Velikovsky

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Literary Disasters

One of the most celebrated literary disasters of recent time is the story of A Confederacy of Dunces, a book that was rejected by two dozen publishers before it was printed--and won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. The success did the author, John Kennedy Toole, no good. Despondent over his repeated failures to find a publisher, he had committed suicide. The book was submitted to a publisher by his family and published posthumously.

In 1950 another publishing disaster of a different order occurred. Another author, rejected more than a dozen times, finally found a publisher. Unlike A Confederacy of Dunces, which was a work of merit that was too long neglected, this book was a work of no merit that was hailed as a masterpiece. The author was Immanuel Velikovsky, and the book was Worlds in Collision.

Who Was Velikovsky?

Velikovsky supporters are fairly vociferous and this page has generated a number of exchanges. Thus, interspersed with my original comments are additional notes inspired by some of these exchanges. To any future correspondents, I repeat, respond to the challenge I raise above. If you expect me to be persuaded by Velikovsky, you should be able to tell me what you would accept as refutation of his ideas. Are you open-minded enough to accept that possibility? 

Immanuel Velikovsky was born in Vitebsk, Russia in 1895. After receiving his medical degree, he practiced in Europe and Palestine, then studied psychiatry in Vienna under a pupil of Freud, His involvement with Jewish scholarly journals brought him into contact with Albert Einstein, and the two became lifelong friends. (Velikovsky's supporters refer often to favorable comments Einstein made about Velikovsky, but Einstein had a history of being gulled into embarrassing positions by people eager to use his reputation. Also, one can easily imagine Einstein not wanting to embarrass a good friend. Finally, for all his brilliance in physics, Einstein was simply not very well-informed on astronomy, geology or archaeology, the fields where Velikovsky's errors are most glaring.) Shortly before World War II, Velikovsky came to the U. S. For unknown reasons, he did not enter medical practice but seems to have become a librarian and custodian at Columbia University. (Velikovsky supporters dispute this but Velikovsky himself said that for ten years he "daily opened and closed the Library at Columbia University.") With easy access to a vast library and plenty of time to read, Velikovsky immersed himself in ancient history. He had already been struck by the similarities between the life of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton and the Greek legend of Oedipus, King of Thebes. In conventional chronology, Akhenaton predates the Oedipus legend by centuries.

Akhenaton, incidentally, has been rather romanticized by modern writers. He attempted to do away with the Egyptian pantheon (and the political power of the priests) and institute the worship of a single god, Aton. He appeals both to our monotheistic ideals and our admiration for those who take on the Establishment. Unfortunately, the resemblance between Akhenaton and the ideals we value most in our own culture is superficial at best. Aton-worship was a cold, sterile elitist nature worship. The god in Egyptian myth who heard the plea of the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed was Amon, but Amon was the chief target of Akhenaton's "reform." Akhenaton sought to institute an austere religion that would appeal to the upper-class elite while suppressing the major source of solace to the lower classes. Even the Old Testament, not noted for its tolerance of other religions, seems much more restrained in its attitude toward Egyptian beliefs than it is of other religions, like those of Assyria.

If, as Velikovsky thought, the legend of Oedipus describes Akhenaton, then the established chronologies of the ancient Near East might be seriously in error. Could there be a connection between the erroneous chronologies and the catastrophe stories of the Book of Exodus and the legends of other cultures? Velikovsky found apparent support for this idea in the writings of an Egyptian, Ipuwer, who described turmoil in Egypt in terms very similar to the Book of Exodus. In conventional chronology Ipuwer dates from 500 years after Exodus and is describing a period of political upheaval entirely different from the plagues in the Book of Exodus. Velikovsky became convinced Ipuwer and Exodus were describing a single great natural catastrophe. The result was Worlds in Collision.

Worlds in Collision

The general thesis of Worlds in Collision is that the Earth underwent vast cataclysms in early historic times. The planet Venus, says Velikovsky, is only 3500 years old. It was expelled as a comet from Jupiter, creating the Great Red Spot as a sort of Caesarian scar, then repeatedly passed close to Earth, stopping its rotation, re-starting it, changing its axial tilt, causing the Plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and other disasters chronicled in the world's mythologies. The geologic effects on the Earth were, as one might imagine, immense: tsunamis, great movements of the crust, earthquakes, vast outpourings of lava. Organic chemicals drifted down from Venus to supply the Israelites with manna and fill the world's oil reservoirs. (Golda Meir, late Prime Minister of Israel, once remarked that it took Moses forty years to lead the Hebrews through the desert to the only place in the Middle East that had no oil!) Finally, Venus settled down into the most circular orbit of any of the planets. A few centuries later, Mars went on a smaller rampage, passing close to Earth and causing various disasters. Velikovsky developed these theories at length in Worlds in Collision and its sequels, Earth in Upheaval and Ages in Chaos.

The Response to Velikovsky

Velikovsky's images of great catastrophes and sweeping events, skipping from place to place and culture to culture, had a vast appeal. Not only did the public like Worlds in Collision, but even sober literary critics like Horace Kallen, Clifton Fadiman, Fulton Oursler and John J. O'Neill acclaimed its scope and drama. To American science, under attack by Joe McCarthy's Congressional committee and swamped by a wave of pseudoscience that included the big post-war flying saucer craze and would later spawn the Bridey Murphy reincarnation  mania as well, the public and literary acclaim for Velikovsky was the last straw. Harlow Shapley, a noted Harvard astronomer, informed Macmillan Publishers that he would no longer publish his astronomy text through them as long as they published Worlds in Collision. Other scientists followed suit. Embarrassed, Macmillan turned the rights to Worlds in Collision over to Doubleday, which by now had an instant best-seller on its hands.

Scientists are nearly unanimous now that the boycott of Macmillan was a tactical disaster. The controversy guaranteed that Worlds in Collision would top the charts and it cast Velikovsky in the role of persecuted genius, oppressed and censored by an unimaginative establishment. No one, however, not even Shapley, ever suggested that Velikovsky be censored or prevented from publishing. The issue was how Velikovsky should publish. Macmillan owed its reputation as a publisher in part to the work of authors like Shapley, and customers had come to expect high standards of quality from their scholarly works. Yet Worlds in Collision was never reviewed by a scientist, and to publish it under conditions that might lead the general public to think it belonged on the same level as Macmillan's other academic works was a serious lapse of publishing standards bordering on fraud. The "good" news, if you can call it that, is that a similar boycott today would be answered with "don't let the door hit you on the way out." Publishers have discovered that junk science is so lucrative that they would not hesitate to dump a reputable work if they were presented with an ultimatum.

The Physical Evidence

Could Velikovsky's ideas be true? How can we test them? If there were some obvious physical mechanism for moving planets around and changing their rotations the way Velikovsky claims, we might have reason to believe him. It would take as much energy as the Sun emits in a year to expel Venus from Jupiter. The normal laws of planetary motion are known well enough for us to send spacecraft to Saturn and beyond, arriving only a few miles off target and a few seconds off schedule after a trip of a billion miles and years in duration, but the normal laws of planetary motion will not move planets the way Velikovsky says they moved. Velikovsky postulated electromagnetic forces, but there is no known way such forces could originate in the Solar system. There are many thousands of known double stars in orbit around one another, but we have never seen any undergo the sort of violent orbital changes Velikovsky claims took place in our solar System. The laws of physics offer little encouragement to Velikovsky.

If electromagnetic forces can affect the orbits of the planets, it's very unlikely that they turn on and then completely off. There ought to be at least some effect now. The orbits of interplanetary spacecraft would be observably affected if that were so, The Pioneer  spacecraft, beyond the orbit of Pluto, are deviating very slightly from their predicted path, a deviation that seems due to the way they re-radiate heat from the distant Sun. Even a miniscule electromagnetic effect would be noticed, if it existed.

Is there physical evidence for the catastrophes? There are large areas where lava has covered vast expanses, such as the Columbia Plateau of the U.S. or the Deccan region of western India. Often, though, the lava flows are separated by layers of soil formed by weathering or water-laid sediment, indicating a long interval between flows. The flows were laid down in a short time geologically, but a long time in human terms. A thousand lava flows over a million years comes to one every thousand years. Velikovsky cites these lava flows as evidence, but the physical evidence itself says no. Radiometric dating places the Columbia flows 15 million years ago and the Deccan flows about 70 million, not 3500 years ago. Nowhere on the earth is there evidence for vast volcanic outpourings, floods, tsunamis or fracturing of the crust 3500 years ago.

Catastrophe Myths

What evidence, then, is there? The principal line of evidence, and the one that persuades many people, is Velikovsky's vast array of legends. Like many a Biblical fundamentalist, Velikovsky interprets, adds, and deletes liberally while insisting he is adhering literally to the evidence. Legends of horned monsters in the sky are interpreted as references to the crescent Venus seen at close range; scaly celestial beings are assumed to refer to cratered planets, and so on. A major embarrassment to Velikovsky (and believers in the Biblical Deluge) is the absence of flood legends from Africa. Velikovsky the psychiatrist interprets this absence as "collective scotoma" (blind spot), a collective amnesia designed to repress the memory of a great trauma. Omitted details have been suppressed or forgotten, extraneous details are later additions, and so on. Given such an array of data and freedom to interpret, the legends can be made to fit any theory.

Certain legendary themes do crop up around the world, and disaster legends are common. Some, like the Native American legends connected with Crater Lake, correspond closely enough to an actual geologic catastrophe to be possible accounts of the event. Many catastrophe myths undoubtedly recall real but local disasters. We should also not discount the possibility that the legends are ingenious interpretations, attempts to explain how a remarkable landscape feature came to be. Primitive peoples may lack advanced technology, but they're not stupid. (Indeed, a subtle racism pervades most historical pseudoscience - pre-technological peoples were too dumb to have any ingenious or creative ideas.) Legends also travel by diffusion; everyone likes a good adventure story, all the more so if the story-teller adds local color. Hardly a year goes by that some radio station doesn't do a remake of War of The Worlds, adapted for its listening area. The book by H. G. Wells originally described an attack on England, the famous 1939 broadcast put the landing outside New York, and every major city in the U.S. has been "attacked" since. Every good story-teller likes to add to his repertoire, and there's no reason ancient story-tellers should have been any different. They were no less adaptive and inventive than we.

The problem with using legends is that they can be interpreted in so many ways. Scientific creationists use much of Velikovsky's material in support of the Biblical Deluge. As science writer Isaac Asimov pointed out, legends of talking animals are as common as catastrophe myths. If we accept the catastrophe myths as literally true, then is it not also possible that animals once could talk? If the talking animal stories are inventions, why not the catastrophe stories? Here again we encounter the double standard of the pseudoscientist; we have two types of myths with no apparent reason to prefer one above the other, yet one is promoted arbitrarily to the level of scientific evidence while the other is relegated to the status of mere imagination.

But Velikovsky makes it all look so consistent. Surely he couldn't put all those legends together so neatly unless his theory was true? Variations on this theme come up with just about every type of pseudoscience. The startling truth is that theories that hang together pretty well logically and are reasonably consistent with most of the evidence are a dime a dozen in science. Its easy--anyone can construct one. The key to the problem lies in the qualifiers "pretty well," "reasonably consistent ," and "most of the evidence." The difference between a mediocre theory and a good one is that the good theory is as nearly as possible entirely consistent with all the evidence. You can make any theory look good if you are free to disregard or rearrange key bits of evidence. All you have to do is rearrange the chronology of the Near East and deny conventional dating methods and you can come up with a marvelously consistent catastrophe theory. A successful theory also provides sound reasons for choosing it over rival theories; it either shows that the rival theories contain fatal flaws, or it so far outperforms them that there is no longer any comparison. Velikovsky meets none of these criteria: he has to deny or evade well-established scientific findings, he gives us no reason for accepting his interpretation of the legends over many other equally plausible interpretations, and his theory is not so far superior to existing theories that we should choose it despite its flaws.

One of the fundamental problems revealed by Velikovsky's work is that most people seem to have no idea what constitutes a logical proof. Velikovsky himself seems not to. Nowhere in any of Velikovsky's works do we find anything remotely like a really rigorous proof. Velikovsky's method, which is like that of many scientists, is what one writer termed "the method of multiply convergent irrelevancies." Velikovsky piles up myths and physical evidence that he claims is of catastrophic origin as if that, in itself, constitutes proof. A real proof that myths reflect real events would include a complete listing of cultures examined, themes found in their nature myths, and mention of any contrary myths or significant omissions. The myths would be presented in context so that it would be clear what exactly each culture really meant by the myths. This data would all be available and documented so that scientists with other interpretations could evaluate the data. Then there would be a comprehensive listing of physical evidence relevant to the hypothesis, including contrary evidence. Contrary evidence would have to be explained (not explained away or ignored) or reconciled with the hypothesis. In particular, there ought to be many local natural features where the physical origin and the local traditions about the formation of the feature are consistent. Would this be a massive effort? Yes, but given the ten years Velikovsky put into his works, it could have been done.

Successful Predictions?

Velikovsky's fans have pointed to a large number of allegedly successful predictions by Velikovsky. However, on closer examination, there's a lot less to these predictions than meets the eye. For one thing, many of Velikovsky's predictions are only vaguely related to later events. Discoveries of interplanetary and galactic magnetic fields are supposed to vindicate Velikovsky. After all, he did speculate that electromagnetic forces played a role in altering the orbits of the planets at a time when few astronomers paid much attention to magnetic fields. Velikovsky speculated widely, and his followers sometimes insist that Velikovsky deserves credit for any discovery made in any field on which he ever speculated. However, interplanetary magnetic fields are very weak: they can affect the motions of charged particles emitted from the Sun, but the evidence for magnetic fields capable of altering the motion of a planet radically in a matter of days or even years is exactly the same as it was when Worlds in Collision was first published: zero.

Recent tracking of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft has revealed extremely tiny departures in their trajectory from a perfectly Newtonian trajectory. Some physicists have suggested that there might be a new kind of physical force at work. However, since no deviations have showed up in the paths of the planets, it seems that the cause lies in the spacecraft themselves. The best guess is that the spacecraft radiate heat asymmetrically, resulting in a tiny extra thrust on one side (and it's tiny). Surely if electrical and magnetic fields affect the orbits of the planets, it ought to be happening to some extent all the time, and it would take only a very tiny effect to be measurable in the motions of the planets.

Velikovsky's supporters refer again and again to Velikovsky's address to the Princeton Graduate College Forum on October 14, 1953, in which he predicted, eighteen months before the actual discovery, that Jupiter should emit radio waves. Remarkably, they never quote what Velikovsky actually said during what is supposed to have been one of his greatest moments. Ferte' refers to the discovery of radio emissions from Jupiter, "supposedly a cold body encased in thousands of miles of ice." Evidently Velikovsky expected Jupiter to emit radio waves for the same reason Venus does--because it is hot. Any object above absolute zero will emit radio waves, so a "prediction" of this sort is a safe, so-what prediction. Jupiter actually emits radio waves because charged particles from the Sun are trapped and accelerated by Jupiter's magnetic field. Velikovsky no more foresaw this discovery than anyone else. In no sense of the word did Velikovsky make a real prediction. Here again we find a total absence of anything resembling a rigorous, step-by-step proof, or any evidence that Velikovsky and his supporters understand what a real proof is. A real prediction that Jupiter should emit radio waves would include a specific mention of the physical process responsible, as well as observational or theoretical reasons why that mechanism should be present on Jupiter.

What then is left for Velikovsky? He did predict Venus would be hotter than anyone expected, and that's about all. Lynn Rose, one of Velikovsky's staunch supporters, suggested three tests for evaluating the validity of a theory.

Scientific Bloopers

One recent correspondent asked me: "Please tell me who might have influenced your opinion on the gentleman.". My reply:

I've obviously read what Martin Gardner, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, among others, have had to say about him, but basically I reject Velikovsky because his science is junk. I don't need somebody else to tell me whether something is good or bad science. [This correspondent seems to feel I wouldn't regard Velikovsky as bad science if I hadn't been told by some authority figure. I consider the notion insulting.] For example, in the first few pages of Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky describes the standard paradigm of astronomy as saying that gravity pulls a planet toward the Sun (true) but the gravitational pull is balanced by a "push" (his word) outward. That's just plain incompetent. The planet's inertia causes it to tend to move in a straight line. If you could magically turn off gravity, the planet would fly off in a straight line tangential to its orbit. Gravity pulls the planet inward, and the balance between gravity and inertia keeps the planet in its orbit. Nothing is "pushing" the planet outward. If Velikovsky wants to challenge the existing paradigm, we ought at least to expect him to describe the existing paradigm accurately. An error that gross so early in the book tells me I'm dealing with junk, not science.

Velikovskians vilify Harlow Shapley for not reading Velikovsky's book. But when a book contains obvious incompetencies that can be spotted just at random, you don't need to read the whole thing to conclude it's junk. We might call this the "pony fallacy" after the story of a father who tries to cure his son's excessive optimism by giving him a pile of manure for his birthday. The child gleefully starts digging in it, saying "with all this manure, there's got to be a pony somewhere around here!" In real life, when you find manure, it indicates only the likely presence of more manure.

Offsetting Velikovsky's successful predictions are a host of wrong predictions and outright errors of fact. Velikovsky claimed that hydrocarbons from Venus' cometary tail fell to earth to form our petroleum reservoirs. Despite the term "oil pool," petroleum does not collect in low spots as Velikovsky's model predicts; it collects beneath impervious rocks as water in the pore spaces of rocks flushes the oil upward. Velikovsky predicted Venus would have a hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere. It does not; Venus' atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. Velikovsky's supporters have amended his prediction after the fact to Venus having some hydrocarbons, but even this prediction has not been borne out. Velikovsky claimed, according to Ferte', that Mercury was of recent origin and was anomalously hot. Mercury is not anomalously hot, and its rotation is locked to the Sun--3 rotations for every two revolutions around the Sun. Such a rotation lock could only have arisen if Mercury had been subject to eons of tidal braking by the Sun. Mercury's day and night side temperatures are exactly what we would expect on an airless world with Mercury's rotation and distance from the Sun.

During his discussion of hydrocarbons, Velikovsky interjects discussions of carbohydrates so casually that he creates the clear impression he doesn't know the difference between the two. When Isaac Asimov pointed this out in an essay, Velikovskians became furious. One asked me how we know hydrocarbons can't naturally convert to carbohydrates. The best answer is that if it did happen to any great extent, who would care about oil spills? The hydrocarbons would convert by some means or other to carbohydrates, be consumed by organisms, and that would be that. Another problem: carbohydrates contain oxygen, hydrocarbons don't. Most natural processes that combine oxygen with hydrocarbons end up breaking them down to carbon dioxide and water, not making carbohydrates. Surely if some purported conversion process could operate on a scale capable of producing the Israelites' manna, it should be happening all over the place. If it did happen, it should be easy to reverse the reaction and generate hydrocarbons from biomass. Energy crisis solved! And a thorough reading of the entire passage, in context, reveals not a shred of evidence that Velikovsky realized there is a difference between hydrocarbons and carbohydrates.

In a short article, entitled When Was The Moon's Surface Last Molten? Velikovsky explains away ancient radiometric dates (three to four billion years) on lunar rock samples. Velikovsky notes, correctly, that heat does not affect the decay rates of radioactive atoms. Therefore, he argues, the Moon' s surface could have been largely molten only 3500 years ago without affecting radiometric ages! Now one critical assumption in radiometric dating is that isotopes of a given chemical element (say Strontium 86, 87, and 88) are uniformly mixed to begin with. This is certainly true in a liquid, like molten rock, and even true in solid rocks at high temperatures. Heating does not affect the decay rates of atoms like Rubidium 87, which decays to Strontium 87, but it does redistribute isotopes uniformly. Essentially, melting a rock resets the clock to zero, and the radiometric age of a rock is the last time its isotopes were reshuffled. If the Moon had been molten 3500 years ago, lunar samples would yield very young ages. Velikovsky clearly does not understand radiometric dating.

Velikovsky inverted almost everything in planetary astronomy; the orbits of planets are believed stable, so Velikovsky makes them unstable. Astronomers believed Venus to be temperate and Jupiter cold, so Velikovsky makes them both hot. The Moon is considered geologically dead, so Velikovsky makes it recently active. The principal force on the planets is said to be gravity, so Velikovsky invokes electromagnetic fields, too. Since astronomy in 1950 (and every other time as well) was imperfect, some generally-accepted ideas were bound to be wrong. If you formulate a theory that controverts many commonly-held ideas, you are certain to be able later on to point with pride to some spectacular cases where you were right and the experts were wrong, especially if you have a coterie of loyal fans who are eager to accept anything even remotely correct as a successful prediction. There will be many more cases where you were wrong, but then, even the experts are wrong occasionally.

Recent history provides a good example of this sort of "success." Historians are unanimous in saying Hitler's fanatical refusal to retreat cost Germany dearly. They also generally agree that his refusal to retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1941 saved the German army from being routed. Did Hitler make a brilliant decision? It's far more likely that he simply blundered into a situation where his normal ineptitude happened purely by accident to coincide with reality. The occasional successes of pseudoscientists are of exactly the same variety.

Science Goofs Again

Having made a serious tactical error in the boycott of Worlds in Collision, science compounded it in 1974 when the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a symposium on Velikovsky's theories. To Velikovsky's supporters the symposium was variously an admission of guilt, an acknowledgment that Velikovsky's ideas had profound effects, or a last attempt by the Establishment to smash Velikovsky. The participants in the AAAS Symposium, held in February, 1974, were Norman Storer, a sociologist; Peter Huber, mathematician; Velikovsky; J. Derral Mulholland, a well-known astronomer; Carl Sagan, an even better-known astronomer; and Irving Michelson, aerospace engineer. Which side came out better depends on whose account you read: the AAAS volume, entitled Scientists Confront Velikovsky, or a pro-Velikovsky account by C. J. Ransom called The Age of Velikovsky.

Viewer's of Carl Sagan's famous Cosmos series are no doubt baffled by a weird digression in Episode 4, Heaven and Hell, where Sagan discusses Velikovsky briefly. Cosmos was in production not long after the AAAS symposium, and the memories were fresh in Sagan's mind. However, the effect in Cosmos is disjointed - viewers unfamiliar with Velikovsky are left wondering "what was that all about?" There's not enough background given for viewers to understand the topic. It's easily the worst editorial mistake in the whole series.

Velikovsky died November 17, 1980, saluted by Isaac Asimov as the "Grand Old Man of the Fringe." A lively interest in Velikovsky continued for some years after his death, especially in engineering circles, and as noted earlier, he still has adherents. A poll conducted by Industrial Research in the early 1980's showed 80% of the respondents believing that Velikovsky deserved more serious attention.


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