From Visionary to the Fringe
In 1972, Velikovsky was asked to speak at Harvard by a student group of scientists and engineers, one of a growing number of invitations to address college students all over the country. During this same period, the Canadian Broadcasting Company and the BBC produced documentaries on his work. Even as scientists debunked his account of Venus with new empirical findings, NASA laboratories invited him to speak. The year of Velikovsky’s apotheosis was 1974. A few years before, Carl Sagan had suggested organizing a forum for challenging his work; Velikovsky was invited to confront his critics at the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco, one of several events devoted to Velikovskianism that year. The University of Lethbridge in Canada offered him an honorary degree in May (he is still listed on their website as “Scientist/Philosopher”). Velikovsky, the David who toppled Goliath by launching comets with his sling, had become the antihero of this generation.
Sagan’s lengthy critique of every aspect of Velikovsky’s science, which he presented at the AAAS meeting in 1974 and expanded in print in 1977, was the first acknowledgment that perhaps scientists had been wrong to expect the public to embrace and trust their disapproval. With the blessing of Isaac Asimov, Sagan chided colleagues who had praised Velikovsky in respected venues such as Science: “Merely guessing something right does not necessarily demonstrate prior knowledge or a correct theory.” He had legitimate reasons to make this observation, having played an instrumental role in the discovery of Venus’s high surface temperatures and the subsequent Mariner expeditions of the early 1960s. Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould followed suit in 1975 with an essay in Natural History dissecting and demolishing Velikovsky’s historical methodology in Earth in Upheaval. Both Sagan and Gould were gifted communicators of science to the general public—the very quality that Shapley lacked. “How is a layman to judge rival claims of supposed experts?” Gould mused. “Even von Däniken sounds good if you just read Chariots of the Gods.” His critique of Velikovsky expressed sympathy for someone brave enough to play the underdog. Yet Gould reminded readers that too many experts of different kinds, himself included, found Velikovsky’s evidence riddled with errors, inaccuracies and leaps of faith. Velikovsky offered no direct response.
Gordin’s book inspired me to return to my two favorite pseudo-documentary films of the 1970s, now available on YouTube. They were just as I remembered them. Such projects cleverly present questions as answers, relying on our desire to transform paradoxes and mysteries into clues that might ultimately create satisfying solutions. I also revisited the Museum of Jurassic Technology’s exhibit “No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory 1915–1935.” I had forgotten about the project’s Velikovskian spirit. In this allegedly pre-Velikovskian exchange between amateurs and experts, every planet was once a comet. The planet’s diurnal rotation took 25,920 years, until a piece of cosmic debris became the comet that became the moon. Einstein is wrong, Ezekiel right. A female alchemist from Venice, California, challenges the Copley Medal winner of 1932 for priority in establishing an electromagnetic theory of the sun. Not once is Velikovsky mentioned. And yet I suspect he now resides in the nether regions of the Jurassic, reminding us not to forget what he knows and why. In the end, a pseudoscientist is always right.
Today Velikovsky’s legacy lives on in many guises, including the world of “outsider physics” described by science journalist Margaret Wertheim in her recent study of Washington State trailer park owner Jim Carter and his efforts to engage academic physics with findings from his homegrown laboratory of the everyday. The quest for a grand alternative theory of existence is unending, full of surprises, and always a part of the dialogue between scientists and the public. As Sagan and Gould acknowledged, it is the responsibility of scientists to take this quest seriously and render the reasons for their conclusions accessible to us all. As a historian, I can see the general problem of Velikovsky’s methodology and observe his pattern of reading and selecting sources. Like Gould, I acknowledge that I cannot check every path he followed to my own satisfaction, while still remaining skeptical of the kind of omnium-gatherum approach that skims the surface of absolutely everything. Yet much like Orson Welles’s famous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision would never have caught on without a willing (if not gullible) public hungry for answers to their most unanswerable questions.
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