March 2, 2012
He first came into the public eye in the 1920's for founding the Scripta Universitatis academic journal in Berlin, and later worked alongside others to establish the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Velikovsky was an intensely curious man who had been broadly educated in many different fields of study as diverse as science, medicine, philosophy, ancient history and law. He studied psychoanalysis under Sigmund Freud's acclaimed protégé Wilhelm Stekel.
Velikovsky first worked alongside
Albert Einstein in Berlin, when Einstein edited mathematical
articles in Scripta Universitatis, again in Jerusalem during
their efforts to help found the Hebrew University, and later in life
as close friends and colleagues at Princeton University.
This research, however, was soon
sidelined when Velikovsky uncovered an Egyptian papyrus called "The
Admonitions of Ipuwer," a text that seemed to provide
historical confirmation for biblical accounts of the 10 plagues in
Egypt at the time of Moses. Intrigued that the biblical
account might possibly have foundation in actual historic events,
Velikovsky began to seek out other ancient references that might
serve to uphold that point of view.
The ancient texts presented what he saw as a kind of universality of theme relating to reports of global calamity - descriptions of,
...and similar disasters of seeming
This tentative conclusion was upheld in his mind by many explicit ancient references to a fearful wandering comet associated with great calamity.
References to this comet were given by
different cultures under various names such as Seth and
Typhon. Velikovsky also found himself confused to learn that in
some cultures, the names that had been initially assigned to this
fearful comet also came later to be associated with the planet
Many different cultures began to keep careful written counts of the number of days between the risings and settings of Venus. Tracking Venus is the likely motive that is cited by some historians as having inspired the Oracle Bone texts - the earliest form of written record known to exist in China.
For Velikovsky, these facts taken together seemed to implicate Venus as the fearsome agent of terrible events that he believed may have ravaged our planet.
Velikovsky associated this same period of destruction with,
In support of this unorthodox thesis, Velikovsky noted that the texts of most ancient cultures prior to 1500 BCE - most notably those of the Hindus, Babylonians and Egyptians - refer only to four planets - Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Mercury.
References to Venus prior to that date are inexplicably given using words and symbols that were traditionally reserved for comets.
They describe Venus as appearing "hairy"
or refer to its "horns" or "long tail." (There are references prior
to 1500 BCE to goddesses such as the
Sumerian Innana, however, the
iconography associated with these goddesses typically involve images
Furthermore, virtually all ancient
cultures went through a period during which they classified Venus
alongside the Sun and the Moon, rather than with the planets, based
on its brightness. While it's true that even now, under proper
circumstances, the planet Venus can remain visible during the first
hours of daylight, there are ancient reports that refer to the
brightness of Venus as rivaling that of the Sun.
In the book Velikovsky postulated - based on a wide range of ancient accounts and references - that the planet Venus must have been formed within the historic memory of mankind as a consequence of the impact of a large astronomic body with Jupiter. This event was recorded in a Greek myth in which Jupiter was said to have swallowed whole a pregnant goddess named Metis, soon after which Athena burst newborn from Jupiter's head.
According to Velikovsky, Venus - whose name in Greek means "the newcomer" - at first "blazed as brightly as the Sun" as it roamed across the sky, far outside the Newtonian bounds of its familiar modern-day orbit.
He proposed that Venus, in its travels, had wrought considerable havoc within the solar system, that its trajectory had brought it to a near-miss with Earth around 1500 BCE and that Venus had directly impacted Mars.
This impact caused Mars, in turn, to leave its orbit and to become the catalyst for a second series of close encounters between Mars and the Earth. The worst of these happened, according to Velikovsky, around 750 BCE.
One serious consequence of this final
interaction with Mars, according to Velikovsky, is that it affected
the Earth's orbital period, lengthening it from an ancient 360-day
year to our familiar 365-day year, and ejecting Mars into its
With the help of some very effective advance publicity - including a condensation of the book that appeared in a popular magazine and advance copies of the book that were sent to several leading astronomers - the outrage of the astronomers was effectively stoked.
Their professional outrage helped propel
the book to the status of a runaway bestseller.
In retrospect, the outrage was understandable:
Several top astronomers wrote to MacMillan's management urging the company to block publication of Velikovsky's book.
Dr. Harlow Shapley (then director of the Harvard Observatory) worked behind the scenes to organize colleges and universities in a boycott of MacMillan's highly profitable textbook division, hoping to financially arm-twist them into dropping the book.
MacMillan - hoping to defuse the boycott
without actually bowing to the demands of the astronomers - took the
highly unusual step of transferring its lucrative publishing rights
for a bestselling book to Doubleday, one of its competitors who had
no stake in the sale of textbooks.
Certainly Velikovsky's vision of a young, hot Venus ran counter to the conventional wisdom in 1950, which presumed that Venus had an Earth-like atmosphere and might ultimately prove to be colonizable.
The seemingly acrobatic requirements for the motions of Venus laid out by Velikovsky in his book - moving first like a comet but then somehow eventually coming to inhabit one of the most circular and regular orbits of all the planets - appeared to flatly contradict Newtonian laws of motion.
Carl Sagan pointed out that the great amount of energy required to eject a body the size of Venus from Jupiter would likely have vaporized large portions of Jupiter and left those areas intensely hot, even today.
Even Einstein, whose natural
impulse was to be sympathetic to his friend and colleague, at first
sided against Velikovsky, flatly discounting his suggestion that
electromagnetic forces must play a significant role in planetary
For example, a geologically-recent birth for Venus would require the planet to be intensely hot. Likewise, it would imply that Venus exhibit a seemingly unevolved set of geological formations.
Furthermore, if Venus had roamed the solar system as a rogue astronomic body for centuries then we would expect to find certain anomalies in its orientation and rotation when compared to the other planets. Surely we would eventually be able to detect if either Mars of Venus had ever suffered a direct impact with a planet-sized body.
If Venus and Mars had made close approaches to the Earth in ancient times, we should be able to identify chemical, geological or magnetic signatures associated with those events.
Moreover, Velikovsky himself had
provided a long list of his own "prognostications" - consequential
observations that he felt must eventually show themselves to be
true, if the facts were to uphold what he saw as the unmovable
cornerstones of his theory.
For example, the controversial outlook Velikovsky held on the role of electromagnetism in the interaction of planetary bodies - the one that had been at first opposed by Einstein - was upheld by the incidental discovery of radio emissions from Jupiter and acceptance based on work by Van Allen of the existence of a significant magnetic field surrounding the Earth.
By the 1960's, Velikovsky was considered a credible enough authority on questions of astronomy to be hired by a leading television network to consult and comment during NASA's live Moon landings.
In 1974, a symposium of scientists
(including Velikovsky) was held in San Francisco to debate
Velikovsky's theories that ended up pitting several leading critics
against Velikovsky. The official "spin" coming out of that
conference - and the impression left on the general public - was
that Velikovsky's theories had been finally and definitively
In recent years when new discoveries are made that could potentially relate to the controversy, these findings are most often presented without official mention of Velikovsky. Instead, they are typically announced bundled with an accompanying new theory, whose net effect is to distance the find from Velikovsky's controversial theories.
For example, when probes to Venus did, in fact, show the planet to be intensely hot - a key point that Velikovsky had cited as a crucial demonstration of the correctness of his theory - scientists completely sidestepped the issue by pre-emptively postulating a runaway greenhouse effect to explain the unexpectedly high temperature.
When Venus was found to have far fewer
impact craters than would be expected for a billions-year-old
planet, astronomers again proposed that "unknown geologic forces"
must have somehow caused a geologically-recent global resurfacing of
Venus, thus wiping away evidence of the craters.
For example, his suggestion that a planet might be formed as a consequence of a large impact on a gas giant planet seems as reasonable as either of the two leading traditional theories of planetary creation - both of which are believed by some astronomers to suffer from serious (perhaps fatal) theoretic difficulties.
Likewise, it is already an accepted part of traditional astronomic theory that our own Moon was formed as the by-product of an impact. Surely it is not unreasonable to think that what can happen on a small scale in our solar system could also happen on a larger scale.
Some of Velikovsky's critics say that it is unreasonable to think that the wandering orbit of Venus as a comet could have circularized for the planet Venus in such a short period - and yet it is well known there are some comets that have apparently achieved circular orbits around our Sun.
Some theories suggest that a comet's
tail can provide the necessary drag to circularize its orbit. Others
claim the tidal forces of gravity can cause the orbits to
For example, if it could be definitively shown that granite exists on Venus (a type of rock that takes millions of years to form) then much of Velikovsky's theory would simply fall to the ground.
The same would be true if an archaeologist suddenly turned up an ancient document from prior to 1500 BCE that explicitly referred to Venus as a planet.
Likewise, if explicit evidence could be
produced for the existence of a 365-day year in ancient times, then
one of Velikovsky's key claims would be effectively rebutted.
My goal is to remind this audience that - notwithstanding the symposium held in 1974 - an open, ongoing controversy still exists relating to Velikovsky. That controversy continues to be colored by the disturbing suggestion of long-term, politically-motivated manipulation of scientific results.
Much of this new evidence is drawn from
the wealth of data gathered by recent probes such as the European
Venus Express, and recent
first-hand studies that have been conducted in relation to comets.
Instead, I believe I have brought new
eyes and new evidence to bear on many of the critical questions and
criticisms that shape the unique and enduring controversy fostered
more than sixty years ago by Velikovsky's Worlds In Collision.