July/August 2016 Issue
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When Worlds Collide
This article was written by John Vincent Sanders
|Immanuel Velikovsky believed history was shaped by violent planetary clashes. But those were nothing compared to his own battles with mainstream science.|
The last decade of this millennium has seen an explosion of interest in alternative views of humanity’s distant past. Fascination with historical revisionism has spread beyond the ranks of New Age devotees and into the cultural mainstream, highlighting a growing sentiment that a new era of enlightenment may be at hand. This crypto-history, or willingness to accept alternative views of history, can be traced in part to an intellectual maverick named Immanuel Velikovsky, whose unconventional views fanned the flames of scientific controversy at mid-century.
Dr. Velikovsky remains an obscure figure 20 years after his death, but in his time he developed stunning and controversial new theories about Earth and the history of humanity. His work not only infuriated his colleagues, but also threatened the existence of long-standing scientific, cultural, and religious paradigms. If Velikovsky’s vision was correct, our distant ancestors witnessed unimaginable battles between celestial titans. These cosmological close encounters turned Earth’s oceans into cloud-piercing mountains of water, he wrote, bringing the human race -- and the planet itself -- to the very brink of annihilation.
Scholars of the 1950s scoffed at Velikovsky, as do their successors today. They also laughed at the idea of a Freudian psychiatrist conducting legitimate research into such fields as astronomy and ancient history. But Immanuel Velikovsky was a complex and gifted man. Born in Vitebsk, Russia, in 1895, he studied law and economics in Moscow and became fluent in six languages, including Hebrew and Latin. He then spent time at the University of Edinburgh where he studied under philosopher and writer Henri Bergson, winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize for Literature. Velikovsky later studied medicine in Berlin and became a practicing physician and psychiatrist. He lived in Paris for a time, then Palestine, before emigrating to the U.S. in 1939 and settling in New York City. In 1952, he moved to Princeton, New Jersey, renewing a friendship with physicist Albert Einstein.
Despite his broad credentials, Velikovsky’s monumental book Worlds in Collision earned him the undying enmity of the scientific establishment. The foundation of this work was Velikovsky’s belief that archaeologists and historians studying the Middle East and Egypt were guilty of significant chronological errors. His analysis of ancient texts had convinced him that a number of natural catastrophes and Earth changes -- which many believed were merely the stuff of myths, legends, and religious exaggeration -- had actually occurred during the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt around 1500 b.c., and again several hundred years later. Velikovsky came to believe that these catastrophes were caused by close planetary encounters between Earth, Mars, and Venus. He also theorized that Venus had begun life as a comet that, for some unknown reason, had been disgorged by the planet Jupiter.
Velikovsky’s conclusions were stunning in their magnitude. After years spent correlating ancient knowledge from Asia and South America with that from Egypt and the Middle East, he reconstructed an astonishing series of near-collisions among the three planets. According to him, ancient writings from different parts of the world clearly show to what extent our ancestors feared Mars and Venus -- even to the point of worshipping them as living celestial gods. Close approaches by Venus resulted in stupendous gravitational effects that could draw Earth’s great oceans into fear-inspiring columns thousands of feet high, simultaneously triggering massive volcanoes and earthquakes all over the globe as the planetary crust was wrenched and torn by titanic forces. At the point of closest approach, he theorized, Earth and Venus would have exchanged a colossal spark of planetary electricity, an unbelievably huge thunderbolt with a crash heard by millions, followed by massive planetwide tidal waves as oceans settled back into their seabeds.
The most catastrophic of the Earth-Venus encounters occurred during the time of Moses, Velikovsky believed, and was responsible for an environmental catastrophe that triggered the biblical plagues of Egypt. He theorized that the close proximity of Venus to Earth during the Hebrew exodus was responsible for parting the Red Sea.
Velikovsky also said that some of Venus’s atmosphere was exchanged for the oxygen-rich air of our planet. The result, he believed, was a deluge of hydrocarbons from our skies. Some of these compounds fell as the petroleum we know today, seeping beneath the ground of the Middle East into vast pools of liquid energy. Other, lighter compounds precipitated in a form nourishing to both humans and animals, the Bible’s so-called “manna from heaven.” Velikovsky believed the “manna” had enabled life to continue on Earth even after the global destruction of crops and years of cloud-shrouded darkness produced by this planetary cataclysm.
According to Velikovsky’s theory, the erratic orbit of the new planet Venus probably would have ended life on Earth but for the intervention of Mars. A gravitational tug-of-war ensued, culminating in a series of close approaches by both planets to Earth. A climactic, simultaneous approach by both planets occurred several hundred years after the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Velikovsky maintained that this singular event -- which moved Venus into the harmless orbit it occupies today -- was immortalized in the mythologies of many different cultures.
Velikovsky presented an autographed first edition of Worlds in Collision to Albert Einstein when the eminent physicist turned 67. In a thank-you note, Einstein expressed his belief that the new book would be the cause of significant controversy. Einstein’s intuition proved correct: Macmillan created an uproar within the academic world when it published Worlds in Collision in 1950. The book’s most vociferous critic was the late Harlow Shapley, then the administrator of the Harvard Observatory.
Velikovsky had offended legions of professionals in the fields of geology, astronomy, celestial mechanics, and history -- and these irate individuals were determined to strike back. Led by Shapley, scores of university and college professors threatened to boycott Macmillan textbooks unless that company ended publication of Velikovsky’s book. Macmillan soon quailed and Worlds in Collision was turned over to Doubleday, where it became a commercial success. This prompted Velikovsky to produce two follow-up books: Ages in Chaos (1952) and Earth in Upheaval (1955).
The popularity enjoyed by Velikovsky petered out by the end of the 1950s and he labored in obscurity for the next decade, his ideas roundly denounced by his colleagues. But the radicalism of the 1960s brought a new skepticism of establishment science. Baby boomers developed an open-mindedness toward ideas like UFOs, Atlantis, and alternative views of history. Demands by student activists helped expand fields of study and class offerings, but many academics and scientists were less than eager to acknowledge a change of emphasis from long-accepted theory. Even the late Carl Sagan, who had established a reputation as a scientific free-thinker, remained adamant in his opposition to Velikovsky’s ideas. “There is a range of borderland subjects that have high popularityÉincluding UFOs, astrology, and the writings of VelikovskyÉthat seem to deny the scientific method,” Sagan wrote in 1972 in UFOs -- A Scientific Debate.
In 1974, it seemed that Velikovsky’s theories would finally receive a fair hearing in an objective, scientific forum. The American Association for the Advancement of Science convened a Velikovsky symposium, to be held during its annual meeting in San Francisco that February. Among those presenting papers would be Velikovsky himself and Carl Sagan, who two years earlier had sneered at the idea of such a gathering. But the symposium got off to a decidedly anti-Velikovsky beginning. In his opening remarks, moderator Dr. Ivan King declared: “No one who is involved in the organization of this symposium believes that Dr. Velikovsky’s ideas are correct.”
Numerous accusations of unfairness were raised by Velikovsky’s supporters during and after the conference. But there is no complete record of the proceedings. Even more puzzling is the fact that a book about the event published by the Cornell University Press, Scientists Confront Velikovsky (edited by a symposium organizer, Donald Goldsmith), contains neither a paper presented by the pro-Velikovsky academician Professor Irving Michelson of the Illinois Institute of Technology, nor the paper presented by Velikovsky himself.
Despite these attempts to discredit his work, Velikovsky enjoyed renewed popularity. The Age of Velikovsky, by Dr. C. J. Ransom, was published in 1976, and two new books by Velikovsky (Ramses II and His Time and Stargazers and Gravediggers) were printed as recently as 1983 -- four years after he died.
The scientific establishment today continues to reject Velikovsky’s more controversial work, but several of his theories from the 1950s have since proven correct. Most notable are his predictions that Jupiter is the source of powerful, natural radio emissions, and that the Earth is surrounded by a powerful magnetic field we now call the magnetosphere.
Crypto-History: Alive and Well
His death in November 1979 brought Velikovsky’s illustrious career to an end, but the cause of historical revisionism survived, as illustrated by recent events.
In the early 1990s geologist Robert Schoch of Boston University and Egyptologist John Anthony West developed compelling evidence that the Sphinx at Giza, Egypt, may be thousands of years older than previously thought. [Editor’s note: See “Sandstorm,” page 20.] In his 1995 book Fingerprints of the Gods, crypto-historian Graham Hancock presented data -- based in part on computer-generated star maps of the ancient sky -- to support his hypothesis that the great artifacts of ancient Egypt actually date from a much earlier civilization, such as Atlantis.
One of the most credible revisionists, Dr. Paul LaViolette, caused a stir in 1997 with the publication of his Earth Under Fire. LaViolette is a trained scientist with degrees in physics and systems science, and for the first time he gives revisionism an advocate with scientific credentials that are above reproach by academic skeptics.
Combining accepted scientific doctrine and techniques with thorough research into esoteric subjects, LaViolette has arrived at some extraordinary conclusions. According to him, our solar system is periodically bombarded by enormous energy bursts, or cosmic super waves. Huge clouds of interstellar dust accompany this phenomenon, and these can trigger intense solar activity while shrouding Earth in near-total darkness for years. He has also developed a compelling case that an event of this kind was responsible for ending the most recent ice age about 11,500 years ago.
Today’s crypto-historians differ in training, perspective, and accomplishments, but they have one important thing in common: The roots of their work can be traced back to the groundbreaking approach of Immanuel Velikovsky. His courage, vision, and persistence allowed him to blaze a path of new understanding for later researchers to follow.
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