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Open letter to science editors


A Letter

W. C. Straka

Velikovsky: Science or Anti-Science?

Editor's Note: We received W. C Straka's manuscript in the form of a letter to Pensée. We print it here, together with a subsequent letter exchange between the editor and Straka, followed by a brief response from Velikovsky.  We circulated Straka's manuscript among several friends of Pensée, and their remarks have been assembled into the reply to Straka immediately following Velikovsky's comments.

I was recently shown an issue of your publication dealing with Velikovsky (May 1972).  Before commenting, let me state my interest in the question.  I am presently an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Boston University.  Since I engage in active research in astronomy, I can be considered a scientist.  Among the courses I teach is one entitled "Science and Anti-science in Astronomy."  A section of this course is concerned with Velikovsky, Whiston, Horberger, and others who held cometary or lunar catastrophe theories.  I have read several of Velikovsky's books in toto and parts of other writings (Worlds in Collision 3 times completely at widely separated intervals, Ages in Chaos once, etc.), plus writings about him by other authors.

The actual evidence overwhelmingly contradicts Velikovsky.  Those data which seem to support him have been selected carefully, frequently misinterpreted or over-interpreted, or sometimes misrepresented.  Much of the data supposedly proving Velikovsky's hypotheses actually applies equally well to other, simpler hypotheses.  In many cases, Velikovsky's hypotheses were simply ones considered among the alternatives by various scientists.  In no case was any hypothesis which has been subsequently supported by observation exclusively his or first suggested by him. (A prime example of this is the hot Venus.)

Of course, it can also be pointed out that essentially all the mechanisms proposed and Biblical and Egyptological evidences cited were originally used by Whiston in the 17th century, and Horberger, Bellamy, and others in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Whiston, in fact, originally had proposed gravitational effects of comets to explain the Flood, parting of the Red Sea, etc., with the whole-hearted support of Sir Isaac Newton himself.  When it was shown that gravity was insufficient, he turned to electrical and magnetic forces.  Hence, Velikovsky's "interdisciplinary studies" aren't even original.

. Many of the arguments against Whiston's hypothesis are still valid and in some cases strengthened by modern observations.  They apply to Velikovsky as well.  It is clear that gravitational, electrical, and magnetic forces, as they are manifested in the universe at present cannot do what Velikovsky asks of them.  When it is said that magnetic forces, for example, produce large changes on a short time scale, this still means millions of years, not a few minutes.  Also, the charge or magnetic dipole strength is quite large.  For example, one current hypothesis holds that the sun lost its initially large angular momentum by magnetic braking.  The time scale hypothesized is millions of years, the magnetic field thousands of times larger than the sun has at present, and the solar plasma being expelled orders of magnitude larger than in the interplanetary medium at present (in fact, more material than in the present solar system outside the sun).

If one calculates what sort of masses, electrical charges, or magnetic strengths would be required to do what Velikovsky asks, the numbers are orders of magnitude beyond belief.  For example, if a mass the size of Venus were to come within 3 Earth radii, the time to slow the Earth down to a stop is 8000 years.  If the mass were equal to the sun (3 x 105 times the Earth or Venus), the slowing down would only take 1.4 hours.  Of course, if the mass were that large, the Earth would either fall inside the object or be very close to the event horizon (if it were a black hole, which is the only way to get the radius small enough).  One can, of course, make some gross, unwarranted assumptions about the way in which the force would be applied (assume that the differential gravitational force is entirely applied as a torque, for example) and get the time scale for a Venus mass down to the order of days.  But recall that the perturbing mass will have to remain at that distance during the entire time (weighted mean distance).  If the distance is half the Earth-Moon distance, the time scales are multiplied by 1000 (i.e., Venus mass would require 8 x 106 years, solar mass 1.7 years, or under the gross assumption, 8 ½ years for the Venus-sized mass).

As for electrical interactions, requirement of only the equivalent effects implies that, in the best case of equal division of charge, the entire crust of the Earth and a like amount of a Venus-mass comet would be completely ionized (i.e., all electrons or protons removed).  If one allows one or the other to have a larger charge, the total charge (or requisite ionized matter) is larger.  Aside from the obvious difficulties of maintaining the integrity of such charged material, Velikovsky's cosmic lightning would be stupendous indeed.  Need I point out the obvious difficulties of life on the surface of such a planet, or during such a charge transfer?  Furthermore, distribution of the charge throughout the planet may reduce the local fractional ionization, but would greatly increase the problem of getting rid of the charge.  Some residual charge (readily measurable) would probably remain, although such has not been detected to date.

Similar results obtain for a magnetic interaction.  Again, the large field required should have left evidence which is not present.  The magnetic field energy required is of the order of the total energy output of a supernova.  As is well-known, the Mariner observations show essentially no magnetic field for Venus (and also for Mars).

In all this discussion it is well to keep in mind the energies involved.  The rotational energy of the Earth (_ 1038 ergs) is a hundred million times larger than the orbital kinetic energy (_1030 ergs).  Furthermore, Velikovsky requires a stoppage in the period between sunrise and noon (or alternatively a major shift of the Earth's axis, which requires similar energy transfers).  Hence, he requires a rate of transfer some hundred times larger than the solar nuclear energy generation rate.  On top of all this, the Earth must be spun up again to almost the same rate as before. (So far, I have managed to overlook the mechanism Velikovsky proposes for this, if he does propose one).

I shall not take the time to discuss the obvious point of the consequences of such forces on the orbit of the Earth, beyond pointing out that some idea can be gained, even by the untrained layman, by noting the relative amounts of energy involved (orbital is a hundred million times less than rotational).  Nor need I point out the obvious problems of energy sources for Jupiter expelling Venus (energy required on the order of the amount produced by the sun in one year), even without a large charge or magnetic field.

The conclusion to draw from these, the most obvious points, is that gravitational, electrical, and magnetic forces are totally incapable of producing the effects that Velikovsky requires.  It is true that these forces produce large effects.  But to require them to do the things Velikovsky asks is like asking a graduate research assistant to pay off the national debt out of his pocket.  Of course, Velikovsky could make an ad hoc assumption of somehow getting rid of the fields, leaving no trace (planetary amnesia, perhaps), or a completely unknown mechanism which acted for a short time a few thousand years ago, then ceased to act.  Such a force could not affect spacecraft, nor could it operate over the distance from Earth to Moon.

Let me now turn to some of the specific claims.  The first point to be made is that the "predictions" are made in such a manner as to be difficult to prove or disprove, no matter what later turns up.  There are no real quantitative predictions.  Velikovsky claims Venus is "hot." how hot is "hot"?  The temperature measures made before the 1960's were known to be of the top of the cloud layers, where the temperatures are low on the Earth as well.  The corresponding layers in the Cytherean atmosphere were known to be somewhat hotter than in the case of Earth.  Furthermore, there were several schools of thought on the surface temperature, indeterminable by the then available techniques.  These were the hot or cold, wet or dry ideas.  For example, one group held to the idea of a hot, dry Venus, with the clouds being dust.  The present observations tend more toward this view that the others.  There were some who felt that Venus was a hot, wet swamp, or cool and damp, perhaps even with ice.  The problem with the wet ideas has always been the lack of water in the spectrum, whereas the carbon dioxide content was long known to be very high (hence the suggestions concerning the greenhouse effect).  Thus, Velikovsky's idea was merely one of the alternatives, and in fact one of the most likely.

It is unfortunate that there are still references to the "observations" of a hydrocarbon atmosphere on Venus.  In fact, no such thing has been observed.  The report (which was published by NASA) came about through a series of misquotations and misinterpretations.  During a press conference following the fly-by of Mariner II, one of the investigators (who shall remain nameless) had been reporting on the results of the temperature measurements and occultation experiments.  The reporters pressed him for the "final" answers on composition, life, etc., which the experiments did not give.  Under this pressure, the investigator gave his own speculations, and described them as such.  The press reported these as actual results, not hypotheses.  These newspaper articles managed to get incorporated into the official reports, which in turn are now pointed out by Velikovsky and his disciples as supporting evidence.

Velikovsky makes many claims for electrical and magnetic forces and their influence in the solar system.  First, let us make general points that have been misinterpreted by some supporters of his.  Gravitational and electromagnetic forces in their various manifestations play important and fundamental roles in the universe and its evolution.  They provide the primary means for transferring and transforming the energy of the universe from one form to another and from one place to another.  Gravity appears to play the major role in the solar system, with electromagnetic forces having a secondary, but nonetheless important, role.  For example, it is gravity that determines the shape and structure of the sun.  But, since the sun is, after all, a plasma, magnetic effects have an influence as well on the structure, and apparently the rotation rate.  The only thing that needs to be added to the discussion earlier is that again the quantitative effect implied by Velikovsky is many orders of magnitude larger than effects in fact are.  At the same time, some of the most obvious side effects that would result from boosting electric, magnetic, and/or gravitational fields enough to do what he asks are absent.  As an example, consider the known effects of large magnetic fields on living organisms.

The resonant rotation of Venus, wrongly described in the listing of "successes," was shown by Peale and Goldreich to be achievable with the present orbits of Earth and Venus on the known time scale of the solar system.  It is not compatible with a near collision, with the thus implied different orbital periods.  Does Velikovsky also claim that Mercury's resonant rotation is a result of the same near encounter?  One can also say that it (as well as Neptune and Uranus) has an anomalous rotation.  In fact, compared to Jupiter, Saturn, and many of the asteroids, all the other planets have "anomalous" rotations.  Recent discussions indicate that the normal rotation period is around 10 hours, with the axis toward the pole of the ecliptic.

Velikovsky makes much of reversals of the Earth's magnetic field.  At the same time he ignores the semi-regular reversals of the solar magnetic field every 11 years or so.  One widely held hypothesis has it that the Earth's magnetic field is either maintained by or locked into the circulating material in the Earth's interior.  If so, one would expect periodic field reversals.  And since the field is bipolar, a reversal must be "sudden."

Velikovsky also ignores most of the results of oceanography concerning plate tectonics, the changing magnetic field of the Earth, and the legendary existence of "lost continents," such as Atlantis.

The greatest arguments seem to arise over dating methods.  It seems very strange that those dates with which Velikovsky agrees are correctly done, while those with which he disagrees are grossly in error.  As examples of the latter, one may consider cave formations and Stonehenge.  Various cave formations grow at different rates.  Accurate dates can be determined by examination of cores or cross-sections.  These datings show, as has often been pointed out before, that there were no cataclysmic changes affecting the Earth as a whole at times corresponding to Velikovsky's nearencounters.  Formations under the Lincoln Memorial (or many bridges which used lime-based cements) do not in any way contradict this statement.  In fact, they support it, since such formations can be dated by the same methods, and reveal the correct dates.

Velikovsky dismisses Hawkin's work on Stonehenge on the basis of some very early critical comment.  He claims that Stonehenge is of much later date than Hawkins' results indicate.  However, later results by such people as, Thom on Stonehenge and other similar structures (Long Meg, Woodhenge, etc.) strongly support the earlier work.  Furthermore, the earlier parts of Stonehenge date from a thousand years before Velikovsky's earliest encounters, well outside the range of even the error claimed by Velikovsky.  The best present datings of Stonehenge are, in reality, enough before the Velikovskian cometary era that the earlier remarks about such a monument standing while Jericho fell still hold.  Finally, many of the alignments of Stonehenge, Long Meg, Woodhenge, and other similar monuments are now very well established, enough so that we can say that no shifts in the Earth's axis or changes in the orbit or rotation of the size Velikovsky asks have occurred at the time he says.  Such changes as are quoted in support (e.g., the effect of the large solar flare) are many orders of magnitude too small.

One could go further in this discussion, but there is no need to do so.  The points discussed here should show that Velikovsky's "remarkable successes" either are not so remarkable (either individually or as a group) or are not "successes" (that is, are not supported by the observational evidence taken as a whole).  Many of the "predictions" supposedly based on his hypotheses do not, in fact, follow from them.

From the standpoint of a valid or useful hypothesis, Velikovsky's work merits no further consideration.  But the situation is useful as an illustration of the conflict of science and anti-science, with Velikovsky clearly in the latter category.  It is as such I use him in my course.


July 10, 1972

Dear Professor Straka,

We appreciate your willingness to contribute to the discussion of Velikovsky's work by setting down a critique of his ideas.  However, we do wish to receive from you a brief elaboration of several points, chiefly contained at the beginning of your piece.

1)  Who, besides Velikovsky, claimed in 1950 that Venus is hot. (In Worlds in Collision Velikovsky describes Venus as incandescent 3500 years ago.)

2)  Who preceded Velikovsky in claiming a) that Jupiter emits radio noises; b) that lunar rocks contain rich inclusions of neon and argon; c) that the temperature gradient under the lunar surface shows a mounting curve; and d) that lunar rocks are rich in remanent magnetism?

3)  Which predictions, "supposedly based on" Velikovsky's hypotheses, "do not, in fact, follow from them"?

Also, for our personal reference we would like to know where Whiston ascribes the parting of the Red Sea to gravitational effects of a comet.

We thank you for your willingness to help.


Stephen L. Talbott           July 13, 1972


Dear Mr. Talbott:

I shall take a moment to acknowledge your letter of 10 July.  I do not have time to engage in any extensive discussion, and in fact, cannot take the time beyond this brief note from my many duties.

However, may I point out the obvious?  For the most part, your first two questions are easily answered by reference to the Astronomischer Jahresbericht for the period prior to 1950, and to the similar indices in physics, geology, and geophysics.  These will cover the twentieth century.  Look for articles pertaining to the composition of the atmosphere, albedo, general spectral and photometric observations, etc.  Most of these articles discuss the implications of the findings for the temperature of Venus.  There were also review articles in Scientific American, Sky. and Telescope, National Geographic, etc., plus the analogous British, German, French and other journals, also all prior to 1950. 1 have a couple of elementary textbooks, one published about 1895, the other about 1920, which mention the possibility of a hot Venus.  But, of course, what do you mean by hot?  If, as you state in your letter, Venus was "incandescent 3500 years ago" the present temperature would be much, much higher at present (or did it encounter an interplanetary fire extinguisher?).

Similar statements may be made for your part 2.  Incidentally, any theory which calls for a molten moon at any time in the past will imply a "mounting curve."  This holds for both the hot formation theories and the cold accretion with subsequent liquification (presently considered to be the best choice).

As for number 3, you had better re-read my first letter and also study your listing of "predictions."

The Whiston hypotheses appeared primarily in various publications of the Philosophical Society and one book, the title of which I have misplaced, but was something like Biblical Events Explained, subtitled Religion and Science Reconciled.  There is (or was last year) a copy in the Boston Public Library and at least one in the Library of Congress.  Because the book is rare and old, circulation is restricted.  However, I believe you can obtain a Xerox from the British Museum or from the Philosophical Society at copying cost.

Finally, you may be interested in looking at an article by one E. L. Hawk in the Jour. Brit.  Astron.  Assoc., 58, 195 (1948) (also see Weather for May 1948) entitled "A Cometary Venus."  Note that this predates Velikovsky by a couple of years.

I have far exceeded my time limit.  If I have time at some future date to spare from my various obligations, I shall add something more.


W. C. Straka

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