What I’ve Been Reading: Velikovsky

Worlds in Collision, Immanuel Velikovsky, 1950

Earth in Upheaval, Velikovsky, 1952

Scientists Confront Velikovsky, Goldsmith, Sagan, Storer, Huber, Mulholland and Morrison, 1977

I occasionally like to consume the works of crackpots as a form of entertainment, and Velikovsky has a reputation as one of the greatest. Having found two of his three books (the third sounding relatively uninteresting, and I didn’t learn of it until too late) and a rebuttal by noted scientists, I read them back to back.

To sum up, Velikovsky contends that in historical times (less than 4,000 years ago), the planet Jupiter spat out a giant comet.  On two occasions, around 1,500 BC and 700 BC, this comet made very close – perhaps even physically grazing – approaches to the Earth, and also knocked Mars around a bit, causing Mars to also have a close encounter with Earth.  After all this, Mars settled down into its present orbit and the comet assumed a circular orbit and became what we now know as the planet Venus.

These close approaches to Earth caused the major biblical catastrophes; gravitational effects caused massive tides, accounting for a variety of flood myths around the world.  Material falling from the comet’s tail became the “manna from heaven” of the biblical tale, and the rains of vermin also fell from the comet.  The close contact also caused slippages of the Earth’s crust, causing its rotation to appear to pause or change direction, changing the length of the day, and moving many lands out of their accustomed climates, accounting for the flash-freezing of the Siberian mammoths, the massive anachronistic animal boneyards found in various places, and the misalignment of a few buildings that were notably constructed to have calendrical functions.  Interplanetary lightning bolts and tidal effects caused the moon to melt and bubble, the bubbles being the cause of the visible circular scars we call craters.

There’s much, much more but these are the main features of his work.  To back this up he cites a lot of mythology from around the world and points out selected geological oddities that he believes support his case.  I’m not doing this part justice, but there are three books full of this stuff – it’s not easily dismissed, as the rebuttal shows.

(Edit: In the interest of not presenting things back to front, I should mention that I think Velikovsky’s intent was to reconcile a large number of historical and mythological catastrophes, and the planetary billiards theory is what he came up with to accomplish that purpose.)

In reading Velikovsky’s books, I found his list of geological anomalies quite interesting and was fascinated by his recounting of relevant myths from around the world, and the exciting way he made connections between them.  He’s quite a good author and gives the impression of having thoroughly researched everything he writes about.  However, he did frequently make one mistake that is a personal bugbear of mine – he asserted things as proven that were not.  Verbal handwaving crafted to flummox the credulous.  There were also several claims made that I found laughably wrong, though they may not have been known wrong back at time of writing.  If you weren’t watching for these things, you could easily be taken in – he writes like a popular scientist, has footnotes and references and all that.  By the end there was such a long laundry list of doubts in my mind that I had taken to reading it as an amusing alternate universe history text – a work of fiction – rather than a serious attempt at science.

But it was apparently a serious attempt at science, and it became an interesting phenomenon that drew the attention of serious scientists not because of its content but because of the way things went down.  Velikovsky was rightly laughed out of all real scientific publications, so instead published his work himself, as these books.  They became popular with nonscientists, and over time quite a hubbub arose over how this outsider with a good theory was being ignored by the ivory tower scientific establishment, who don’t like to admit error – this in itself a sore point of public misunderstanding about how science works.  History is full, they said, of outsiders who were later proven right, therefore Velikovsky must be right – PLUS, his work makes the Bible and a lot of other mythologies all work out!  Surely that’s of great value and shouldn’t be ignored.

Goldsmith, Sagan and the others organized a conference and invited Velikovsky and his supporters to present papers in support of his work, and also themselves presented papers that demonstrated how some of his key claims could not possibly be true.  The major works against are presented in the third book on my list above, and they’re pretty soundly damning.  For example, actual math demonstrating that even if somehow Jupiter could have ejected a mass the size of Venus, the amount of energy required to do so would have vaporized the mass in the process.  And even if it didn’t, the probability of this mass having multiple near-collisions with Earth and Mars within a span of two thousand years is trillions to one against.  And even then, there’s no known way to get such a body into a circular orbit afterwards, using what we know to have been present in the inner solar system at the time.

This should have put the last coffin nail in his theories, but he and his followers continued to try to shore up his crumbling edifice long after. It probably was the end of his general public popularity though.

An interesting comment made in the introductory material of the third book is that all of the astronomers etc. who reviewed Velikovsky’s work found his astronomical claims absurd but were fascinated (as was I) by his seemingly credible connection of many interesting worldwide mythologies, whereas the historians who reviewed his work found the history part worthless but thought the astronomy was credible.  Velikovsky himself had scientific training, though neither as an astronomer, historian nor physicist.  It just goes to show the importance of relevant expertise.

None of the papers in the third book really addressed the mythology – the closest was one that explained why his dates for some historical events couldn’t be right – and I would actually like to read a similar debunking of the mythology because I found it tantalizing.

Overall, entertaining reads on two counts: Reading the story of Velikovsky’s failed assault on the imagined “ivory tower” of science provided an interesting and unexpected perspective on the way we view science in relation to pseudoscience today, and secondly, Velikovsky’s works themselves are very entertaining if read as a history text that dropped out of a bizarre alternate universe.


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