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.
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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.
I knew it probably wasn’t true. But it was fascinating and mysterious—far more entertaining, thought-provoking and strangely concrete than the ethereal 2001: A Space Odyssey. Shortly thereafter, I returned to the same movie theater to see In Search of Noah’s Ark, the 1976 documentary presenting the alleged rediscovery of the wooden fragments of the biblical ark on Mount Ararat. “This may be the most incredible film you will ever see,” its narrator promised. “But the facts that will be presented are true.” It may as well have been the voice of Velikovsky, the guru with a strange scholarly posture inspiring bold rereadings of a distant past.
Born into a wealthy Russian Jewish family in 1895, Velikovsky experienced a peripatetic education that took him to many places—Moscow, Montpellier, Edinburgh and ultimately Vienna, where he studied with one of Freud’s disciples. His ambitions to make his mark on the intellectual world grew with his move to Berlin in the 1920s. There, Velikovsky collected and published the writings of leading Jewish intellectuals in his arcanely titled, grandiosely presented Scripta universitatis atque bibliothecae Hierosolymitanarum. Though he failed to enlist Freud in this venture, he did persuade Einstein to edit the sections on physics and mathematics. Velikovsky would later take credit for founding Hebrew University, one of many occasions when his inflated sense of importance got the better of him. His vision of a Zionist intellectual project crystallized into a personal plan of action that led him to emigrate to Palestine with his family in 1924. In the land of his biblical forefathers, Velikovsky continued to pursue medicine and psychoanalysis, boldly elaborating his own interpretation of Freud’s dreams.
The seeds of his historical cosmology seem to have germinated while he read Freud’s final work, Moses and Monotheism, in Tel Aviv in 1939. Freud proclaimed the Old Testament prophet to be the last of the great Egyptian theosophists. Eager to refute him, Velikovsky set about trying to prove that the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten was actually the Greek Oedipus; it was the first step in rethinking the universal origins of history. With absolutely no training in the reading of Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, Velikovsky dug into a century’s worth of scholarly arcana. He chose New York as the location for a sabbatical, disembarking on Ellis Island with his family shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Freud died two months later in London, so Velikovsky never had the pleasure of hearing what the great psychoanalyst thought of his efforts to reinterpret Freud’s synthesis of psychoanalysis and history. A temporary stay of less than a year stretched into a lifetime of exile in America.
Early in the project, Velikovsky’s research took an unexpected turn. Seeking to confirm the historical reality of Exodus, he read the modern translation of the Ipuwer Papyrus and began to consider the potential correlation between ancient Egyptian catastrophes and biblical plagues: What had caused them, and were they indicative of a common pattern across cultures? After consulting Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas, he explored the records of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Velikovsky’s quest led him from the textual and archaeological challenges of deep history to the empirical findings and theoretical underpinnings of astrophysics, geology and paleontology. There, too, he found his greatest inspiration in historical sources, namely the scientific literature of the late seventeenth through early twentieth centuries, which lay neglected and largely forgotten in the stacks of the Columbia University library. Science’s past inspired his new vision of the present.
Velikovsky later observed that he rarely met professors in the library, lamenting the narrowly defined limits of their erudition in comparison with the breadth of his own. He read musty tomes that experts considered hopelessly out of date, attempting to absorb something from every possible domain of knowledge. In defense of his methodology, Velikovsky declared himself a historian and not a scientist, while nevertheless proclaiming the revolutionary importance of his findings for science. Historical data became his tool for rethinking science, though since Velikovsky failed to meet the empirical standards of either subject or to demonstrate his competence in basic research skills to expert satisfaction, neither discipline embraced him. However, scholarly disapproval has never been a serious impediment to public acclaim (consider the case of Trofim Lysenko or Malcolm Gladwell). Indeed, it became the cornerstone of his reputation as an anti-establishment figure, a latter-day Giordano Bruno or Galileo willing to be condemned as an intellectual heretic for defying authorities in pursuit of truth.
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Gordin treats Velikovsky’s “pseudoscience” as a mirror image of science. Briefly defined, a pseudoscience is that which seems scientific to non-specialists but not to the majority of specialists. It is a particularly interesting category wherever science is powerfully authoritative yet not immune to criticism. Velikovsky’s being labeled the greatest pseudoscientist of his age became a test of expertise in an era in which the status of expert opinion was increasingly cast into doubt—from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s public assault on the left-leaning politics of certain scientists to the growing liberal unease with science as an arm of government, enmeshed in secret projects that might bring about a nuclear Armageddon. Velikovsky was responding to the vibrant culture of American science, filled with talented minds, vastly ambitious projects, and a lingering anxiety about the world it had wrought during World War II. He wrote a history for his own times that was also a critique of contemporary science.
Yet another dimension of the pseudoscientist is the craving for expert approval. Velikovsky repeatedly attempted to enlist the support of distinguished scholars. On November 24, 1942, in an episode not discussed by Gordin, Velikovsky knocked on the door of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington bearing a précis of his astounding discovery. He urged the executive secretary to archive a nine-page typescript summarizing his theory of ancient global catastrophism to ensure its primacy. When the secretary refused, encouraging him instead to present his ideas in a public meeting, Velikovsky filed a notarized brief of their conversation, marveling at the shortsightedness of this representative of the American scientific establishment: “How would he act, if not my humble personality, but a Copernicus or Newton would apply with a similar asking?”
In 1946, Velikovsky published a small pamphlet, Cosmos Without Gravitation, outlining his anti-Newtonian cosmology. Widely distributed to scientists, university libraries and noteworthy public intellectuals, it became his pretext for contacting astronomers all over the country in an attempt to stimulate conversation about his theory. Velikovsky invited them to read his work, provide supplementary data and perform experiments to confirm his findings. In a New York hotel, he buttonholed Harlow Shapley, head of the Harvard College Observatory, who bluntly declared that if Velikovsky’s theory had any basis in fact, neither of them would be present on Earth to engage in conversation. In July, Velikovsky boarded a train to Princeton to present his hypothesis to Einstein. Perhaps nostalgia for a vanished world that they had both shared encouraged one of the greatest scientific minds of the twentieth century to listen politely. Velikovsky took Einstein’s courtesy as encouragement, at one point contemplating getting an endorsement for his forthcoming book. Gordin reminds us that by July 1950, Einstein was sufficiently exasperated with Velikovsky to request that he cease sending his work. They would not speak again until Velikovsky moved to Princeton in 1952.
By 1946, Velikovsky was feeling confident for other reasons. He had begun to enlist a few respectable supporters, including John J. O’Neill, science editor of the New York Herald Tribune, and Gordon Atwater, curator of the Hayden Planetarium. After numerous rejections, he at last secured a publisher, thanks to the support of editor James Putnam at Macmillan. Rarely has a book generated so much controversy or enjoyed such broad publicity before it appeared. As news traveled by word of mouth, Velikovsky’s reconfiguration of the history of the cosmos became a favorite cocktail-party conversation piece in New York intellectual and publishing circles. Atwater was planning a celestial show to animate the argument of Worlds in Collision for visitors to the American Museum of Natural History. Trade magazines were vying for the rights to disseminate Velikovsky’s ideas.
The only sour note came from scientists like Shapley, past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a key architect of the National Science Foundation. After reading Eric Larrabee’s preview of Worlds in Collision in the January 1950 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Shapley purportedly threatened to boycott Macmillan’s scientific textbook division—backed by Harvard president and chemist James Bryant Conant and other well-respected colleagues—for advertising Velikovsky’s book as a work of science. Putnam published it anyway. In a matter of months, Macmillan had fired him and washed its hands of the mess. Doubleday immediately procured the rights to Worlds in Collision, unconcerned about whether it was “fiction or non-fiction,” as Velikovsky challenged his readers to decide in the opening lines of his book. A trade press answered only to the call of the market, whose power vastly exceeded the intellectual authority of the academic establishment. Velikovsky had the freedom to be wrong, even scandalously so, as long as his books sold.
Velikovsky was now a bestselling if controversial author. His closest supporters did not fare as well; being thanked in print by the man of the hour could be dangerous to one’s career. Atwater also lost his job, and the American Museum of Natural History summarily canceled his show. Even more than Macmillan, the leadership of this venerable scientific institution needed to reassure experts of its commitment to present science responsibly to the public. In 1952, Velikovsky crashed the meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and challenged the scientists to a public debate. He could not resist joking that certain Harvard astronomers devoted so much time to studying his work that the university should have a Velikovsky Chair in Astronomy. Yet by then his initial notoriety was on the wane, even as his project continued to evolve. Velikovsky had finished the first volume of his Ages in Chaos (1952) and was in the midst of his radical revision of geology and paleontology that would become Earth in Upheaval (1955). In the interim, he renewed his acquaintance with Einstein. They were now Princeton neighbors.
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.
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.