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.