From Visionary to the Fringe
In the 1940s, a curiously enigmatic figure haunted New York City’s great libraries, his mind afire with urgent questions whose resolution might reveal, once and for all, the most ancient secrets of the universe in their crystalline clarity. This scholar eschewed the traditional disciplinary boundaries that define the intellectual terrain of the specialist; instead, he read widely, skimming the surface of countless works of science, myth and history to craft an answer to an overwhelming question: Had our planet been altered repeatedly by cosmic catastrophes whose traces could be found in the earliest human records?
A fantastic theory began to emerge, redolent of the efforts of an earlier age to unify knowledge, yet speaking to the preoccupations of a world contemplating the chaos of another gruesome European war. The solar system, it was revealed, did not operate according to Newton’s universal laws of gravitation, nor did life on Earth evolve gradually and continuously, as Darwin had written. Instead, the cosmos was like a giant atom, periodically discharging photons whose energy disrupted and redirected the movements of celestial bodies, even causing the reversal of Earth’s magnetic poles. A planet was a kind of super-electron.
Venus became the spectacular demonstration of this principle. Formed from Jupiter’s debris around 1500 bc, it emerged as a comet whose wobbly path intersected with Earth’s orbit, repeatedly disrupting its electromagnetic field. The dramatic effects of this cosmic collision could be found in the records of all ancient societies: Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, ancient Indian mythologies, Aztec codices and, above all, the Old Testament provided a concordance of mutually corroborating evidence. Manna from heaven, rains of blood and other seemingly inexplicable phenomena now found their explanation beyond miracle and mystery: they were, in fact, the effects of Venus losing its tail, discharging its effluvia as the comet became a young planet.
Venus was not done wreaking its havoc on the cosmos yet. The namesake for the unrepentant goddess of love continued on its wayward path, disrupting Mars’s orbit. Thrown off course, Mars became the catalyst for a second cosmic collision between 747 and 697 bc, when it nearly smashed into Earth, permanently lengthening the terrestrial year from 360 to 365¼ days. Once again, the evidence lay in fragmentary records from a distant past, including the Iliad and the Book of Isaiah. Thus a new theory was born that entailed not only a wholesale rethinking of astronomy, physics, geology, paleontology, history and archaeology, but also a complete rejection of the commonly accepted foundations of modern science. Its author was not modest: he also claimed that his theory provided new insight into the Freudian and Jungian unconscious, offering an account of the formative events that had left a traumatic imprint on the primordial human psyche, and whose subsequent evisceration became the collective amnesia of future generations.
Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision, published in 1950, was itself a kind of unheralded comet whose unpredictable path wound its way through modern American culture and left readers stunned in its wake. This controversial bestselling book invited mid-twentieth-century Americans to contemplate the literal meaning of Joshua 10:12-13, the biblical passage in which the sun stands still, as Velikovsky had done when perusing his well-read copy of the Hebrew Old Testament in his Upper West Side apartment. What exactly were the large stones that God cast from the sky? Velikovsky’s answer made cosmology a tabloid affair, to the delight of journalists and the consternation of experts, leaving a curious public wondering who was right and why.
Princeton historian Michael Gordin’s delightful, measured account explores the reverberations of the Velikovsky affair as the central episode in the “pseudoscience wars” of postwar America. Gordin’s study is less an intellectual biography of Velikovsky than a cultural history of how scientists reacted to his ideas in light of his popular fame. Gordin’s analysis of the ebb and flow of Velikovsky’s reputation begins just prior to the publication of Worlds in Collision, when Harper’s Magazine, Reader’s Digest and Collier’s all offered a highly publicized preview of the book, provoking the outrage of prominent astronomers and their scientific allies. It culminates in our great age of Velikovskianism, the psychedelic, Vietnam-weary, Watergate-obsessed, anything-goes 1970s. From the appearance of Worlds in Collision to his death in 1979, Velikovsky remained a lightning rod for discussions about science, legitimacy and expertise. Scientists mostly (but not entirely) loathed him; students in the Space Age that was also the Age of Aquarius loved him. Trade publishers, whose editors did not seek the approval of scientists, had no qualms whatsoever about his books and sold them.
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I cannot recall precisely when I first learned of Velikovsky. Perhaps I picked up Worlds in Collision in the local public library. I do remember Carl Sagan debunking his work in the 1980 PBS series Cosmos. My awareness of Velikovsky’s fascinating, frustrating mind crystallized at some point after seeing the 1970 documentary film based on Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods. Von Däniken’s bestseller vividly conjured up the specter of Velikovsky, or at the very least the allure of being Velikovskian. I watched in wonder at the bold decoding of the gargantuan remains of ancient civilizations, the apocalyptic prophecies of Ezekiel, and the mysteries of an Ottoman map. No longer fragmentary monuments of power, faith and knowledge, they were revealed to be alien guidance systems for a safe UFO landing, portraits of aliens and their ships etched in stone, and an antediluvian spaceman’s view of earth. “To be sure, there are other explanations,” the film’s somber voiceover intoned. Nonetheless, the Egyptian pyramidal pi computed! The enigmatic gaze of the Metropolitan Museum’s mummies now had something in common with Ray Walston’s condescending look of superiority on My Favorite Martian.