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Open letter to science editors


Electricity Absent from Sagan's Astrophysics
R. E. Juergens

According to Professor Sagan, matters involving Newtonian dynamics and the laws of conservation of energy and angular momentum are of first importance in evaluating any hypothesis concerning celestial affairs, while "questions on the nature of planetary surfaces, atmospheres and interiors are on not as good a footing." This seems a fair appraisal, although of course realities that emerge from direct explorations of planets must be accommodated by any law of physics that is to remain valid. And Newtonian dynamics must be understood to embrace the interplay of electrical and electromagnetic as well as gravitational and inertial forces.

On this basis, I would generalize and rank Sagan's physical arguments against Worlds in Collision as follows:

1) The energy required to expel a terrestrial planet from a major planet is beyond the mustering capability of any single major planet.

2) Any planet whose rotation was slowed or stopped by whatever means during an encounter with another planet could not start spinning again by itself, because of the law of conservation of angular momentum.

3) Celestial mechanics and Velikovsky's claim that the interior planets achieved their present stable orbital and rotational regimes within a matter of a few thousand years are difficult to reconcile.

4) What is known of surface conditions on the interior planets and the moon is inconsistent with the thesis of recent catastrophism in the solar system.

Such a listing clearly does not account for each and every specific argument brought by Sagan in his symposium paper, but I believe he would agree that it embraces the strongest of them and presents them approximately in order of descending importance.

Earlier Collisions

1) The matter of ejecting Venus from Jupiter was a major issue in an exchange between Velikovsky and Professor Lloyd Motz of Columbia University in the Yale Scientific Magazine for April, 1967. There Velikovsky cited the work of R. A. Lyttleton concerning the hypothetical expulsion by Jupiter of not just Venus, but of each of the terrestrial planets in turn, far back in the, early history of the solar system. Lyttleton, considering expulsion by means of a spinoff process, satisfied himself that the requisite energies posed no insurmountable problem.

In that same issue, however, Velikovsky emphasized that his researches intended for publication in a sequel to Worlds in Collision point to a near-collision between Jupiter and Saturn as the event that triggered the birth of Venus (cf. Worlds in Collision, "The End"). Since this work has not yet been published, Professor Sagan can hardly be faulted for ignoring it, but it would seem necessary that an acceptable argument against the birth of Venus from Jupiter be framed in the context of such an encounter between major planets, and that calculations take into account all likely roles for such processes as gravitational and electrical disruption (tidal forces), as well as spinoff.

Velikovsky's treatise on earlier catastrophes in the solar system, initially part of the manuscript for Worlds in Collision but withheld from the published volume, is long overdue. The entire series of catastrophic encounters among the planets, in his view, constitutes a chain of events cascading down from one initial accident. But for nearly a quarter-century scientists and scholars have been asked to accept the history of several terminal events in this series without having a look at what supposedly started it. Presumably the evidence is more abundant and hence more compelling for these more recent events, but it would surely be helpful in evaluating the entire work if all the evidence were laid on the table.

A Restarting Mechanism

2) Sagan asks, in connection with Velikovsky's claim that the earth's rotation was slowed on several occasions, "how does the earth get started up again, rotating at approximately the same rate of spin?" One possible answer comes to mind.

More than 10 years ago I attempted to suggest such a mechanism (unpublished letter to the editor of Harper's, October 22, 1963). My argument at that time was directed to an objection raised against Worlds in Collision by Lloyd Motz (Harper's, October, 1963), to the effect that changes in the earth's rate of rotation violated the law of conservation of angular momentum. What I wished to point out were two facts:

I. Angular momentum is the product of two variable factors, moment of inertia and angular velocity. To preserve (conserve) angular momentum, any change in one factor must be compensated for by a change in the other.

II. Electric charge added to a spinning body increases its moment of inertia. (The moment of inertia of a spinning electron, for example, is due almost entirely to its charge.)

And I wrote: "Suppose that most of the earth's normal moment of inertia is attributable to its mass (and the way that mass is arranged within its body). Barring the acquisition of [additional] electric charge, the earth's angular momentum can be altered only by applying an external torque or by rearranging its mass. Now, however, suppose that in a near-collision with a high-potential Venus the earth acquires an intense [excess of] charge. Immediately its moment of inertia is enhanced. To conserve angular momentum, earth's rotation must be retarded.

"If this conservation law is valid, mathematics suggests that only an infinite charge [added in this manner would stop the earth]. But Velikovsky's thesis does not require this. A sudden acquisition of [excess] charge would slow the earth's rotation, and a gradual leakage of that charge into space after the collision would restore the original speed [of rotation]."

I offer this here, not as a final answer to Sagan's question, but simply as one possibility. One can imagine that the transfers of charge needed to produce appreciable effects would be enormous. But to my mind it is easier to conceive of radical and sudden enhancements of terrestrial electric charge than of radical and sudden redistributions of terrestrial mass. And the process of shedding excess charge and gradually restoring a "normal" value for moment of inertia seems not only a natural explanation for the restoration of spin, but also quite predictable under the postulated conditions and an attractive demonstration of the law of conservation of angular momentum in action.

A braking-and-restarting mechanism involving overcharging and discharging a planet would appear viable, at least in a qualitative way, regardless of that planet's initial charge or lack of charge. Such a process might be considered, too, in connection with the establishment of such rotational locks as that of Venus with respect to the earth.

Thunderbolts and Orbital Decay

3) Sagan admits that "while the odds are large [against Venus' orbit being rounded from high eccentricity to near-circularity in a few thousand years] , they are not absolutely overwhelming against Velikovsky's hypothesis on this score." Still, the concept "is at odds with what we know about the three-body problem in celestial mechanics."

Clearly this problem is of fundamental importance to the acceptance of Velikovsky's thesis. Sherrerd has suggested (Pensée, May, 1972, p. 43) that tidal friction in the plastic or still-molten body of Venus would, by the laws of Cassini, tend to reduce the eccentricity of the orbit to minimize energy losses. Rose and Vaughan have reported (Pensée, May, 1972, p. 43) calculations indicating that the orbital changes for Mars, Venus, and the earth required by Worlds in Collision are not at all impossible in the context of conventional celestial mechanics. Elsewhere (Science Journal, May, 1969, p. 53) Lyttleton, discussing "The Origin of the Moon," has shown that a distant third body, such as the sun, might play a major role in rounding-out an eccentric orbit in a surprisingly short period of time. Also, it seems unlikely that Velikovsky would have such a large following among physicists and engineers if intuition suggested to all of them that this problem has no acceptable solution. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done, and Sagan's skepticism on this point seems entirely in keeping with the present state of affairs.

Personally, I find most intriguing Velikovsky's citation (Worlds in Collision, "The Blazing Star") of a passage in Hyginus "where he tells how Phaethon, that caused the conflagration of the world, was struck by a thunderbolt of Jupiter and was placed by the sun among the stars (planets)." Is this a suggestion that a catastrophic addition of electric charge to, or removal of electric charge from, Venus, and accompanying alterations in its moment of inertia and electrical energy, must be reckoned with in any ultimate solution to the problem?

A fresh approach to this matter is promised in a paper now being prepared by Professor Irving Michelson for presentation at the June, 1974 symposium on "Velikovsky and the Recent History of the Solar System" at McMaster University. Michelson has indicated that when electromagnetic effects are taken into account, the orbital-decay process is enormously accelerated.

Cratering Peculiarities

4) Professor Sagan argues that if the moon were extensively cratered as recently as 2700 years ago, the same would have happened to the earth--but the earth shows no such recent scarring; that while one-third of the surface of Mars is covered with craters, the remainder is marked only by signs of tectonic activity, indicative of a long history of cosmic peace for that planet; and that Venus also is heavily cratered and must therefore be of great antiquity. The overall picture is inconsistent with the idea of recent catastrophic encounters among these bodies.

I suggest that this argument suffers from weak underpinnings in the form of several common assumptions: 1) As Sagan says; "craters ... are produced almost exclusively by impact of interplanetary debris"; 2) cratering is a random process, such that "to produce as many craters [for example] as Venus possesses, the cratering process ... must have taken billions of years"; and 3) "the earth would be as plentifully cratered" as any other planet were it not for destructive geological processes in operation here on earth.

A long time before space exploration was even on the drawing boards, most American astronomers were firmly convinced that the moon's craters--the only ones in evidence at the time, except for a very few on the earth--resulted from impacts. So strong was this conviction--and so strong does it remain--that the results of the Apollo Program, in spite of one surprise discovery after another, were pretty much spelled out in advance. When it was all over the taxpayers who had put up the $20-or-so billion to finance the project were assured that it was all worthwhile in that scientists now had a firm understanding of the early history of the solar system. But when one compares the expectations contained in publicity releases on the project from the early 1960's with the results contained in post-mortem accounts, nothing is changed. Lunar rocks show unexplainable remanent magnetism; certain localities on the moon are strongly, and strangely, radioactive; previous notions about cosmic abundances of elements are violated at every turn--but all this is neatly tucked away into a system of foregone conclusions, and everyone is happy.

There is impressive evidence never alluded to by the Apollo teams that many, and perhaps most, of the moon's craters are not products of random impacts by interplanetary debris. It has been remarked for many years that smaller craters always impinge on larger craters, but never the other way around. With a regularity far beyond any possible explanation on the basis of chance, small craters are found perched on the rims of large craters and atop their central peaks (which themselves are accounted for only with great difficulty by the impact hypothesis). Rayed craters, such as Tycho, stretch the credibility of the impact hypothesis to the breaking point. Small craters are statistically overabundant within sinuous rilles, as compared to the obviously older terrain immediately outside the rilles.

At the same time, the conventional alternative to the impact theory--cratering due to volcanism--fares even worse in the face of most of the evidence.

Electrical Cratering

If one approaches the cratering phenomenon from the standpoint of Worlds in Collision, there is no need to imagine that every circular scar on the moon, the earth, or the planets Mars, Venus, and now Mercury, too, is an impact site. Velikovsky's research has turned up innumerable ancient references to cosmic electric discharges. And a reasoned consideration of such a phenomenon, regardless of how discomfiting the idea might be, suggests answers to many of the most puzzling aspects of planetary cratering: the time sequence by which smaller craters always follow and degrade larger craters is conceivably due to diminishing potential differences during a continuous, though probably quite brief, series of discharges; the preference of small craters for the higher points of large craters would seem attributable to concentration of ground charges at such locations in the moments preceding strikes; central peaks could be ascribed to actual uplift of material by electrostatic forces; crater rays would find ready analogs in Lichtenberg figures-surface markings produced by charges converging upon or diverging from a discharge-touchdown point on a nonconducting body; and even sinuous rilles, as I attempt to show in a forthcoming Pensée article, would find explanations for features that defy explanation in more prosaic terms.

All the requisite mechanisms for electrical cratering are known, if imperfectly understood, from similar effects over a wide range of sub-cosmic scales on earth.

If cosmic thunderbolts and other forms of electric discharge can be held accountable for cratering planetary surfaces, then Velikovsky's work suggests an explanation for abundant craters on Venus. In Worlds in Collision he gives a vivid description of a time when discharges repeatedly flashed between the head of the comet Venus and its tail, or train of debris. Professor Sagan's own argument--that Venus would be entirely molten upon ejection from Jupiter--would explain the strange proportions of the craters on Venus--rims only fractions of a mile high, but diameters of many miles. Indeed, when Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists first announced the discovery of these craters, astrogeologist Harold Masursky speculated that their unusual configurations might well indicate that Venus is still largely molten, a condition, incidentally, that would make the greenhouse theory for the high surface temperature of Venus quite superfluous.

The peculiar distribution of cratering on Mars, which finds a "conventional" explanation only in terms of tectonic activity strangely failing to obliterate "primeval" craters from a full third of the planetary surface, also seems amenable to "prediction" in the light of the electrical cratering process. The concentration of craters in limited areas would be entirely in keeping with their production almost simultaneously, or in quick sequence, during a very few "limited engagement" encounters with other cosmic bodies.

I can readily conceive that today Professor Sagan might find the idea of shifting the physics of electricity from a position of almost total obscurity in celestial affairs to one of first-order importance too fanciful for serious consideration. Nevertheless, I would strongly urge him to contemplate, at length and open-mindedly, the consequences and potentialities of adding a whole new spectrum of physical phenomena to his own world-view. Just as he has been a leading thinker in several lines of past and present inquiry, he might yet elect to show his colleagues the way toward a science of "astrophysics" that encompasses all of physics.


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