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From Visionary to the Fringe | The Nation

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From Visionary to the Fringe

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Immanuel Velikovsky at the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Immanuel Velikovsky at the 1974 American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference in San Francisco

The Pseudoscience Wars
Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.
By Michael D. Gordin.
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Between November 1953 and his death in April 1955, Einstein regularly invited Velikovsky to his home. Gordin briefly discusses this fascinating chapter in the Velikovsky saga, but more ought to be said as to why the twentieth century’s most iconic scientist reconsidered his earlier refusal to engage the century’s most controversial pseudoscientist. Einstein certainly disagreed with the foundational premises of Velikovsky’s catastrophism. If historian I. Bernard Cohen’s interview with Einstein shortly before his death is an accurate record of their conversation, he did not hesitate to say that Velikovsky was just a bit crazy. (Much to Velikovsky’s consternation, these words appeared in print in Scientific American shortly after Einstein’s death.) Gordin rightfully suggests that this was not necessarily a unilateral condemnation, however; Einstein found Velikovsky an interesting if undisciplined mind, perhaps even worth reading, and certainly not deserving of persecution by his peers. His ecumenical view reinforced the principles of academic freedom, namely the right to be wrong and to have one’s ideas debated but not censored. Velikovsky cherished his relationship with Einstein, later implying that he had converted the great physicist to his theory. He promised but never delivered an account of their conversations, which he provisionally titled Before the Day Breaks. Instead, his daughter Shulamit published his correspondence with Einstein posthumously in a Hebrew edition in Israel.

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In retrospect, we forget just how speculative the entire science of the cosmos was before the Space Age. When William Herschel first spied Uranus in 1781, he thought it was a new comet. The nature of comets and their interactions with the solar system greatly preoccupied astronomers over the centuries, inspiring many hypothetical accounts of their impact on Earth. Velikovsky’s theory drew inspiration from such accounts, casting cosmology as a realm for bold scientific speculation. Meanwhile, Shapley considered Edwin Hubble’s theory of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way to be almost as ill-conceived as Velikovsky’s—yet it has become the basis for our current understanding of the universe. Following Sputnik, American universities renewed their commitment to educate more scientific minds, and the government poured resources into NASA, intent on besting the Soviets in space. The early 1960s brought partial redemption to Velikovsky. In 1962, Columbia University astronomer Lloyd Motz and Princeton mathematician Valentine Bargmann publicly credited Velikovsky for predicting Venus’s high temperatures in a letter to Science, and the initial findings of the Venus probe suggested (erroneously, as it turned out) that other details of his account of the planet’s birth might also be correct. The now-retired Shapley must have groaned in despair. Could Velikovsky actually be right about something that was empirically unknowable in 1950?

As certain scientists wondered whether they should reassess Velikovsky as a quasi-visionary capable of imagining possible future realities, New York University political scientist Alfred de Grazia launched his own assault on the scientific establishment, declaring Velikovsky a classic outsider maligned by insiders. He devoted the 1963 issue of his journal, American Behavioral Scientist, to a sociological portrait of the Velikovsky affair. Renewed efforts by such experts as Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harold Urey and Brown University cuneiform scholar Abraham Sachs attempted, without much success, to combat the growing sense that Velikovsky had been wronged. Gordin reminds us that the battle between scholarly expertise and public acclaim was not easily won, because Velikovsky’s critics did not make their views accessible to a general public. Sensing that history might finally award him the recognition he believed was his due, Velikovsky sent a letter to Thomas Kuhn, a physicist turned historian and philosopher of science whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) had become a scholarly sensation. He implied that he might be a fine case study for future work on scientific communities, paradigm shifts and revolutions. Kuhn did not respond.

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As the Space Age became the Age of Aquarius, the number of Velikovskians multiplied. Gordin documents Velikovsky’s displeasure with many of his disciples—biblical fundamentalists, left-wing radicals and activists, New Age sexologists and others in search of the great psychedelic Why (or Why Not?). Velikovsky was indeed embraced by the fringe, yet he never became a truly countercultural figure. As the fringe moved toward the center of American academic life, the social and political transformation of the universities gave him unanticipated (if temporary) legitimacy. The height of his success came in the early 1970s, when Velikovsky became an icon of the lecture circuit, inspiring younger followers to create societies and journals devoted to his ideas. In certain circles, Worlds in Collision was cult reading, revered for its iconoclastic and unabashedly alternative portrait of the universe. Velikovsky’s status as the perennial outsider was now his principal asset.

 

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