Robert Todd Carroll
Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision
In 1950, Immanuel Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision, a book which asserts, among many other things, that the planet Venus was a comet until rather recently. Such a claim, on its face, is not preposterous, nor would it be likely to raise much of a fuss among scientists were it proposed on the basis of scientific evidence and argument. Velikovsky argues for his claim, however, on the basis of cosmological myths of ancient peoples. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that the goddess Athena (whom Velikovsky identifies with the planet Venus) sprang from the head of Zeus (whom Velikovsky identifies with the planet Jupiter). This myth, along with others from ancient China, India, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, etc., are used to support the claim that "Venus was expelled as a comet and then changed to a planet after contact with a number of members of our solar system."[Worlds in Collision (New York: Dell, 1972), p. 182.]
Furthermore, Velikovsky then uses his Venus-the-comet claim to explain several events reported in the Old Testament as well as to tie together a number of ancient stories about flies. For example,
Well, who can deny that vermin have extraordinary survival skills? But these cosmic hitchhikers are in a class all of their own, I think. How much energy would have been needed to expel a "comet" the size of earth and how hot must Venus have been to have only cooled down to its current surface temperature of 750o K during the last 3,500 years? To ask such questions would be to engage in scientific discussion, but one will find very little of that sort of discussion in Worlds in Collision. What one finds instead are exercises in comparative mythology, philology and theology which together make up Velikovsky's planetology. That is not to say that his work is not an impressive exercise and demonstration of ingenuity and erudition. It is very impressive, but it isn't science. It isn't even history.
What Velikovsky does isn't science because he does not start with what is known and then use ancient myths to illustrate or illuminate what has been discovered. Instead, he is indifferent to the laws of nature or he assumes that the laws of nature could have been different just a few millennia ago. And he seems to take it for granted that the claims of ancient myths should be used to support or challenge the claims of modern astronomy and cosmology. In short, like the creationists in their arguments against evolution, he starts with the assumption that the Bible is a foundation and guide for scientific truth. Where the views of modern astrophysicists or astronomers conflict with certain passages of the Old Testament, the moderns are assumed to be wrong. Velikovsky, however, goes much further than the creationists in his faith; for Velikovsky has faith in all ancient myths, legends and folk tales. Because of his uncritical and selective acceptance of ancient myths, he cannot be said to be doing history, either. Where myths can be favorably interpreted to fit his hypothesis, he does not fail to cite them. The contradictions of ancient myths regarding the origin of the cosmos, the people, etc. are trivialized. If a myth fits his hypotheses, he accepts it and interprets it to his liking. Where the myth doesn't fit, he ignores it. In short, he seems to make no distinction between myth, legends and history.
He is certainly ingenious. Not only are his explanations of parallels among ancient myths very entertaining, interesting and apparently plausible, his explanation of universal collective amnesia of these worlds in collision is the one I find most amusing. Imagine we're on earth 3,500 years ago when an object about the same size as our planet is coming at us from outer space! It whacks us a couple of times, spins our planet around so that its orbit stops and starts again, creates great heat and upheavals from within the planet and yet the most anyone can remember about these catastrophes are things like "....and the sun stood still" [Joshua 10: 12-13] and other stories of darkness, storms, upheavals, plagues, floods, snakes and bulls in the sky, etc. No one in ancient times mentions an object the size of earth colliding with us. You'd think someone amongst these ancient peoples, who all loved to tell stories, would have told their grandchildren about it. And someone would have passed it on. But no one on earth seems to remember such an event.
Velikovsky explains why our ancestors did not record these events as they occurred in a chapter entitled "A Collective Amnesia" [p. 302 ff.] He reverts to the old Freudian notion of repressed memory and neurosis. These events were just too traumatic and horrible to bear, so we all buried the memory of them deep in our subconscious minds. Our ancient myths are neurotic expressions of memories and dreams based on real experiences.
By comparing his work to psychoanalysis, Velikovsky speak more truth than he imagined. The typically unscientific theories and fanciful explanations of psychoanlysis are only a bit harder to swallow than Velikovsky's own fancies. Both are rooted in imagination, pseudoscience and hubris.
It is not surprising that when one thumbs through any recent scientific book on cosmology, no mention is made of Velikovsky or his theories. His disciples blame this treatment of their hero as proof of a conspiracy in the scientific community to suppress ideas which oppose their own. The evil leader of this evil conspiracy is said to be Carl Sagan, one of my heroes. Another of my heroes, Stephen Jay Gould, is also considered to be part of this conspiracy against Velikovsky.
Charles Ginenthal wrote a book on Sagan and Velikovsky claiming Sagan made a "scathing" and deceitful attack on Ginenthal's hero. This same Ginenthal is part of another project to attack establishment science as conspiring to ruin and minimize Velikovsky: Stephen J. Gould and Immanuel Velikovsky, Essays in the Continuing Velikovsky Affair. What Sagan did was to treat Velikovsky as if he were a scientist making scientific claims. What was "scathing" about Sagan's arguments was that he demonstrated that the events Velikovsky described were extremely improbable. Velikovsky's defenders claim that Sagan was "dishonest" and knowingly did "bad science" to make Velikovsky look bad. Sagan never replied to these critics, as far as I know. By not even mentioning Velikovsky in his Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan seems to have turned up his nose at the Velikovskians, as if to say that they and their hero are insignificant now.
Sagan published a critique of Velikovsky's central claims some twenty-nine years after the publication of Worlds in Collision [Sagan, pp. 81-127]. In addition to the claims already mentioned above, Velikovsky claimed that the Venus-comet also caused the Nile to turn red, and produced earthquakes that leveled Egyptian (but not Hebrew) buildings. The comet also caused the Red Sea to part when the Israelites were being chased by the Egyptian army, allowing the former to escape. The comet also left a trail of hydrocarbons or carbohydrates (the text differs from place to place) in the sky, which fell on the desert for forty years, providing the wandering Jews with either bread or motor oil as their `manna' from heaven.
According to Velikovsky, the comet also caused the Earth to stop rotating (when Joshua said the sun stood still), assisting Joshua in battle. The movement of Mars accounts for the destruction of the Assyrian army by the Israelites. Then, somehow, the Earth began rotating again exactly as before.
One of the characteristics of a reasonable explanation is that it be a likely story. To be reasonable, it is not enough that an explanation simply be a possible account of phenomena. It has to be a likely account. To be likely, an account usually must be in accordance with current knowledge and beliefs, with the laws and principles of the field in which the explanation is made. An explanation of how two chemicals interact, for example, would be unreasonable if it violated basic principles in chemistry. Those principles, while not infallible, have not been developed lightly, but after generations of testing, observations, refutations, more testing, more observations, etc. To go against the established principles of a field puts a great burden of proof on the one who goes against those principles. This is true in all fields which have sets of established principles and laws. The novel theory, hypothesis, explanation, etc., which is inconsistent with already established principles and accepted theories, has the burden of proof. The proponent of the novel idea must provide very good reasons for rejecting established principles. This is not because the established views are considered infallible; it is because this is the only reasonable way to proceed. Even if the established theory is eventually shown to be false and the upstart theory eventually takes its place as current dogma, it would still have been unreasonable to have rejected the old theory and accepted the new one in the absence of any compelling reason to do so.
According to Sagan, some of Velikovsky's claims violate principles of Newtonian dynamics, laws of conservation of energy and angular momentum--all of which are rather firmly established in modern physics. Sagan argues against Velikovsky's claim that Jupiter ejected a comet which became Venus by examining the amount of kinetic energy needed for a body with the mass of Venus to escape from Jupiter's gravitational field. Sagan shows that the kinetic energy needed would heat the comet to several thousands of degrees. The `comet' never would have gotten off the launching pad; it would have melted! If the melted `comet' had been ejected into space, it would have been as a rain of "small dust particles and atoms, which does not describe the planet Venus particularly well."[Sagan, p. 97] Sagan also points out that escape from the gravitational field of Jupiter requires a velocity of at least 60 kilometers per second. But if the velocity is greater than 63 km/sec, the comet will be hurled out of our solar system. "There is only a narrow and therefore unlikely range of velocities consistent with Velikovsky's hypothesis."[Sagan, p. 98] Such energy is "equivalent to all the energy radiated by the sun to space in an entire year, and one hundred million times more powerful than the largest solar flare ever observed....We are asked to believe," says Sagan, "without any further evidence or discussion, an ejection event vastly more powerful than anything on the sun, which is a far more energetic object than Jupiter."[Sagan,m p. 98]
The essence of Velikovsky's unreasonableness lies in the fact that he does not provide scientific evidence for his most extravagant claims, some of which turn out to be correct. His claims are based on assuming cosmological facts must conform to mythology. He rejects current physical laws on the grounds that they are not necessarily invariable. In general, he offers no support for the plausibility of his theory beyond an ingenious argument from comparative mythology. Of course, his scenario is logically possible, in the sense that it is not self-contradictory. To be scientifically plausible, however, Velikovsky's theory must provide some compelling reason for accepting it other than the fact that it helps explain some events described in the Bible or makes Mayan legends fit with Egyptian ones.
Now, whether Sagan treated Velikovsky unfairly or not, you will have to decide for yourself. Read Sagan's and Gigenthal's accounts, if you can bear to waste any more time on this issue. I suppose I should mention that Henry Bauer does not even mention Sagan in his lengthy entry on Velikovsky in the Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, unless he is making an oblique reference to Sagan when he writes about "some sloppy or invalid technical discussions by critics purporting to disprove Velikovsky's ideas." For my part, I had never heard of Velikovsky until I read Broca's Brain. What interested me about Sagan's account of Velikovsky was not the science, good or bad, honest or deceitful, done by Sagan, but the scientific indifference and incompetence of Velikovsky. What still interests me are those who offer theories as scientific but who seem ignorant or indifferent to what science is or what it has accomplished and established. Velikovsky seemed satisfied that his study of myths established events which science must explain, regardless of whether or not those events clashed with the beliefs of the vast majority of the scientific community. In this he is like L. Ron Hubbard proposing engrams which require cellular memory while not indicating that he was aware that this needed to be explained in light of current scientific knowledge about memory, the brain, etc. Both are like the so-called "creation scientists" who would create science anew if needed to justify the truth of their myths.
See related entry on Zecharia Sitchin.
Bauer, Henry H. Beyond Velikovsky, (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 1984).
Bauer, Henry. H. "Immanuel Velikovsky," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996). $104.95
Friedlander, Michael. The Conduct of Science (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972).
Friedlander, Michael W. At the Fringes of Science, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press,1995). $28.00
Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957), ch. 3. $6.36
Goldsmith, Donald (Ed.) Scientists Confront Velikovsky. (Foreword by Isaac Asimov) (Cornell University Press, 1977).
Sagan, Carl. Broca's Brain (New York: Random House, 1979), ch. 7, "Venus and Dr. Velikovsky". $4.79
Robert Todd Carroll