Laird Scranton – The Velikovsky Heresies

Laird%20Scranton%20Oct%202012Laird Scranton is a software designer from Albany, New York, USA. He is the author of two books on African and Egyptian cosmology and language. His focus is on the study of comparative cosmology, which is the study of the classic myths, symbols, deities, cosmological concepts, rituals and words of various ancient and modern cultures. His emphasis has been on defining fundamental similarities between the cosmologies of the modern-day Dogon tribe of Mali, ancient Egypt, and Buddhism. These studies have culminated in a new symbolic approach to interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphic words that is based on words and definitions drawn from comparative cosmology, rather than the traditional comparative texts of the Rosetta Stone.

His recent studies have extended to the cosmologies and hieroglyphic languages of Tibet and China, with focus on the creation tradition of the priestly Na-Khi tribe.  His current book on ancient Chinese cosmology and language is at the publisher, due out by Fall of 2014. His articles include three Dogon-related topics in Temple University’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of African Religion, and a recent article in support of Marcel Griaule’s Dogon cosmology in the University of Chicago’s academic journal Anthropology News. He has been featured in John Anthony West’s Magical Egypt documentary and Carmen Boulter’s The Pyramid Code. Links can be found on the internet to radio interviews on Coast-to Coast AM in the U.S. and Red Ice Radio in Europe.

On this occasion, he analyzes and reviews Immanuel Velikovsky’s theory about a supposed cataclysm suffered on planet Earth in ancient times.

In 1950, a Russian psychiatrist by the name of Immanuel Velikovsky published a hugely controversial book called Worlds in Collision, in which he posited, based on cross-confirming references taken from texts of a wide range of ancient cultures, that Venus must be a recent addition to our family of planets. In fact, Velikovsky argued, based on his sources, that Venus as we know it must only be around 3500 years old.  Moreover, Velikovsky suggested that the traumatic birth of Venus from Jupiter – as given in ancient myth – along with various ravages it ostensibly then wrought within our solar system, might provide an explanation for some of the seemingly miraculous events documented in the Bible around the time of the Exodus from Egypt.  These events Velikovsky correlated to the mammoth eruption of Thera around 1500 BC – at the time of the demise of the Minoan culture and the end of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, which he surmised came to be known as the pillar of smoke by day and of fire by night as Moses led his tribe out of Egypt.

Velikovsky, who was educated in psychiatry by Freud’s famous student Wilhelm Stekel , was a longtime friend and colleague of Albert Einstein and had established himself as a figure on the international scene, partly through his work alongside Einstein and others during the founding of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Sin títuloHis thesis, which was popularized by a highly visible preview article published in Harper’s Magazine, was so very upsetting to the scientific community of the day that a group of leading astronomers, led by Harlow Shapley of Harvard University, launched a campaign to actively suppress Velikovsky’s book.  What began first as a letter-writing campaign to the publisher, whose intent was to convince editors at MacMillan and Company to simply drop the book, soon turned into an overt threat by leading Universities to boycott the textbook division of MacMillan if they persisted in publishing it.  Despite the financial success of the book (it quickly became a runaway bestseller), pressure from this campaign eventually resulted in the firing of the MacMillan editor who originally signed Velikovsky’s book and culminated in the highly-unusual decision by MacMillan to ultimately transfer its publishing rights to a competitor, one that did not publish textbooks.

In retrospect, it is easy to understand why Velikovsky’s book might have sparked such vehement upset in leading scientists of the day.  First, Velikovsky had the audacity when presenting his theory to transgress the unspoken boundaries of several different academic fields – many of them not his own – and had the sheer chutzpah  to offer up non-quantifiable references from ancient texts as evidence in support of a radical astronomic theory.   Likewise, the very notion that Venus could be younger than billions of years old served to undermine the principle of uniformity – the notion that an unchanging universe has persisted for millions of years-  an important concept that underpins Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Furthermore, Velikovsky’s viewpoint threatened to resurrect a kind of fire and brimstone religion that modern science had actively worked to supplant for more than a century.

From the perspective of the conventional scientific wisdom of 1950, Velikovsky’s thesis was simply outrageous.  Events Velikovsky described, such as the ostensible ejection of Venus as a comet from massive Jupiter, its near-miss with the Earth, its direct collision with Mars that, in turn, catalyzed a series of subsequent near-misses between Mars and the Earth, and the eventual rapid circularization of the orbit of Venus as it settled down to become a proper planet, seemed to violate fundamental principles of astronomic science and planetary motion.

Also, each stage of Velikovsky’s scenario for the recent birth of Venus carried with it a number of common-sense eventualities that ran directly counter to then-current beliefs.  For example, Velikovsky’s vision of a young Venus (at that time thought by many to be quite Earthlike) implied that the planet must, in fact, still be very  hot.  Velikovksy’s description of the ostensible roamings of Venus implied that the planet would be found to have an anomalous rotation and/or revolution.   Likewise, a young planet should present a markedly pristine surface as compared to other astronomic bodies in our solar system.   A close approach of Venus to our moon such as Velikovsky envisions should have imparted magnetism to the moon’s rocks.

While discussing possible effects of theoretic encounters between Venus, Mars and the Earth, Velikovsky made a number of suppositions about the likely chemical composition of these bodies and the effects of likely chemical interactions that are, in my opinion, largely speculative and unquantifiable, and therefore suspect.  I relegate these to the status of secondary issues, since they are both difficult to demonstrate and have no direct bearing on Velikovsky’s broader scenario.

There is hardly an argument or observation that has been made, either in favor of or against the controversial astronomic theories of Immanuel Velikovsky that has not been met with seemingly endless counter argument.  Emphatic treatises – both in favor of and against Velikovsky’s perspective, and often given as definitive proofs – have been offered up by  a long list of often qualified, thoughtful, intelligent commentators. Often these arguments, taken in the context in which they have been given (and sometimes justified to five decimal points) may seem wholly sensible and convincing, and the reader may come away believing that he or she has just unturned the final word on the subject – until, a few months later, some new scientific discovery or fact appears in print that can be seen to agree in some way with Velikovsky’s outlook, and so the monster (once thought dead) again somehow rears its head.

Whole books have been compiled and edited simply to present the wide-ranging arguments that have been offered up by various commentators about Velikovsky’s Worlds In Collision.  Consequently, over the course of 60-some years since the book’s original publication in 1950, the subject has grown to encompass a fairly broad range of quite thorny – and often heatedly debated – issues

One popular conception is that Velikovsky’s thesis was put to rest in 1974 at a Symposium held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco during which a group of leading critics Sin títuloypresented papers against Velikovsky’s scenario, with Velikovsky in attendance to answer.  Likewise there have been numerous studies made on such wide ranging  topics as tree-ring growth, isotope absorption by plants, climate records preserved in coral deposits,ice core studies, moon-rock magnetism, and changes in the magnetic field of the Earth, each again offered up as definitive proof for or against some aspect of Velikovsky’s thesis.

Given all that has been written against Velikovsky, it might seem reasonable to approach the subject from the perspective that his Venus theories must be wrong. However, the moment we adopt this stance, we begin to meet with a number of sometimes intractable difficulties.  The first and most obvious involves the long and still-growing list of eventualities that are frequently cited in ostensible support of his theories.  Contrary to expectations, Venus has turned out to be hot (hot enough at its surface to melt lead), its surface is surprisingly pristine, its rotation is anomalous, it does exhibit rotational resonance with the Earth, and so on.   Our perspective against Velikovsky’s viewpoint would require us to conclude that considerations of this kind must then be the product of coincidence. But if our intent is to be fair, the longer this list of coincidental facts grows, the more intractable a credibility problem we eventually create for ourselves.  Just how much recourse to compounding coincidence are we willing to tolerate before we effectively undercut our own viewpoint?  The same is true for the many aspects of Venus study that might be interpreted as supporting Velikovsky’s outlook but for the proposal of some newly-anointed theory that effectively distances the new finding from him?    I have often said that Velikovsky could be wrong, but if so, then he surely must be counted among the very luckiest researchers to have ever published, given the sheer number of controversies that seem to continue to fall  in his favor.

Likewise, at each key stage of Velikovsky’s scenario there exist what I call “single-fail points” – situations in which a single confirmed fact – if it went against Velikovsky – could potentially undermine his entire argument.  For example, the simple confirmation of the existence of granite on Venus would argue that the planet must be millions of years old, as opposed to the confirmed findings of basalt, which requires only thousands of years to form.  Likewise, even a single textual reference earlier than 750 BC to a year 365 days in length, or the discovery of even one ancient astronomic table of the risings and settings of Venus that could be easily reconciled with modern sightings would go a long way toward undermining Velikovsky’s entire argument.

Next, there are certain events that are known to have happened historically, for which Velikovsky’s theory offers one rationale.  For example, there are significant planetary effects that are known to have occurred around 750 BC – among them, a major unexplained fluctuation in the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, a major change in the absorption rate of radioactive isotopes by plants that can interfere with radiometric dating techniques, major changes in global climate, and near-universal changes in calendar from a 360-day year to one of 365 days. Likewise, for some unknown reason our computer regressions are often unable to confirm the dates and places of eclipses that were reported to have occurred prior to the 750 BC boundary, even when reported by observers who are considered to be reliable.  Velikovsky’s suggestion of an actual physical change in the length of the year due to the close approach of an astronomic body provides us with a cause that seems consonant with the known effects. As we step in to remove Velikovsky’s theory on that grounds that it is incorrect, then isn’t it incumbent upon us to offer a reasonable alternate theory to now explain these documented effects? At each stage of the controversy, we face the real danger of supplanting the acknowledged difficulties of Velikovsky’s viewpoint with some new, equally intractable difficulty.

Third, there are new discoveries in the world of astronomy that lend themselves to explanation through Velikovsky’s perspective.  For example, it has been shown by recent space probes that some comets apparently consist of a real “zoo” of materials, some known to form under widely varying conditions and circumstances. The difficult question arises, from a traditional astronomic perspective, of explaining how in primordial times these materials might have come together over vast distances in our solar system, then been somehow intermixed and coalesced into a coherent body.  Velikovsky’s theory suggests that they formed instead from the reservoir of primordial matter that is thought to exist under varying conditions within the descending  levels of the atmosphere of the gas-giant Jupiter, where gigantic swirling storms are known to exist, capable of intermixing them. From Velikovsky’s perspective, such cometsmay have been ejected by the same processes that ostensibly created Venus.  When we flatly abandon Velikovsky’s outlook as unreasonable, we discard along with it what is perhaps the most reasonable solution to the mysterious composition of these comets.

Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by in the world of science without some new announcement,  suggesting that the mechanisms of the universe as we know them – or the laws by which they are governed – do not work precisely as we may have long thought they do.  Probes leaving the galaxy are found to be in a different location than our long-established gravitational theory would predict.  Life is found to thrive under conditions formerly thought not to be capable of supporting life. Dynamic changes in knowledge such as these make it difficult to wholeheartedly subscribe to any categoric pronouncement of what must be impossible under the laws of science.  In this kind of changeable environment for scientific knowledge, it seems fair to offer Velikovsky’s Venus theory up as yet another example of the kind of case in which we all might be best served to keep an open mind.

Laird Scranton

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