Velikovsky, Immanuel

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(1895-1979) Russian-born psychiatrist and author, in Germany from 1921, in Palestine 1924-1939, and then in US until his death; primarily known for a series of books putting forward, with a vast amount of documentation and argument, a theory of Earth's history which proposes that comparatively recent large-scale changes in the solar system had catastrophic effects on the Earth, and that historical evidence for this Cosmology (in the form of legends, Mythology, the Bible and other accounts) exists for this catastrophist understanding of history, though this approach suffered from his insistence on reading these sources as providing literal descriptions – an instance being the sun standing hill, as recorded in the Bible. After some privately released pamphlets –= Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History (1945 chap) and Cosmos Without Gravitation (1946 chap) [for full titles see Checklist] – he began to address what would become a large lay readership in the first of his sustained arguments for his theses, Worlds in Collision (1950), following this with the Ages in Chaos sequence beginning with Ages in Chaos (1952) [for details see Checklist], where he attempted for present his arguments with greater rigour.

In particular, Velikovsky claimed that the planet Venus was a recent addition to the Sun's retinue, having been spat out by Jupiter in biblical times and then having swooped close to the Earth on several occasions before coming to rest in its current orbit: one effect of these near-misses was to make the Earth flip over on its axis. Making planets flip over in this way is extremely hard to do because of the gyroscope effect, and it was soon proven that his basic mechanism was unfeasible. Nevertheless, the books are probably the most significant in twentieth-century Pseudoscience.

An apparent attempt by scientists to have Velikovsky's work censored is recounted in The Velikovsky Affair (anth 1966) edited by Alfred de Grazia. A collection of essays defending Velikovsky's science and pointing to the accuracy of many of his predictions (while, it has to be said, ignoring the inaccuracy of others) is Velikovsky Reconsidered (anth 1976) edited by the editors of Pensée. The proceedings of a scientific conference to discuss the affair are found in Scientists Confront Velikovsky (anth 1977) edited by Donald Goldsmith. An over-friendly overview of Velikovskianism is given in Doomsday: The Science of Catastrophe (1979) by Fred Warshofsky.

In the early 1980s there was a flurry of renewed interest in Velikovsky's ideas when it was proposed that flipping the Earth over on its axis might not be so difficult as had been thought. Various writers pointed to the childhood toy called the tippe-top which, when spun, easily turns over to stand on its head, apparently defying the gyroscopic effect. Probably the most significant book in this vein was The Reversing Earth (1982) by Peter Warlow, which described the tippe-top effect (and much else in support of IV's ideas) in persuasive detail. The flaw in the argument is (to simplify) that the tippe-top effect works only if the tippe-top is placed on a surface (e.g., a table-top) in an appropriate gravitational field, whereas a planet orbits in free fall.

Orthodox scientists have themselves proposed some quasi-Velikovskian ideas since the 1960s – even though the underlying mechanisms Velikovsky suggested continue to be treated as risible – reflecting a recognition that catastrophic changes caused by cosmic events may have played a greater part in our planet's history than hitherto recognized; in particular, it is now generally accepted that the extinction of the Dinosaurs about 65 million years ago was the result of one such event. A type example of a disproved theory of this sort is supplied by The Jupiter Effect (1974) by John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann, which predicted dire consequences from an unusual planetary alignment and a peak of solar activity in 1982; Beyond the Jupiter Effect (1983) is rather more muted.

Velikovsky's dramatic scenario of planetary near-misses parallels many of the catastrophic events described in sf; a notable fictional precursor is When Worlds Collide (September 1932-February 1933 Blue Book; 1933) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Some of the few interesting sf novels in the Velikovskian mode (there are countless bad Disaster novels) are The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber, in which a singleton planet enters the solar system, The HAB Theory (1976) by Allan W Eckert, in which the Earth flips on its axis, Lucifer's Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which the Earth is struck by a small Comet, and Nemesis (1989) by Isaac Asimov, which focuses on the threat to Earth of a dwarf star on course for a close encounter with the solar system. [PN/JGr/JC]

see also: Adam and Eve.

Immanuel Velikovsky

born Vitebsk, Russia [now Belarus]: 10 June 1895

died Princeton, New Jersey: 17 November 1979




Ages in Chaos

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about the author

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