Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) is best-known for his controversial notions about the recent history of the Solar System, but there’s a bit more to be said.
He was born in Russia and he moved to several places before settling down in the US in 1939. He studied medicine and Freudian psychoanalysis along the way, but soon after arriving in the US, he started working on the ideas that would make him (in)famous.
He got some ideas on revising the history of the eastern-Mediterranean lands in the centuries around 1000 BCE, history that included the Biblical Exodus and Joshua’s Sun miracle. Turning to those events, he got the idea that some recent planet-scale catastrophes had happened, and that they were remembered not only in the Bible, but in lots of other myths and legends. In his mind, here was an untapped resource of observations that could be interpreted to reconstruct those big events.
He published various documents in the 1940’s, including Cosmos Without Gravitation in 1946. In that work, he described lots of gravity-defying effects and he proposed an electromagnetic theory of gravity.
Never mind that none of those effects cause any real difficulty for mainstream science. Gravity can be overpowered by other interactions.
In 1950, he published the first book of his ideas, Worlds in Collision. His publisher was a company that did a lot of business in textbooks, Macmillan. He proposed that around 1500 – 1200 BCE, Jupiter spewed out a giant comet, an event remembered as the birth of Athena from Zeus’s head. This comet then made several near-collisions with the Earth, making the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the events around Moses receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai, the rains of manna, and the stopping the Earth’s rotation for Joshua. This giant comet then had a near-collision with Mars and it settled down to become the planet Venus. Mars also had some near-collisions with the Earth before settling down.
The Earth passed through the comet’s tail a few times, and that tail produced the Ten Plagues of Egypt, deposits of crude oil, and manna. From “carbon and hydrogen gases” came hydrocarbons and carbohydrates.
When the book’s publication was announced, many astronomers thought that it was a hoax. But it was real, and it got effusively admiring reviews in many mass-market publications. The astronomers became outraged and they boycotted Macmillan. Velikovsky moved publication to Doubleday, which lacked a textbook department, and which was thus much less vulnerable. Ever since, many of Velikovsky’s supporters have pointed to that boycotting as a terrible injustice, almost as if it is evidence for the truth of his theories.
Velikovsky published his revision of ancient history, Ages in Chaos, in 1952 and Earth in Upheaval in 1955. The latter book was an attempt to revive the catastrophist geology that was popular in the early 19th cy. In later years, he published a few more, Peoples of the Sea in 1977 and Rameses II and His Time in 1978, but for the most part, he had preferred to sit on his unpublished manuscripts. Since his death, however, some of them have been published. He claimed that the Earth had once been a satellite of Saturn, and that Noah’s Flood had been caused by Saturn becoming a nova.
The Velikovsky issue quieted down but got restarted in the late 1960’s, as spacecraft were sent to Venus and Mars. Venus’s surface was much hotter than what one might expect from its distance from the Sun, and Velikovsky claimed that he had predicted that, along with various other discoveries. Velikovsky got new followers then, followers who considered him a vindicated martyr, a Galileo figure. Velikovsky himself went further, comparing himself to Giordano Bruno.
In 1974, the American Association for the Advancement of Science arranged a conference on Velikovsky’s ideas, and he, his supporters, and his critics gave talks there. Carl Sagan was one of them, and he recalled preparing his talk. He discussed Worlds in Collision with a distinguished professor of Semitic literatures, and that professor considered Velikovsky’s work with those literatures to be nonsense, while being impressed with the astronomy. Carl Sagan had the opposite impression.
That suggests to me a certain difficulty with evaluating Velikovsky’s works. A thorough effort would require a massive interdisciplinary effort, and most of his critics have focused on some of the more important parts of his hypotheses. However, they quickly find elementary mistakes in what they are familiar with, and Velikovsky had not been good at taking into account those criticisms. So most critics have not thought that it’s worth the effort to go much further.
Some Velikovskians have portrayed the Velikovsky controversy as one between catastrophism and uniformitarianism, as if it was some great philosophical issue. Velikovsky was, of course, on the catastrophist side, and he had even tried to revive early 19th cy. catastrophist geology. But catastrophism fell out of favor, and from around 1850 to around 1950, many geologists were unwilling to accept the occurrence of catastrophes much larger than well-documented ones over the last few centuries. However, in that time, geologists had greatly improved their analytic tools, giving them the ability to make good tests of several catastrophist hypotheses.
For that reason, geologists now accept the existence of several catastrophes that are much larger than their well-documented counterparts: giant floods like those from Glacial Lake Missoula, giant volcanic eruptions like at Yellowstone, and impacts that have made craters from Arizona’s Meteor Crater to South Africa’s Vredefort Dome.
In fact, the present favorite hypothesis for the origin of the Moon is very Velikovskian. Early in the history of the Solar System, a Mars-sized object struck the Earth, and some of the fragments splattered off went into orbit and eventually condensed to make the Moon. Though it seems difficult to test this hypothesis, it successfully accounts for two puzzles about the Moon: its mostly-rocky composition and its being depleted in volatiles, as if it had been baked.
However, the solid planets had formed by collisions, and a collision like that is very plausible. In fact, some astronomers think that many planets may have satellites that had formed by this mechanism. What we see today, planets with cleared-out spaces around them, is the result of a sort of natural selection: just about every object that had been in those spaces has collided with a planet. In fact, many of the craters on the Moon and similar objects were produced early in the Solar System’s history, as one would expect from material getting swept up.
As Carl Sagan had noted, where Velikovsky is right, he is almost certainly not original, where Velikovsky is original, he is almost certainly not right, and there is much of his work that is neither right nor original. That includes his overall thesis of recent planet-scale collisions, and also their being remembered in mythology. William Whiston, Ignatius Donnelly, and Hanns Hoerbiger had all preceded him there, though Velikovsky barely mentioned them.
Then there’s the issue of how Velikovsky’s hypothesis indicates that there is a lot of literal truth in the miracle stories of the Bible. Velikovsky himself was clearly not a fundie, and for him, the Bible was one of many sources. But there is certainly a certain attraction for someone who wants to believe that the Bible is “Truth”. Martin Gardner in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science complained that “There is no question but that informed and enlightened Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, suffered a severe body blow when Velikovsky’s book was enthusiastically hailed by the late Fulton Oursler (in Reader’s Digest) as scientific confirmation of the most deplorable type of Bible interpretation.”
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