in the history of human thought.
"I am myself so impressed by what Dr. Velikovsky has had to say and the way in which he has established his hypothesis that I feel as eager as he to have it undergo the crucial test which the spectroscopic analyses he suggests would be."
To which Shapley replied on May 27: "The sensational claims of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky fail to interest as much as they should, notwithstanding his exceedingly pleasing personality and evident sincerity, because his conclusions were pretty obviously based on incompetent data"—this a peculiar comment on a book he hadn't read to one who had read it.
He continued with the argument that the notion of changes in the constitution of the solar system in historical times flies in the face of the successful record of celestial mechanics and their role in man's work. "The laws of mechanics ... have been tested competently and thoroughly ... if Dr. Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy. And seriously, this may be the case. It is, however, improbable." He concluded by saying that the Harvard Observatory wasn't equipped to make the spectroscopic analyses and recommended that Velikovsky get in touch with Walter Adams of Mt. Wilson Observatory or Rupert Wildt at the McCormick Observatory. These recommendations I sent to Velikovsky.
"It will be interesting a year from now to hear from you as to whether or not the reputation of the Macmillan Company is damaged by the publication of Worlds in Collision... Naturally you can see that I am interested in your experiment. And frankly, unless you can assure me that you have done things like this frequently in the past without damage, the publication must cut me off from the Macmillan Company"
Harlow Shapley in a letter (January 25, 1950) to James Putnam of the Macmillan Company.
"The claim that Dr. Velikovsky's book is being suppressed is nothing but a publicity promotion stunt... Several attempts have been made to link such a move to stop the book's publication to some organization or to the Harvard Observatory. This idea is absolutely false."
Harlow Shapley in a statement to the Harvard Crimson, printed in the Crimson September 25, 1950.
Meanwhile, the latter had the usual luck of an original mind with publishers. Eight turned his book down as unprofitable—because of its many footnotes. But Macmillan saw its commercial as well as its intellectual promise, and in May, 1947, gave him a small advance on an option for a contract against royalties from publication. The manuscript had been read for them by several readers, among them Gordon Atwater, then curator of the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History, who thought it might serve as a scenario for another starry show among those he was staging.
With publication by Macmillan in prospect, Velikovsky kept checking and rechecking Worlds in Collision. On March 18, 1949, Harper's magazine, having learned from James Putnam, the Macmillan editor in charge of Worlds in Collision, about its challenging content, asked permission to have one of its editors, Eric Larrabee, do a couple of articles summarizing the book. Velikovsky hesitated a long time, but finally gave permission—in September or October of that year. Larrabee's report appeared in Harper's, January, 1950. An editorial comment declared: "No one who has read Mr. Larrabee's article can ever again read the Old Testament prophets with the same blind piety or same blind skepticism that he felt before."
The intent is carried by the word blind. It is rendered vitally expressive when one realizes that before the end of this same January, 1950, Harlow Shapley had entered upon his inquisition against the Velikovsky heresy and in defense of the establishment's true faith that our scientific and industrial salvation—with its ever-identical solar system changeless through time—rests on celestial mechanics hallowed through the last three centuries. He wrote Macmillan a subtly worded letter.
He had, he told them in his letter of January 18, heard rumors that they were not going to publish Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. This was a great relief to him. He had talked about the book with a few scientists, including President Conant of Harvard. All were astonished that a house famous for its scientific publications was carelessly venturing into the Black Arts. Velikovsky's theory that the sun stood still was the most arrant nonsense of his, Shapley's experience. That the earth still exists is proof that the sun couldn't have stood still in historical times.
James Putnam, for Macmillan, replied on January 24 that they were not publishing the book as a "scientific publication" but as the statement of a theory that scholars of the various fields of science on which the theory draws should know about. He enclosed a summary of Velikovsky's biography and offered to send Shapley a copy of the book as soon as it was issued—probably in March.
". . . Oddly enough, in its anti-scientific account of the book, Newsweek has unwittingly done the Doubleday Company a considerable amount of harm. They have made public the high success of the spontaneous boycott of the Macmillan Company by scientifically minded people . . . In any case, since I believe that the Blakiston Company is owned by the Doubleday Company, which controls its policies as well as the distribution of its books, I am now then a fellow author of the Doubleday Company along with Velikovsky. My natural inclination, were it possible, is to take Earth, Moon and Planets off the market and find a publisher who is not associated with one who has such a lacuna in its publication ethics. This is not possible, however, so the next best that I can do is to turn over future royalty checks to the Boston Community Fund and to let Earth, Moon and Planets die of senescence. In other words, there will be no revision of Earth, Moon and Planets forthcoming so long as Doubleday owns Blakiston, controls its policies and publishes Worlds in Collision."
Fred Whipple, Shapley's successor as director of the Harvard Observatory, in a letter (June 30, 1 950) to Eunice Stevens, associate editor, the Blakiston Company.
"With regard to Mr. Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision there is no change in my attitude or in the situation since the book was first released nearly a decade [sic] ago. There is no truth to allegations that I sought to dissuade the Doubleday Company from publishing this book or any other book. . ."
Fred Whipple in a letter (July 2, 1970) to Clark Whelton of The Village Voice.
To which Shapley replied on January 25 that Velikovsky's celestial mechanics is "complete nonsense"; that I (Kallen) had introduced Velikovsky to him; that the two had met in some New York hotel where Velikovsky had sought Shapley's endorsement of his theory; that Shapley had looked around to see if Velikovsky had a keeper with him; that he had tried to explain to Velikovsky that if he were right, science was wrong, life on earth would have been wrecked and that they couldn't possibly have had this interview, in a New York hotel. So likewise, if Macmillan were right, it is the millions not agreeing with Velikovsky who need keepers, inasmuch as they refuse to abandon what is known of nature and her laws "in the interest of exegesis." Macmillan must prove that they have already published like works "without damage," else publishing Velikovsky must cut him, Shapley off from the Macmillan Company. In view of the biographical note on Velikovsky, it "is quite possible that only this Worlds in Collision episode is intellectually fraudulent."
The threat implicit in the Shapley letter scared the head of Macmillan, George Brett. The book was already on the press. On February 1, Brett wrote the champion of science words of gratitude for "waving a red flag" and promised that he would have the book rechecked by three new readers. Velikovsky was advised that two said Publish, one said Don't.
Meanwhile, the article in Harper's had started winds of controversy among geologists, archaeologists and others who could not possibly have read Velikovsky's yet unpublished Worlds in Collision. Significantly, one instrument of inquisition was Science News Letter, which reported its president, Harlow Shapley, as saying on behalf of his fellow astronomers that Velikovsky's theory was "rubbish and nonsense." For at least one of these he could surely speak. This was a Mrs. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, a member of his staff who, although the book had not yet been published and she could not have read it, composed an attack on Velikovsky. This was first very widely distributed in mimeograph and then published in the now defunct Reporter. I am told that Shapley sent out a number of these mimeographs in person, including one to the editor of the New York Post, Ted Thackrey.
Mrs. Gaposchkin gagged especially at the suggestion that "the sun stood still" might be a report of an actual occurrence. Her argument that this was impossible was Shapleyism garnished with some Gaposchkinism's, astronomical, geological and other. It is this lady-astronomer's broadside which President Shapley's Science News Letter reprinted and praised as a "detailed scientific answer to Dr. Velikovsky's theory," still some time before his book was available in print. After it was on sale, Mrs. Gaposchkin, taken to task by Larrabee, wrote the Reporter that now she had read it, but hadn't changed her mind.
Meanwhile, editor Thackrey had left the New York Post for the New York Compass. He and Shapley seem to have been political kinsmen, close enough to call each other by their given names. Thackrey had republished the Harper's article in the Compass, whereupon Shapley wrote him privately on February 20, 1950, enclosing the prepublication mimeograph of the Gaposchkin confection from the Reporter. He suggested that the Compass might like to republish "this comment from an American astronomer of the highest standing." Velikovsky, he added, had asked him to endorse his work so that he could get it published, and Shapley had pointed out how wrong Velikovsky was, since if he were right, "All that Isaac Newton ever did was wrong."
To this editor Thackrey replied March 7, 1950. He wrote that Shapley's letter had so shocked him that he had to cool off before answering it as frankly as a worthwhile friendship requires. He took sharp exception to Shapley's "wholly unwarranted and unfounded" characterization of Dr. Velikovsky and reminded his friend how he, Thackrey, had defended Shapley when his political views had led to "nearly as unwarranted an assault" upon his own integrity.
Thackrey himself had come to know Velikovsky as "a man of unusual integrity and scholarship, whose painstaking approach to scientific theory is at least a match for your own." Shapley, Thackrey wrote, was engaged "in a totally unscientific and viciously emotional attack" on Velikovsky and his work, pressing Macmillan not to publish it without ever once having taken the trouble to examine it or even glance at the research with which it had been accomplished. Shapley, Thackrey charged, was campaigning to destroy a man whom he did not know and to damn a theory he obviously knew nothing about. His course of action was "both morally and criminally libelous." As for the article Shapley had had Mrs. Gaposchkin prepare, it was an attack on a book the latter had not read, attributing to Velikovsky statements he had never made in order to quarrel with them as if he had made them.
To this, on March 8, 1950, Shapley made a "confidential" reply. He was, he wrote, keeping silent on Velikovsky. He had written hotly only to Thackrey, but all kinds of authorities were agreeing with his views. He did concede that no protest against the publication of Velikovsky's book should be made to Macmillan by the Council of the American Astronomical Society because "such action would give greater publicity to Velikovsky's contributions." But for Macmillan to publish the book would be to "throw doubt" on how they evaluate "other manuscripts on which we want to depend." In a postscript he recalled his letters to me back in 1946, and asked if Velikovsky had reached Adams at the Mt. Wilson Observatory or Wildt at Yale. It seems a curious tangency that might intrigue a psychoanalyst.
Thackrey's response to this was dated April 10. He again charged that Shapley was working to prevent Macmillan from publishing Velikovsky; that he had written the publisher two letters "so sizzling that your letter to me might seem tepid by comparison." But he, Thackrey, had read the book while Shapley and Gaposchkin had written about it without reading it.
To this Shapley responded on June 6. In the interval, Macmillan had broken with Velikovsky, even though Worlds in Collision, published April 3, had become the number one bestseller on the national charts. Shapley's letter to Thackrey took note of this success in sales, for which he consoled himself with the remark that he had not yet met a scientist of any sort who took Worlds in Collision seriously, while many are "unrestrained in their condemnation of the one reputable publisher."
"Can we afford to have 'freedom of the press' when it permits such obvious rubbish to be widely advertised as of real importance? ... Can we afford 'freedom of the press' when it can vitiate education, as this book can? Can we preserve democracy when education in true scientific principles ... can be nullified by the promulgation of such lies,-yes, lies, as are contained in wholesale lots in Worlds in Collision?... Any astronomer or geologist or physicist could have pronounced it trash of the first order. Its geological errors are so absurd that even I, an astronomer, can identify them at a glance! ... No, I have not read the book ... And I do not intend to waste my time reading it... "
Dean McLaughlin, professor of astronomy, University of Michigan, in a letter (May 20, 1950) to G.P. Brett, Jr., president of Macmillan Company.
"Velikovsky is a tragedy. He has misguided people like you in great numbers, and my advice is to shut the book and never look at it again in your lifetime."
Harold Urey, professor of chemistry, University of California (San Diego), in a letter (March 7, 1969) to Katherine Lindeman.
Dr. Urey, on his own admission, has not read Velikovsky's books. Editor.
The Shapleyist proscription of Velikovsky and his revolutionary astronomical concepts extended to all who, even though doubting or questioning the concepts, did take them seriously. One such was Gordon Atwater, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, curator of the Planetarium, and chairman of the department of astronomy at New York's Museum of Natural History, who had read the manuscript for Macmillan. Although Atwater was skeptical of many of Velikovsky's findings, and doubted that Venus could have been ejected from Jupiter, he took the records of world-wide catastrophes in historical times to be evidential. He was dismissed from both his positions with the Museum the night before This Week published his review of Worlds in Collision, in which he urged open-mindedness toward the book.
James Putnam, for 25 years with Macmillan and the editor who made the contract with Velikovsky, was immediately dismissed from that establishment. Latham, the editor-in-chief, left the firm later. In My Life in Publishing (1965) he tells of his feeling of shame at Brett's surrender.
Velikovsky himself was, of course, again and again refused space and place to defend his theories against both honest and malicious errors regarding them. And in the Harvard Crimson Shapley declared over his signature that it was "absolutely false" that he or the Harvard Observatory had any connection with attempts to suppress the book's publication.
Meanwhile, unintended verifications of Velikovsky's theses began to come from unexpected sources. Mariner probes of Mars, Venus, and the moon, as reported by NASA, provided evidence of the sort that Shapley had first offered, and then said he hadn't the equipment to seek. A scientist here and a scientist there was impressed by the confirming happenstances, and, like geologist Hess and Physicist Bargmann of Princeton and astronomer Motz of Columbia, urged that in view of these confirmations, Velikovsky's other conclusions should be reexamined without prejudice.
To this I should add that Albert Einstein, who often saw Velikovsky in Princeton, had read and re-read his work, and continued as firmly pro-Newton as Shapley, but with the open mind of the authentic scientist. A few days before his untimely death in 1955, he offered (after learning that, as Velikovsky had predicted, radio noises from Jupiter were unexpectedly recorded) to help arrange other experimental tests which Velikovsky sought.
Einstein had, I am told, urged Velikovsky to get the story of his proscription by Shapley et. al. fully on record, and Velikovsky had written an account himself, for Einstein to read, which the latter did. "Ich möchte glücklich sein," he wrote Velikovsky in a letter of comment March 17, 1955, "wenn auch Sie die ganze Episode von der drolligen Seite geniessen könnten." ("It would make me happy if you could savor the entire episode from its amusing side.") This is a stance I had been recommending to Velikovsky for a long time, understandably without effect to date.
Despite the excommunication of his theories by the Shapleyites, curiosity about their nature, origin and evidential grounds spreads and diversifies as the new instruments disclose new data which may confirm or refute. When I urged Velikovsky to disregard the libelous attacks upon his personal integrity, this is what I believed was likely to happen. The new tools, bringing in hitherto inaccessible evidence which would either confirm his conceptions or cause him to abandon them for others, would render his vindication as a man of science "objective," that is, independent of solely personal appraisals.
As between Shapley and Velikovsky, the record for integrity is entirely in favor of Velikovsky.
PENSEE Journal I