In 1950, scholar Immanuel Velikovsky published a book called "Worlds in collision", which became an instant bestseller. In it he described the fruit of over 10 years of work in the fields of ancient history and astronomy. His thesis, which claimed to be revolutionary, was that many legends about the ancient world's catastrophic events bear a mysterious similarity to stories of miraculous events of the Hebrew Bible.
Velikovsky found these similarities in cultures as widely separated as the civilizations of the Far East and the New World. He concluded that all these myths and legends were actually referred to events that occurred at the time of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Velikovsky saw clues that a series of global catastrophes actually happened, which ultimately were annotated as divine miracles of the God of Israel. He concluded that the origin of these cataclysms was extraterrestrial.
The only explanation he found was that a large celestial body (or two) almost collided with Earth some 3000 years ago, causing a lot of unrest in our planet. This would include the Egyptian plagues, the partition of the Dead Sea, the day described in the book of Joshua in which the sun and moon stopped moving, etc..
Velikovsky explains that the near collision was so close that at some point the Earth stopped spinning, due to the force of gravity between our home world and the threatening body.
He identifies the giant invader body as nothing more and nothing less than the planet Venus, and perhaps Mars at some other time. Today these planets are tens or hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth, but Velikovsky believed that 3000 years ago these bodies brushed the Earth, after being expelled from the planet Jupiter, where they were formed almost yesterday in geological terms.
PRAISE TO VELIKOVSKY
Immanuel Velikovsky was a brilliant intellectual character. He had attended high school in Moscow, graduating with a gold medal. His family means allowed him to travel throughout Europe and to Palestine, until he decided to study medicine, beginning in Montpellier, France, transferring to the University of Edinburgh and receiving his diploma at the University of Moscow in 1921.
He moved to Berlin, Germany, where he began an academic career. He prepared a series of scientific volumes (having the help of even Albert Einstein for the part on Exact Sciences) which he then traded in academic circles, an enterprise that helped him acquire an important collection of works for the library of the newly created Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He studied psychoanalysis in Vienna, under the supervision of a former student of Sigmund Freud. He dabbled in psychiatry, and in 1930 published a major work on the diagnosis of epilepsy using electroencephalograms.
In 1939, during his sabbatical (a year-long "vacation" that major universities give to their professors, for personal development), traveled to New York, where, inspired by Freud, he pursued an interest in the origin of ancient religions.
With the outbreak of World War II, Velikovsky became a permanent resident of the United States of America, and cemented his studies of myths and legends of the ancient world. This research culminated in his remarkable theory on the origin of the stories of ancient catastrophes, which was general advertised in 1950 with his book "Worlds in collision".
Many literary critics praised his erudition, his deductive reasoning, his contributions to the world of thinkers. They attacked the skepticism with which new ideas were often received, and criticized even some established scientists. They defended Immanuel Velikovsky calling him a learned man who has dared to unite Science, Folklore and Religion, finding without help a rational way to do it. (Fulton Ousler, "Why the sun stood still: a preview of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky’s sensational new book: 'Worlds in collision'", in "Great Books from Reader's Digest, I. A selection of 21 outstanding books", Reader's Digest Mexico, Mexico City, 1962).
CRITICISM TO VELIKOVSKY'S THEORY
Immanuel Velikovsky is an anomaly in the History of Science in the twentieth-century. On the one hand, there is a huge amount of articles written ABOUT Velikovsky, but almost nothing written BY Velikovsky. His scientific production, understood as articles submitted to and evaluated by the scientific community, is virtually nonexistent. So what remains are his titles sold directly to the public.
One of the first surprises that emerged when analyzing the work of Velikovsky about Earth's near collision with another celestial body is that his theory is multidisciplinary, encompassing both History and Astronomy. This in itself has nothing wrong, but is rare. Normally, because of the vastness in the amount of knowledge accumulated since the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, today the most common approach is that scientists specialize in specific fields. While it is possible and even desirable that a person possess extensive knowledge in many different fields, in practice it is almost impossible for a single individual to be a specialist in several disciplines at once, specially when mixing Social Studies & Humanities with Exact Sciences.
Velikovsky surprised historians with detailed astronomical explanations, and astronomers with his complex historical descriptions. But a first warning that something was wrong came when astronomers and historians met to discuss the work. Historians believed that the historical part had too many flaws, but the astronomical part was intriguing. At the same time, the astronomers said that the astronomical theories of "Worlds in Collision" had no rhyme or reason, but the historical part was worthy of being thoroughly investigated.
Specialists' opinions are, of course, mere opinions. But the problem was that astronomers could find no astronomical evidence for the hypothesis that Venus had emerged from the planet Jupiter, and on its way to its present orbit, had touched the Earth, specially when it did not follow the planetary motions described by Kepler, the Newtonian dynamics and Universal Gravitation. Velikovsky said that the evidence that this occurred were in the stories of ancient peoples. Meanwhile, historians did not understand why our known history of antiquity needed some revision, in this case requiring to group separate stories around the same date to match them with the exodus of the Jews, when it was known that they were apocalyptic stories from different times and different circumstances. Velikovsky claimed that the rubbing of the planet Venus with the Earth should be the reference point for determining the historical chronologies.
Velikovsky told astronomers that his astronomical hypothesis was based on historical evidence. At the same time, he said to historians that his historical hypothesis was based on astronomical evidence. Actually, what he was trying to do was to confirm a hypothesis offering as proof another hypothesis. Unfortunately for him, in Science an idea is proven by facts, not by more ideas.
The spectacular hypothesis of "Worlds in collision" languished for decades to come, without hardly anyone caring to investigate them. This allowed the author to accuse the scientific community of conspiracy and of attempted censorship. The truth is that many think that "Worlds in collision" had more press than it deserved. Finally, in 1974, the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science offered the floor to Velikovsky, but yet, no conclusion was reached.
The problem of a theory that can not be proven is that there is no progress in human knowledge. If we do not know if it is real or not, we do not learn anything new. There is no discovery. Nothing changes in our worldview. Continuing a discussion on something that cannot be proven becomes a waste of time, or at least, it leaves the realm of Science and goes toward the realms of Philosophy, Literature and Religion. That is why scientists prefer to ignore issues too speculative, like this, and let each continue with their routine work.
However, fifty years of discoveries in Astronomy, Geology, Archeology and History provided new information that can be used to coldly analyze the proposals of "Worlds in collision".
Firstly, we found that the chemical composition of Venus has nothing to do with the chemical composition of Jupiter. While the gas giant is mainly hydrogen and helium, our rocky neighbor has mostly CO2 in its atmosphere, typical of regions close to the Sun, where those lighter gases that are the main raw material of Jupiter are scarce. This indicates that both planets were born in different places of the Solar System, under different conditions.
Secondly, analysis of terrestrial sediments show that the world 3000 years ago was relatively calm, with no major earth movements or changes in climate. There was no global cataclysm of the suggested magnitude.
Thirdly, the archaeological evidence shows that many ancient peoples, which should be merged had they shared a common history, were actually different people from different times and therefore with different cultural developments, including their myths.
And finally, the chronology of the different events from the ancient world remains coherent, with no "gaps" that could be filled by such serious events. What we remember as History very probably was that way, and is not a by-product of Humankind allegedly being subjected to untold suffering caused during an alleged global cataclysm, having as consequence a case of collective amnesia purportedly affecting no less than the entire world population, as Velikovsky suggested.
In conclusion, we must understand that in Science we shall always start from what we know to investigate the unknown, and not simply ignore what we know to substitute it by the unknown. All major scientific revolutions came to be by an improvement on the explanations of what we see every day, and not by "great ideas" that contradict what we see.
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Originally published in ABC Color on 18 May 2008. Illustration: Joshua commanding the sun to stand still. Credit: drawing by Gustave Doré, engraved by Adolphe Gusman, in "La Sainte Bible" according to the Vulgate, new translation of Jean-Jacques Bourassé and Pierre Désiré Janvier, text ornamentation by H. Giacomelli, approved by Monsignor the Archbishop of Tours, in two volumes, Alfred Mame & Fils, Tours, 1866, and English version by Cassell & Co., London, 1866, Book of Joshua, Chapter 10, illustration B (corresponding to Jos 10:12-14). With permission from Octopus Publishing Group.