Back in the forties Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian born credentialed scholar and a language expert, came upon an ancient manuscript that led him to believe that the plagues mentioned in the Bible had actually occurred in history. Buried beneath ancient accounts of reality, he found what he thought might be the source of the biblical plagues, the appearance of a huge comet which, as depicted in ancient Sumerian seals, did battle with the Earth as it passed by in the skies. Velikovsky concluded that the comet was actually Venus, which entered the solar system late—some thousands of years ago—and as it passed nearby, had knocked the Earth and Mars out of their existing orbits. Eventually the intruder, Velikovsky said, took up its position in a near-curricular orbit between Mercury and the Earth.
The scholar’s original research was published as a book called Worlds in Collision. Velikovsky was very much aware that his conclusions contradicted Newton’s Celestial Mechanics. If all the planets were in place when the solar system formed, then there was no way that an additional planet could have been added, and certainly not within the last five to ten thousand years. Such a view went beyond mere supposition, theory, or idea. It had become, indeed, a virtual ‘fact,’ one more solid than the concrete that built the universities whose professors promulgated many such unchallengeable ‘facts.’
One of those universities was Harvard, located in that bastion of clear skies, Boston. And while Boston may not have had very clear skies, even in the forties, really eminent astronomers such as Harvard’s own Harlow Shapley are—when their minds are unclouded by the ‘realities’ and ‘facts’ which form the foundation for many of our most enduring theories—sometimes seem capable of seeing the light.
Velikovsky, excited by his historical finds, sought out Shapley simply because the professor was, by far, the most notable astronomer of the time.
Shapley, who had an aversion to reading other people’s work, agreed to consider Velikovsky’s ideas if a third party he respected would bring it to his attention. He agreed that his fellow educator, the eminent Harvard philosopher Horace Kallen, would do.
Shapley subsequently saved himself considerable reading. When Kallen, in a letter of praise extolling the virtues of Velikovsky’s work, let drop the opinion that if Velikovsky should prove correct, the traditional beliefs of astronomy, among other disciplines, would have to be reconsidered Shapley—becoming acquainted with the cometery hypothesis second-hand—went ballistic.
“The sensational claims of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky fail to interest me,” he began, “because his conclusions were pretty obviously based on incompetent data,” which was to say: because his conclusions opposed the prevailing theory, the results could not be based on fact.
And Shapley was just getting started. If Velikovsky was right in his basic cometery hypothesis, “then the laws of Newton are false. In other words, if Dr. Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.”
We can envision Shapley’s mental struggle here—comparing reality with recall. Newton’s Celestial Mechanics sat at the apex of his astronomical hierarchy and provided the template against which all other realities were to be tested. Here comes some doctor—Velikovsky—with nothing but a medical degree to support his claims to scholarship, painting a picture of reality that contradicted the picture Shapley, and indeed the whole world, fervently believed in. Against Shapley’s fixed picture of Celestial Mechanics, a neat and orderly solar system that would continue to move in the same way forever after as it had from eternities before. Velikovsky was painting a picture of the solar system that produced in Shapley a world of outrage.
Shapley expressed his outrage very much like many express their outrage.
First he checked to see who exactly was causing him such outrage, and then proceeded to launch an all-out assault upon the unfortumate offender.
It can be said, that most of us want to bring our rage to some kind of resolution, and when that rage is provoked by a conflict between reality and our recollection of that reality, and that conflict seems to be the invention of some individual, then removing that person might seem to go a long way toward resolving our problem. Such is the charitable explanation for Shapley’s subsequent behavior, but that hardly seems to explain the lengths to which the imminent scientist would soon go.
Before contacting Shapley, Velikovsky had gone to considerable trouble to find a publisher. After expressing interest, Macmillan assigned venerable editor James Putnam to examine the book’s possibilities. The exploration involved not only conducting market research, which showed Worlds in Collision to be a valuable property, but also contacting scientists in the field for their opinions. This too produced favorable results, with the curator of the Hayden Planetarium observing that Velikovsky’s book provided a good opportunity to reexamine “the underpinning of modern science.”
Based on these reports, Macmillan signed a full publishing contract with Velikovsky and Worlds in Collision was typeset. As part of the prepublication promotion, Harper’s Magazine had reporter Eric Larrabee prepare a condensation of the book which was published with the title The Day the Sun Stood Still. The Reader’s Digest, Collier’s, even Paris-Match picked up versions, and the publicity even made the cover of Newsweek.
Shapley responded by writing to Macmillan on Harvard College Observatory stationery noting that the rumor that Macmillan was canceling publication was a great relief. Shapley, the source of the rumor, forged ahead confidently, revealing that “a few scientists with whom I have talked about this matter [are] astonished that the great Macmillan Company . . . would venture into the Black Arts,” adding that Velikovsky’s output was “the most arrant nonsense of my experience.”
The letter was actually an implied threat to boycott Macmillan’s lucrative textbook sales, and Putnam wrote back that he couldn’t believe the publication of Worlds in Collision would affect long-standing views about the excellence of Macmillan’s scientific publications. Shapley replied on the same date that the publication would cut him off from the Macmillan Company, that when he had run into Velikovsky in New York by chance, he had “looked around to see if he had a keeper.”
Panicked, George Brett, Macmillan’s president, wrote Shapley that he would have a panel of independent scholars review the book in advance of publication. The panel endorsed Velikovsky’s research as honest and on a subject of scientific, public and general interest. Brett authorized publication.
This outcome produced in Shapley and his group of Harvard defenders something very much like frenzy. As president of Science Service, Shapley controlled the publication of Science News Letter and he began a prepublication blitz in its pages discrediting Macmillan and Velikovsky, even taking out expensive ads in the New York Times calling attention to his own attack. He cried to all that would listen that Velikovsky was a crank, his book “the most successful fraud that has been perpetrated on leading American publications,” comparing it to the perennially popular Flat Earth tractates (a myth created by evolutionists in the 19th century to tar their opponents), complained about the current scientific “age of decadence” and claimed that while he was “a sympathetic friend of the thwarted and demented,” Velikovsky’s ideas were “rubbish on the level of astrological hocus pocus.” He even compared Velikovsky to Senator McCarthy who spent his time uncovering Soviet spies in the government, a comparison that, considering Velikovsky’s Russian roots, seemed rather ironic and strange.
Shapley’s frantic efforts went for naught though. Worlds in Collision was published in April of 1950 and immediately shot to the top of the best-seller lists.
While Shapley couldn’t threaten to burn Velikovsky at the stake, as the church had once threatened Galileo and others, science, while claiming to be a fair and open endeavor, soon proved itself to be as dictatorial as the most fanatical of eclesiastical organizations and Shapley set about demonstrating its ability to retaliate against apostates.
The first volley was directed at Gordon Atwater, curator at the Hayden Planetarium and chairman of the Astronomy department at the American Museum of Natural History. Asked to declare his allegiances regarding Velikovsky, he replied heroically, “that science must investigate unorthodox ideas calmly and with an open mind.” The response drew Atwater’s boss and a colleague to his museum office. The colleague spat in his face and his boss fired him on the spot, forcing him to clear out his office immediately.
Shapley, it turned out, was a member of the museum’s board of directors.
With “sheer terror and panic” reigning at the Hayden, This Week magazine was pressured into foregoing publication of an Atwater article. Failing in this effort, Shapley focused on removing potential book reviewers and replacing their work with reviews by his friends, a ploy that worked first at the Herald Tribune, and then extended throughout the country where the few astronomers who could write contributed reviews calling Velikovsky a crackpot, a liar and a general threat to the continuation of civilization as we all know it.
After seven weeks of sustained attack, Brett, president at Macmillan, threw in the towel, asking Velikovsky to let Macmillan out of its contract because three-quarters of its business, which derived from textbooks, was in danger.
Velikovsky graciously agreed, allowing the contract to be transferred to the more publicly oriented Doubleday, which not only wracked up tremendous profits with it, but also published six additional books authored by Velikovsky. Macmillan, however, which hoped its ordeal would be over, found it was just beginning, as The New York Times published the facts of the affair in excruciating detail. Undaunted by the negative publicity, Shapley moved in and demanded, as part of Macmillan’s penitence, the head of James Putnam, who was dutifully fired after 25 years of service to the company.
Reporters, viewing this attack on the freedom of the written word in America and attempting to question Shapley’s motives and actions, ironically found themselves called upon to act as the scorpion tail of a scientific community that claimed to have saved humanity from a real catastrophe. The literary critic of the New Yorker, for instance, claimed, without a hint of humor, that Worlds in Collision was “a pathetic, ominous and superstitious piece of work,” whose purpose was to establish a new world order.
Supporters’ presentations were called “a mixture of divination, ignorance, haruspices’ palaver, and pseudoscientific half-truths” or more to the point “plain hokum.” The adjectives were colorful. “Not since Captain Hasenpfeffer was reported sailing into New York harbor with a cargo of subways and artesian wells has there been a better candidate for P. T. Barnum’s Hall of Fame,” moaned the Christian Science Monitor. “The most outrageous collection of nonsense since the invention of the printing press,” (The Indianapolis Star). Velikovsky should be criticized for not including “the Ute legend of cottontail tales of Henny-Penny, Humpty-Dumpty, or even Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe,” (The Toronto Globe and Mail). “A shining example of book and magazine-publishing irresponsibility,” (The Saturday Review of Literature).
In battling for the preimanence of consensus science, earnest lackeys of the cause frequently call on the writing talents of the not-so-scientifically oriented arts community because they are equally impressed by colorful adjectives and meaningless propositions, many of which can be quite nasty.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) organized a panel discussion on publishing responsibility officered, of course, by Harlow Shapley at which Macmillan representatives appeared to confess the exact nature of their sins and to beg absolution. AAAS meetings have little to do with science and much to do with ensuring that the penalties for nonconformity with consensus science are very visible to the scientific community.
The reaction to Velikovsky is the standard reaction to apostasy of a science/religion where telescope time, for instance, is denied to credentialed practitioners who fail to confirm the absurd big bang concept describing an explosion that created matter; and to peer-reviewed journals refusing to print any criticism of consensus reality, and in fact, refusing to publish on entire areas which are considered off-limits.
To get around the growing public concern that the entire edifice of empirical science is unsupportable, the latest strategy, devised to avoid the appearance of intolerance resulting from cases like that of Velikovsky, is to take entire areas giving rise to controversial theories, and simply declare them to be settled matters—beyond debate. The distance to the stars, it is said, has been measured and it’s now beyond question. So let’s move on to more fruitful discussions like measuring what’s going on inside that black hole on the other side of Arcturus.
Velikovsky, in response to the attack, shifted gears and started playing the game like an empirical scientist. He made several predictions based on his theory, the most notable being that Jupiter emitted radio signals (subsequently found to be correct); he also predicted that Venus would be hot, and he also estimated what turned out to be its actual temperature, all to the derision of the empirical community. Carl Sagan was allowed to write a preemptive article prior to NASA’s Venus probe to cover empirical science’s behind on Venus should Velikovsky be proven correct. But the campaign didn’t work, and as the space program generated growing public interest in the ’60s, Velikovsky’s popularity soared.
Thus, in the early ’70s, the AAAS was compelled to hold one of its periodic inquisitions to exorcise itself of evil, arranging an ‘objective’ symposium on “Velikovsky’s Challenge to Science.” The symposium, which Velikovsky, in his naïveté attended, and which was chaired, although not engineered, by Sagan, was a rigged condemnation on everything Velikovsky. It concluded that Velikovsky was a hack and nothing he said was scientific, and therefore his predictions, albeit correct, were not ‘scientific.’ The technique continues to serve the ends of consensus science. Witness the current debate over intelligent design.
Peter Bros is also the author of the 9-volume Copernican Series. This article is edited and adapted from Let’s Talk Flying Saucers: How Crackpot Ideas Are Blinding Us to Reality and Leading Us to Extinction.