Oh Come On, Immanuel
Velikovsky and weird astronomy

On October 7, 1999, astronomers finally found the legendary 10th planet of the solar system, in orbit nearly half a light year out from the Sun. For some reason, even the most ardent end-of-the-worldists aren't making much of this celestial sign and portent. Immanuel Velikovsky, you should be living at this hour. Our world sorely lacks the great Russian psychiatrist who, 50 years ago, inaugurated the new age of Weird Astronomy.

See also...
... by Patrick Di Justo
... in the Scope section
... from October 28, 1999

In 1950, Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision to international acclaim. The remarkable book shows that the great Old Testament miracles, the ones that made Cecil B. DeMille rich, were really the result of collisions and near-collisions among the planets of our solar system. According to Velikovsky, around the year 1500 BC, the planet Jupiter ejaculated a large semi-liquid "comet" that swung by the Earth. The scorching heat of this encounter with cosmic splooge apparently caused the plagues of Egypt (water to blood, dead frogs, boils, dogs and cats living together) as listed in Exodus 7 and 8. The plague of flies, however, came directly from the comet, according to Velikovsky. Flies allegedly did not exist on Earth before this encounter, but do exist copiously on Jupiter.

A particularly close approach of the comet to the Earth created earthquakes which somehow destroyed Egyptian homes but not Hebrew ones. "Vapors" from the comet sickened Egyptians but not Hebrews. Then another close one parted the Red Sea for Moses and the Israelites, and closed it up on the Pharaoh's troops. The hydrocarbon gases in the comet's tail created tales of "fire in the sky." But, hints Velikovsky, suddenly the galactic hydrocarbons all magically changed into earthly carbohydrates, because for the following 40 years this thing dropped manna on the heads of the Israelites as they wandered in the desert, and it's hardly likely the Israelites would have enjoyed eating diesel fuel.

And we're hardly done. As the comet cooled and hardened, it bounced off of Mars, bringing the red planet into a near-collision with the Earth. With Mars on one side of the Earth and the comet on the other side, their combined gravitational field (or maybe their magnetic fields -- Velikovsky's breathless account doesn't have time to go into the details) caused the Earth to stop rotating, which helped Joshua fit the battle of Jericho into his busy schedule. Eventually this droplet of interplanetary jizz settled down and became the planet Venus, somehow Mars went back into its orbit, and the Earth started rotating again exactly as before. The peoples of the world settled into a deep amnesia, retaining only fragmentary memories of the time the planets ran amok.

Velikovsky backs up his claims with a seemingly careful study of ancient texts from all over the world; texts which he claims tell the same story as seen by different cultures. Why, he asks, would the Greeks tell a tale of the goddess Athena springing from the head of the god Jupiter unless they actually saw something spring out of the planet Jupiter? Why, he asks, does the Bible tell of the sun standing still, while Mexican texts, written on the other side of the world, tell of the sun refusing to rise? The seeming confluence of so many mythological tales, Velikovsky tells us, is "proof" they all saw the same thing.

Ordinarily Velikovsky's work would have had as much impact on society as the work of Norman Bloom (another crackpot who apparently had no impact on society since none of you have ever heard of him). But then in June, 1951, Harpers ran an article summarizing the positions of Velikovsky and his critics, and made it pretty clear which side of the debate the magazine was betting on. Overnight, Dr. V's theory of celestial shuttlecock became the darling of New York's 1950s Upper East Side "I-don't-own-a-television-machine" cocktail party set. People who had never paid much attention to things like Mayan astronomical beliefs and Sumerian gods were suddenly debating ideas like "shared observation" and "cultural diffusion." These New York literati favorably compared Velikovsky to Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and Freud. And since these people had enormous influence on the nation's media, Velikovsky's theories gained almost as much credence as if he had been right.

What followed was an embarrassing example of scientific despotism. Mainstream scientists could easily have taken Velikovsky's theories to the cleaners. Instead, perhaps consumed with envy for the attention Velikovsky was getting, the greater part of the scientific community simply tried to suppress him. Universities used their influence to kill favorable reviews of Velikovsky's book. Macmillan, the book's publisher, got so much grief from the academic community that -- fearing damage to their lucrative textbook market -- they fired James Putnam, the editor who OK'd Velikovsky's book.

As Carl Sagan writes in his book Broca's Brain, "To the extent that scientists have not given Velikovsky the reasoned response his work calls for, we ourselves have been responsible for the propagation of Velikovskian confusion." And that confusion ran rampant in the 1960s. In a decade that saw itself torn between the fire of the mystical and the icy power of the rational, Velikovsky's theories seemed to be as comfortable as a hot tub -- a soothing place in which the stories of the Bible were literally true, if only we interpreted them in a "scientific" way.

Velikovsky's reinterpretation of ancient writings opened the door for other, even stranger ideas. Erich Von Däniken's theories of ancient aliens impregnating Mexican Earthwomen, the searches for Noah's Ark and the Ark of the Covenant, the Nemesis Hypothesis -- even, perhaps, Donovan's song about Atlantis -- all stem from a broadening of the mythical-scientific weltanschauung started by Velikovsky.

In 1970, the Soviets landed a space probe on Venus, and the findings seemed to vindicate Velikovsky. The enormously high surface temperature was seen as proof of the planet's comparatively recent birth (though it patently wasn't). This event probably marked the peak of Velikovsky's popularity with the general public. Soon after, as the man-in-the-street turned away from the cosmic spacyness of the '60s, Velikovsky scholarship returned to a hardcore cadre of believers.

In 1975, the American Association for the Advancement of Science did what they should have done 25 years before -- they gathered together Velikovsky, a bunch of scientists, and a bunch of Velikovskians (most of whom considered themselves scientists, too) and debated the merits of Dr. V's thesis. The results were a disaster. Scientists put forth reasoned, mathematical explanations showing why Velikovsky was either totally wrong or -- in some cases -- right for the wrong reasons. The Velikovskians would have none of it. They refused to accept scientific explanations, and brought forth unproved explanations of their own, and in general the symposium was pretty much a waste of everyone's time.

Though none of the Velikovskian theories of planetary pocket-pool have been accepted into the scientific canon, the man continues to cast a long shadow. The twenty years since Velikovsky's death have seen a slow but steady expansion of his theories to include Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the writings of Nostradamus. So even if this new tenth planet isn't found to be semi-liquid, capable of crossing the orbits of other planets and creating Old Testament plagues wherever it visits, we should still name it after the man who foresaw its existence half a century ago: Immanuel.

See also: Spare Planets of the Solar System

Patrick DiJusto can see Uranus from his house.