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Open letter to science editors



  • Astronomer Ernst J. Öpik finds the world in grave danger from dictatorial regimes owing to the "phenomenal credulity" of people like those who read Velikovsky.

Apparently the strange phenomenon of the closed mind reviewing the unopened book is still with us.

A Pensée advertisement in Science News for August 5, 1972, seems to have fueled wrath smouldering since 1950 in the breast of astronomer Ernst J. Öpik, editor of the Irish Astronomical Journal. He immediately took to the warpath and devoted two and one-half pages of his journal for October, 1972, to a furious attack on Velikovsky.

Heading his "News and Comments" entry "Catastrophic Approach of a Planet," and subtitling it "Worlds in Collision and the Peril of Credulity," Öpik resurrected several of the ill-conceived arguments raised by some of his colleagues even before Worlds in Collision made its appearance: How could events of such catastrophic proportions have escaped the notice of mankind? How could any life at all have survived a "sudden" stoppage of the earth's rotation? And he concluded that the world is in much greater danger from "dictatorial regimes," thanks to the "phenomenal credulity" of people like those who read Velikovsky, than from nuclear holocaust.

A British engineer, Pensée contributor Eric W. Crew, spotted Öpik's outburst in the fall of 1973 while doing some library research. On November 17 he sent the following letter in the hope that the editor of the I.A.J. might mend his ways (reprinted by permission):

Dear Dr. Öpik,
With reference to your comments about Velikovsky in the Irish Astronomical Journal (Vol. 10, No. 8, October 1972), you have made several errors of fact, and I hope you will have the courtesy to publish a correction.

You imply that Dr. Velikovsky persuades people to believe nonsense by "a convincing oratorical manner." Those who have actually met him say he is a scholarly man and rather a slow and poor speaker. This is not important, except that it shows you have not taken the trouble to ascertain the facts before passing judgment, which is not in accordance with the best scientific tradition.

Your greatest error was to say that Velikovsky described catastrophes which occurred "without a nose bleeding among all [the Earth's] inhabitants." The many authoritative references quoted by Velikovsky show there have been great losses of life of all kinds, as well, as geological disturbances, proving that sudden catastrophes actually have taken place, whatever their cause. Are all these writers also mistaken? Then you go on to say "this story is swallowed uncritically by the followers of the Velikovsky cult, including students and even university professors ... who should know better . . ." Several more mistakes here. Your information or intuition is incorrect. The "story" is not what you say it is, and it is not swallowed uncritically, as the journal Pensée (an excellent publication of the Student Academic Freedom Forum) contains a series of critical studies of Velikovsky's work by people who are academically qualified in history and science. It is not a cult, but many intelligent people are very interested in this fascinating subject. I am afraid you are the one who is showing credulity--in believing that what is generally accepted is bound to be right.

The evidence points strongly to some kind of extra-terrestrial influence, and if the planet Venus did pass close to the Earth, then, as you quite rightly say, the effects would have been disastrous. However, you have attacked Velikovsky by attributing to him things he did not say. What he claims is that the approach was near enough to cause tidal and probably electrical effects which explain the reported observations, namely, earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions, the latter no doubt obscuring the sky by emission of vast amounts of smoke and ash. Your assumption that this could not have happened because the Earth was not completely destroyed does not make sense, unless it is simply because you are a member of the anti-Velikovsky cult, prepared to believe any nonsense.

The facts concerning the catastrophes which have undoubtedly occurred in the past are all well-described in Earth in Upheaval, if you will take the trouble to read it. I am a skeptical person, but I find the evidence most impressive, and I am following the debate on this subject in Pensée with great interest. I am sure the Editor would welcome your comments on this subject, however critical, provided they are based on facts and sound reasoning, not on hasty assumptions about books you have not read.

The idea that the motion of the Earth was drastically changed by some cosmic event may seem ridiculous at first, but your reaction was based on instinct rather than reason. The suggestion that continents are floating on a molten interior also seemed ridiculous to Fred Hoyle not many years ago. In Frontiers of Astronomy [1955] (which was reprinted in 1970 without correction) he writes "we need scarcely take the notion of 'drifting continents' at all seriously." Now it is almost an article of scientific dogma. It need only be the crust of the Earth which would be affected by a "sudden" external force, and it is only at the equator that [the Earth's rotational velocity] is "about 1000 miles per hour." The braking of a 60-mph car in 4 seconds, while it travels 176 feet, is not unduly disturbing. At 1000 mph, with the same deceleration, it would take 67 seconds, and the object would travel just over 9 miles. I hope that you will agree that this puts the matter in a sensible perspective, even though the forces to disturb the Earth would be tremendous. It is evident that the massive interior would retain its original momentum, restoring the motion of the crust when the disturbance had passed. There are other aspects to this problem, and the subject clearly deserves intelligent investigation by people such as the "university professors" about whom you complain so bitterly.

The exploits of Baron von Munchhausen were meant to be merely amusing, and in comparing them with Velikovsky's ideas you are displaying a regrettable lack of a sense of humor. Also, your irrational comments about dictatorship show the emotional influence evidently arising from some unfortunate events in your past. This aptly illustrates another of Velikovsky's themes--that men's behavior is conditioned by race memories of the terrible catastrophes that swept so many of them away and drowned or crushed them with the bones of countless animals. Only if we are prepared to accept the facts, whatever they are, and not try to hide our fears and insecurity, will we hope to maintain and develop civilized life. Dictatorships are generally based on intolerance, not the freedom to explore all kinds of ideas, however unorthodox they may seem.

I am sending a copy of this letter to the Editor of Pensée in the hope that he will decide to publish your comments and my answer. If you wish to add anything further, or retract your misleading comments, I suggest you advise him as soon as possible. The address was published not only in Science News, as you mentioned, but also in Nature and the New Scientist.

Yours sincerely,

[signed] Eric W. Crew

Öpik replied (November 20, 1973) to Crew that he (Öpik) was "not going to argue about so-called 'facts' fanatically selected and interpreted," and that he is "not interested in Pensée or in those who make their 'facts' at will-on paper only." Crew directed a second letter to Öpik on November 22, 1973:

Dear Dr. Öpik,

I am replying briefly to your letter dated November 20 concerning your remarks about Pensée.

Your article in the Irish Astronomical Journal about Dr. Velikovsky contained a number of errors of fact, and if you do not publish a correction, you are guilty of dishonesty, and you are being unfair to your readers. Your opinions are a different matter, and if your conscience allows you to put forward views which ignore references to many authorities in the fields concerned, then that is your affair, but it is very far from a rational scientific attitude.

How can you possibly form a sensible opinion about Pensée if you are not interested in it and do not intend to read or even see a copy? Have you had any kind of scientific training?

Yours sincerely,

[signed] Eric W. Crew


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