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"Worlds in Collision":
REVIEWS AND REVIEWERS
by Duane Vorhees
From the publication of Worlds in Collision in 1950 until his death in 1979,
Immanuel Velikovsky was in an unusual position. His financial future was
assured—all of his books remained in print through his lifetime, and some
of them went through dozens of hardcover and soft-cover reprintings—but his
reputation was permanently tarnished. Whenever establishment figures wished
to make a statement about pseudo-science or the occult, or later to
castigate the Scientific Creationists, they usually deemed it necessary to
include Velikovsky in their denunciations—even though Velikovsky shared
their abhorrence for religious fundamentalism. In fact, in the 1960s, when
a new, more restive, generation of Americans began taking his ideas
seriously and accepting the man himself as a sort of underground cult
figure, Velikovsky was embarrassed rather than pleased: the mystics and
hippies and academic outsiders were no substitute for legitimate
In 1973, Velikovsky told a Nassau Community College audience that Worlds in
Collision "caused an excitement that no other book in the history of
science did cause," provoking more than 4,000 articles in response. The
book also stirred the scientific community into somewhat uncharacteristic
censoring activities. As a psychoanalyst, Velikovsky was willing to ascribe
the scientists' reaction to an underlying unconscious motivation "caused by
a hidden fear of knowing the events of the past, more than by an aversion to
challenging the conventional notions."
I Like "the projection of fear of atomic disaster not toward its source in
our mental heritage, but toward the disclosure of that source," the
behavior of the anti-catastrophists from Aristotle onwards is "a negative
reaction... a combination of not wishing to become aware of hidden springs,
and an emotional reaction against that which may bring awareness of the
cause of the mental disturbance."
This conclusion was echoed by one of the few psychiatrists who has seriously looked at
Velikovsky's later work—Harold Graff—who compared the "Velikovsky Affair"
with the case of Freud's struggle for acceptance.
Analysts claim that Freud's theories were rejected because of their disturbing content,
i.e., the fears of learning about id, primary process, infantile sexuality,
and other things about a person's own nature. While this may be so, it
could also be a secondary elaboration or an adequate defense against more
primary reasons for the need to reject psychoanalytic ideas, that is, ideas
that carried a much more dangerous threat to the psyche
[W.I.C., ideas concerning human powerlessness in the face of the essential
instability of our planetary home.]
and his neo-Platonic disciples, Kepler and Galileo, were attacked by
Christian Aristotelians because of their proof that the Earth is not
the center of existence; Darwin for h' demonstration that man is not
a unique special creation but merely a specialized extension of the
anima kingdom; Freud for postulating that men are not in conscious
control of their most basic behaviors; an Velikovsky for pointing
out that even life itself is a precarious state of affairs that can
be snuffed out a any time. In addition to intellectual inertia,
social stratification, archaic unconscious motivation, historical
circumstance, shared cultural response to social change, individual
enmity and/or ambition, the allege worthlessness of the Velikovskian
concepts themselves, or some other explanations for the ill
treatment accorded Velikovsky by man, Velikovsky also believed that
there was a racial dimension as well According to Theodor Relk's
student, Bronson Feldman (in an unpublished paper), Velikovsky had
told him, "that the mental derangement (stupidly labeled by German
Journalism long ago 'Anti-Semitism' certainly accounted for much of
the ferocity they had exhibited in the first encounter with his
contributions to learning."
The events of
the "Velikovsky Affair" need not be thoroughly described here. In
brief, Velikovsky' ideas were first nationally presented in a precis
by journalist Eric Larrabee in the January, 1950, issue of
Harper's. Almost immediately, it seems, Harlow Shapley began
organizing a movement to prevent the publication of Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. Pre-publication attacks against the ideas
contained therein failed to dissuade the Macmillan Company to cancel
its commitments to Velikovsky, although company president Brett did
take the precaution of having it submitted to one more round of
expert previewers before giving the final go-ahead. Nevertheless,
some two months after the book first appeared in April, 1950, an
academic boycott of the company's textbooks forced Brett to transfer
the title to rival Doubleday, which had no textbook division and so
was not vulnerable to the same pressures. Over the next decades,
even as establishment figures such as Nobel Prize winners, Harold
Urey and Walte Alvarez, moved toward quasi-Velikovskian explanations
for past events, they and other scientists almost uniformly either
failed to acknowledge Velikovsky's precedence, or denigrated his
methods and hence his conclusions as spurious and his correct
prognostications as accidental, or else they claimed that Velikovsky
had merely picked up on and sensationalized the correct conclusions
of earlier, "legitimate," scholars.
Velikovsky's ideas were presented in detail to the public for the first time in
"The Day the Sun Stood Still," Eric Larrabee's article in the
January, 1950, Harper's. Hard on its heels, Newsweek
(Jan. 9, pp. 1619) called Velikovsky "a broad gauge savant with an
incredible field of competence in the sciences" and even claimed
that he "arrives at ideas hypothesized this month by Albert Einstein
in his new and untested theory of gravitation." The Larrabee article
also inspired The Oregonian editors to note on Jan. 9 that:
[a] "high percentage of those whose fields are invaded and their
facts questioned" by Velikovsky may be expected to rise to the
challenge. The minds that will be stimulated by this book are the
world's best. Who knows what may come of that?"
But, in retrospect, it may be that the chief importance of the Harper's
and Newsweek articles is that they notified Harold Shapley and
his colleagues that Macmillan was preparing to publish Worlds in
On Feb. 9
Shapley enclosed a seven-page mimeograph of an article being
prepared by his close associate Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who is
credited with demonstrating the largely-hydrogen nature of stars.
Her diatribe, "A Thing Imagination Boggles At," was rather widely
distributed at Harvard's expense; Velikovsky's allies John J.
O'Neill, Ted O. Thackrey, and Vasill I. Komarewsky all received
copies. In it she noted ironically that the Great Moon Hoax of
1835—a deliberate fraud purporting to be Sir John Herschel's
description of newly-discovered Lunarians—had been exposed by
Macmillan's Magazine. She conceded, however, that "The
Day the Sun Stood Still" was neither hoax nor science fiction: it
was "confused and ponderous balderdash."
incredulity, derision—these we can experience and forget. But the
feeling of consternation remains. Is it for this that the scholar
patiently unravels and analyzes his problems? Is this scientific
age so uncritical, so devoid of a perception of the nature of
evidence, and of ordinary common sense that any considerable number
of people will be fooled by this indiscriminate parade of the jargon
of a dozen fields of learning? Evidently a great national magazine,
and a publisher who has in the past handled great works of science,
believe that they will. At a time when the work of scholars cannot
be published for lack of funds, will the sale of "Worlds in
Collision" exceed that of the "Great Moon Hoax"? If this is so—and
I fear that it is—we are in an age of intellectual catastrophe, a
real cause for consternation.
In February, James Putnam showed Shapley's letters to Velikovsky. Nevertheless,
despite the pugnacity he had shown in his Observer columns only a
couple of years earlier, Velikovsky remained aloof from the fray.
But the growing boycott campaign against Macmillan and "the most
savage reviews a book of non-fiction has received for a long time"
(as Doubleday's west coast editor Howard Cady told Berkeley Gazette
columnist Ken Carnahan on June 25) caused him to begin
counterpunching. Gone was his Observer truculence, however; despite
a great deal of provocation, over the coming decades Velikovsky
almost always managed to keep the moral high ground, arguing issues
rather than personalities. His opponents were not always so canny or so gracious.
The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune
(Feb. 12) gave prominence to a letter by two University of Minnesota scientists,
astronomer William Luyton and aeronautical engineer Jean Picard,
protesting the paper's reprint of "The Day the Sun Stood Still."
Larrabee's article was "a mixture of divination, studied ignorance,
haruspices, palaver, and pseudoscientific half-truths, in other
words...just plain hokum." Luyton and Picard took the newspaper to
task for having "refrained from asking the comments of real
scientists such as Einstein, Shapley, Urey and of competent
archeologists and biblical scholars."
At this juncture, Fulton Oursler, a senior editor at Reader's Digest,
chose to interpret part of Velikovsky's thesis as a defense against
Clarence Darrow's famous cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan
at the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial." Darrow had used Bryan's Biblical
literalism regarding Joshua's stopping the sun and the moon in the
sky to belittle the fundamentalists' opposition to Darwinian
evolution; but now Velikovsky, "[like] a detective among the
sciences ... has put together by deductive reasoning a chain of
circumstantial evidence that may deeply affect the world of thinking
On Feb. 19 the New York Times and the Herald Tribune each ran
full-page ads announcing the appearance of "The Heavens Burst," the
first installment of a projected three-part summary of Worlds in
Collision that chief nonfiction editor John Lear was
preparing for Collier's. The Feb. 25 issue of that magazine
appeared that same day, featuring not only the Lear piece but also a
brief note of approval by the most popular religious writer of the
day, Norman Vincent Peale. Also on Feb. 19, Thackrey's The
Compass appeared on the news stands featuring a reprint of
"The Day the Sun Stood Still" and an editorial comment extolling the
revolutionary nature of Velikovsky's theory.
The following day, Shapley wrote to Thackrey: "Dear Ted: Somebody has done you
dirt. They got you to republish Larrabee's article....
In my rather long
experience in the field of science this is the most successful fraud
that has been perpetrated on leading American publications. To me
the article seems so transparent that I am surprised that Harper's
and Macmillan would handle it. I am not quite sure that Macmillan
is going through with the publication, because that firm has perhaps
the highest reputation in the world for the handling of scientific books
You know, of
course, that I personally am a sympathetic friend of the thwarted
and demented, and have no high respect for formalism, and none at
all for orthodoxy. But this "Sun stood still" stuff is pure
rubbish, of the level of the astrological hocus-pocus, except that
Dr. V. has read widely as well as superficially and can parade a lot
of technical terms which apparently he has not mastered.
Shapley's Feb. 25 Science News Letter ran an article ("Theories
Denounced") that made the establishment's opposition to Velikovsky
public for the first time. Speaking for "his fellow astronomers,"
Shapley was quoted as saying that the theories in question were
"rubbish and nonsense." The director of the American Geological
Institute, David Delo, said that Velikovsky "appears to be bypassing
all the sound, scientific observations of a multitude of geologists
made during the past 100 years." Carl Kraeling, director of the
University of Chicago Oriental Institute, called Worlds in
Collision an "example of the apologetic procedure," looking for
evidence to fit a preconceived theory: "There is nothing we as
historians can do... other than smile and go about our business."
And the president of Hebrew Union College, Nelson Glueck, maintained
that "biblical material ... lends itself to too many kinds of
interpretations... [I]f you want to, you can prove almost anything by the Bible."
The object of interest, Worlds in Collision, had not even been published
yet. Nonetheless, Franklin D. Roosevelt's former "brain-truster",
Harold L. Ickes, wrote in the March 6 New Republic that his
old New York Post colleague, Velikovsky, "has inspired
a terror so beyond imagination that we may be able to shake off such
trivial fears as those of the A bomb and the H bomb..."
"If the hussy
Venus is making eyes at us, either with or without honorable
intentions, the result could be beyond calculation. Both Venus and
Earth would be chaff in the hands of cosmic forces that are
uncontrollable. It might chance that Venus would be nostalgic for
those places on Earth which she formerly visited. Or, she might
have studied her guidebook to discover what might be most worth
visiting—the North American continent or the Soviet Republics. To
drop in on either would be a smash hit which neither would enjoy,
despite its being a new experience. Or the same visit might strain
to the utmost the hospitality of both."
The March 13
Time Joined the fray with a rehash of quotes from Shapley's
Science News Letter experts and a bogus biography of Velikovsky,
who had studied "a little zoology and botany" at Edinburgh before
getting a medical degree and whose "only other employment has been a
job as editor of... a Palestinian magazine subsidized by his
father. His knowledge of many sciences is self-taught."
Then, on March
14, heralded by large ads in the New York Times, "A Thing
Imagination Boggles At" resurfaced in the Reporter with a new
title: "Nonsense, Dr. Velikovsky!" Payne-Gaposchkin minced no words:
"The most insidious part of the argument is the appeal to Biblical
sources. There always have been, and always will be, well-meaning
people who defend the literal interpretation of Scripture. But
there can seldom have been a writer who did so by a more complete
abrogation of the findings and principles of science...
"The road to fame and fortune for the twentieth-century scholar is
clear. Never mind logic; never mind the precise meaning of words or
the results of exact research. Employ the vocabulary of a dozen
fields of learning. Use a liberal sprinkling of Biblical phrases."
And on March 29, Christian Science Monitor science editor Herbert B. Nichols
entered the lists with a scathing review of a still-unpublished book [paragraphing altered]:
"Experience cannot wither, nor education stale, the puckishness which
makes even the most recondite among mankind embrace outrageous
improbability... Not since Capt. Heinle 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... Baron Von Munchausen, Paul Bunyan, fairy stories and legends
of Santa Claus are as entertaining as Velikovsky, but they are
seldom accepted by adults as factual.
"The role of critic of existing theories born of wishful thinking is
arduous, time consuming, and thankless. It seems some people
believe what they want to believe regardless of logic. But if any
reputable scientist comes forth publicly to back Velikovsky, I for
one promise to stake out real estate on the moon, build a perpetual
motion machine, or equip a safari to search for the sidehill wampus,
tripodero, Lochness Monster, or the whirling whimpus."
Worlds in Collision went on sale on Monday, April 3, 1950, the first working day after
April Fool's Day. The inauguration was set to begin with a highly
touted review by Gordon Atwater in the nationally syndicated Sunday
supplement, This Week. There had been nothing secret about
his plans to conduct a Velikovskian skyshow; it had been openly
listed as a future Hayden attraction in 1948 and 1949. But when his
colleagues learned that Atwater planned to plug the book, "There was
sheer terror and panic at the Hayden... A member of the staff even
walked into my office and spit in my face," Atwater recalled years
On April 1, 1950, the day before his article was set to appear, he
was given a fifteen-minute notice of his dismissal as chairman of
the American Museum of Natural History's astronomy department and
curator of its Hayden Planetarium; he was not even given enough time
to remove personal effects from his office. Although he continued
to receive his salary for another six months, he was afterwards
blacklisted from the science education profession. And, needless to
say, the scheduled presentation of "Our Battle-Scarred Earth" was
canceled. It is noteworthy but not surprising that Harlow Shapley was a member
of the museum's board of directors.
however, was anything but inflammatory:
You may have
heard that Dr. Velikovsky's astronomy is rubbish, his geology
nonsense and his history ridiculous. You will be hearing those
things again and again. I do not intend to say that all Dr.
Velikovsky's findings are correct—in fact, I disagree with many of
them. But I do contend that ... the author has done a tremendous
job .... The greatest value of "Worlds in Collision" is this: it
sets up an unusual approach to some of the world's great problems...
In assembling these proofs Dr. Velikovsky has plunged headlong into
a dozen different sciences and has dug deeply into the roots of
many. Frequently he has ignored modern authorities and conventional
procedures and by-passed the work of years to get at the originals
Otto Struve, the chairman/honorary director of the Yerkes Observatory who had
challenged Atwater's stance a few days earlier,
had also been in contact with O'Neill and the New York Herald
Tribune, which owned This Week, but O'Neill was able to
persuade the paper not to jettison Atwater's piece. However,
O'Neill's own projected series of Velikovsky articles were replaced
by Struve's review of Worlds in Collision -"Copernicus? Who
Is He?": "This is the first time I have been called on to review a
book of this character. It is not a book of science and it cannot
be dealt with in scientific terms," Struve averred. "It would be
futile to argue or to explain to the author" why his theories were wrong."
"We live in an era
of mental stress and uncertainty, when minds are tempted to
short-circuit the laborious and often dreary process of logical
thinking and turn to supernatural phenomena, mysticism and wishful
thinking.... The amazing acceptance of the ideas set forth in this
book is a consequence of this trend."
Eventually, though, in the Book-of-the-Month Club News, O'Neill was able
"This is not just
a wonder book. It is a serious presentation by a sincere scholar,
and there is a deep philosophic significance underlying it....
Science and history have been standing pat for entirely too long on
a theory of man and nature that excludes the possibility of events
outside a dull, safe routine. They have achieved this static
program by hanging velvet curtains of taboo around embarrassing
situations. They are ripe for a jolt. Dr. Velikovsky has pulled
some of the curtains aside."
The full-scale public offensive aimed directly against Velikovsky himself rather
than his surrogate Larrabee began with astronomer Paul Herget's
review in the April I issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer, which
sarcastically claimed that Velikovsky "might equally well insist
that the State of Washington somehow rose up and threw a silver
dollar across the Rappahannock River" as to attribute the activities
of the ancient gods to the planets we have named after them."
New York Times science editor Waldemar Kaempffert, in his April 2
review, called Worlds in Collision "one of the most
remarkable farragoes ever concocted." Kaempffert had already
discussed the issue with Lloyd Motz of Columbia; as a consultant for
Velikovsky, Motz had read part of the book's epilogue, and he told
Kaempffert that he could not find any methodological errors in it.
Through O'Neill, Kaempffert had also consulted with critic Otto
Neugebauer, an authority on ancient astronomy whom American Oriental
Society secretary-treasurer Ferris J. Stephens imposed as one of
Brett's last-minute readers.
Kaempffert chose to side with Neugebauer rather than Motz, and
drafted a blistering attack. And his colleague, Orville Prescott,
in the New York Times Review of Books for the same date,
opined that it "would be hard to find anyone as learned as Dr.
Velikovsky who is at the same time so blissfully unaware of the
nature of scientific evidence." However, to balance the paper's
presentation to some extent, the same issue of the Times also
carried Harvey Breit's interview with Velikovsky. In it there was
very little discussion of Velikovsky's "revolutionary (or quixotic)
astrohistorical findings," but much was made of Velikovsky's
reactions to the critical astronomers' fault-finding. Breit quoted
Velikovsky as saying:
"Science today, as
religion in the past, has become dogmatic-in the East as in the
West. A scientist must swear loyalty to the established dogmas.
The first rule of the scientific attitude is to study, then to think
and then to express an opinion. A reverse of this is not a
scientific approach, and this is exactly what has been done by a
group of scientists who have expressed opinions about my work ....
"What I require
from my reader... is courage. Courage in what? Courage to trust in
his own ability to think. He should read the book and look into the
references and make his own conclusions. He must remember that
science is not licensed."
Initial reactions by non-scientists away from the great eastern metropolitan
centers tended to be rather favorable. For example, W. J. Mahoney,
Jr., in the April 2 issue of the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser
admitted that the book might not be taken seriously by "those who
are supposed to know, but that "no reading layman will be bored by
it." William Asger, a preacher in Oxford, Mississippi, wrote in the
Memphis Commercial Appeal that it was "a foregone conclusion"
that the book would at the very least “call for renewed
investigation for others of the facts so long accepted. If it does
no more, the author has rendered a noble service to his profession
and to his fellow man." And "F. L.," the reviewer for the Fort
Worth News-Sentinel, pointed out that "our collisionist" "has
studied in Just about all the places there are on this globe and his
book is as liberally sprinkled with footnotes as salt on cinema
house popcorn;" in a more serious vein, F. L. thought that the book
offered one of the most original solutions he had seen for the
mystery of the fresh mammoth carcasses that were occasionally
unearthed. Joseph Landau (Louisville Courier-Journal, April
2) discussed the book in relation to a fundamentalist perspective,
admitting that a superficial reading would provide "wonderful
ammunition to those who... have battled modern interpretation of the
Bible." But in actuality, the book treated the scriptures as "human
history, as history on a plane of man and not of God. It seems to
this reviewer that the book deals a decisive blow to the idea of
divine intervention into human affairs." Maximillian Berners in the
Los Angeles Times complained that "this strange volume is not
easy to read" and that "it is far too long," but that it "still has
an exciting pull to it, and it will become a best seller." Back
East, Kenneth B. Roberts took a thoughtful look at the book for the
Providence Sunday Journal and concluded that a "persuasive
savant offers an incredibly simple and utterly hideous solution of
scores of baffling problems of antiquity... [R]ight or wrong,
rational or ridiculous, this is fascinating fare."
In the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewer George R. Stewart wondered how
"such a scientifically worthless and at the same time boring book"
could have such mass appeal: "We should expect better scholarship of
a senior at the university." Stewart also alluded to "Nonsense, Dr.
Velikovsky!," Gaposchkin's old piece in the Reporter: "My
only suggestion would be to insert the words 'utter and boring' just
before 'nonsense."' As an afterthought, however, he addressed the
issue that he had raised in the first place, the reason for the
book's phenomenal success, and decided that the blame rested
squarely on the shoulders of the scientists themselves, who have discovered
so much, and... have had to take much of it on faith! For, as they
write so often, This cannot be explained in ordinary terms. Too
often, probably, this means that the scientists don't want to take
the trouble to try. And when someone does, many of them are quick
to beat him over the head as a popularizer. So since most people
have to accept Einstein and Oppenheimer on faith, why should we be
surprised when they accept Velikovsky too?
Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune (.April 3) also tried to make
some sense of the Velikovsky event:
"And now, in this
year of hydrogen hysteria, comes Immanuel Velikovsky...with a
bewildering mist of near erudition in dozens of tongues and sciences
"In an age when
the equations of the physicists, more mysterious than any cosmogonic
folktale, can destroy a city of a hundred thousand inhabitants in an
instant, anything may seem believable. Perhaps it is not, after
all, strange that Dr. Velikovsky's weird tapestry of science,
near-science and sheer superstition should have been read in
manuscript with respect by so odd a congeries of believers as Dr.
Horace M. Kallen, John J. O'Neill, Clifton P. Fadiman, and Gordon
polyphonal researches seem to be generating havoc and faith. Yet to
the lay reader the great heap of detached bits of lore which Dr.
Velikovsky has excavated from hither and yon and his immense
confidence that he has discovered hosts of clues to the prehistoric
past which I had eluded every previous investigator has a cumulative
and almost opiate effect...
"We live with
unpoetic headlines of fragmented catastrophes, and Dr. Velikovsky
soothes us, weaving all the world's legends of catastrophe into a
kind of cosmic poetry which sounds like science and so appeals to a
generation which has been abandoned by its poets ...
"I doubt that he
is hoaxing; I doubt that he is insane. His long, repetitive,
fundamentally absurd scrapbook is a document in man's will to
Readers of the recent Time article responded with a spectrum of views in the
magazine's April 3 letter column. Arthur Kohlenberg of Cambridge,
Massachusetts, applauded Time for performing a "real public
service" by countering the pro-Velikovsky articles in Harper's,
Collier's, and Readers Digest—not to mention the one in the
rival Newsweek. But George R. Ludwig of the University of
Colorado, Boulder, criticized the magazine's anti-Velikovsky bias,
particularly since Worlds in Collision had not yet even been
published. And according to John S. Nollen, "The preposterous Dr.
Velikovsky" needed no interplanetary cataclysm to explain the sun
and moon stopping in the sky. 0 sun, stop at Gibeon, And
thou, moon, at the valley of Ajalon was "a fine poetic hyperbole
expressing Joshua's eagerness in the pursuit of the Amorites" which
the prosaic chronicler had quoted from the no longer extant Book of
Jasher; unfortunately, however, the chronicler had then added his
own commentary: So the sun came to stop, and the moon
stood still, until the nation took vengeance on their foes. The
effect of this was as if a British chronicler, writing about King
Henry V, came upon Shakespeare's Henry IV and Bedford's
outcry: Hung be the Heavens with black! and added, in his
prose, "The heavens were hung with black when Henry died." Or, as if
a dull reader quoted: Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou
never wirt, and commented: "Shelley says the skylark never was a bird."
Emmett Dedman of the Chicago Sun-Times could not praise Worlds in Collision
enough in his April 4 review: the book was "a massive
compilation of citations from the records of peoples in all the
different sections of the populated area of the earth" and
"well-enough buttressed with data to startle any reader into a
re-examination of his ideas about the world."
There had been more advance orders for Worlds in Collision placed with
Houston bookstores than for any book since the Kinsey Report,
according to Houston Press reviewer Carl Victor Little on April 6:
"It has scared the
living daylights out of the common man and has caused the
outstanding members of that sacred cult, the Scientist, to develop
the screaming meanies and to yell imprecations, and call down a
curse on Dr. Velikovsky, whose crime seems to [be] unorthodoxy, an
unfettered mind, brilliance, and the ability not only to read but to write."
University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Wilton M. Krogman wrote in the Chicago
Sunday Tribune (April 9) that the book "is an ingenious and
at times ingenuous piecing together of data of uneven value. It
makes for stimulating rather than convincing reading." Wadsworth
Likely of the Science News Service (the company that published
Shapley's Science News Letter) took a stronger stand in the
April issue of the Knoxville News-Sentinel:
"Scientists see in
the publication of this book a well publicized attack upon the
knowledge that they have built up over hundreds of years by the slow
process of experimentation and thought. They see Worlds in
Collision as a part of the retreat from scientific progress as part
of the fear of what science has wrought. They may be expected to
marshal their knowledge and their brains in an assault upon what
they consider a distortion of knowledge and history."
One of the erstwhile leaders of this assault, Indiana University's Goethe Link
Observatory director, Frank K. Edmondson, began his media attack in
the April 9 issue of the Indianapolis Star-four days after he
had sent a harsh private communication to Macmillan. In fact, he
had specifically asked the paper in advance if he could review
Worlds in Collision in its pages, and he also asked the
Louisville Courier Journal for space to rebut Joseph Landau's
review of the book.
For the public record, Edmondson called Velikovsky's book unquestionably
the most outrageous collection of nonsense since the invention of
the printing press. It has the outward appearance of scholarship
(scads of footnotes), but none of the substance (critical judgment
and intelligent thinking). It is annotated clap-trap.
Unlike most other critics, however, Edmondson also used his forum to attack the
unfortunate Atwater: “of the 'authorities,' whose praise of the book
is printed on the jacket and whose 'open-minded' (or
empty-headed!!!) discussion was given wide circulation... is just
as big a screwball as Velikovsky."
Edmondson's father-in-law, Princeton's Henry Norris Russell (one of the authors
of the theory that the planets were composed of debris from the
sun's hypothetical companion star), was only a little more
circumspect in his own critique, which appeared in the Spring 1950
issue of World Affairs Interpreter:
presented by Dr. Velikovsky is largely obscure and ambiguous; much
of it is allegorical and apocryphal. The conclusions that are
reached through these biased interpretations are at variance with
some of the most thoroughly tested and established laws of science ...
I can not refrain
from a conjecture as to the worthwhile results that might have
accrued had Dr. Velikovsky attacked a problem in his own field with
the admirable tenacity and vigor that he employed in the writing of
Worlds in Collision.
It was at this point that the Zolaesque defenders of Velikovsky began to marshal
their forces. First, on April 10, Thackrey replied to Shapley's
March 8 letter; first, he discounted Shapley's citation of Time
and Science News Letter as validating Shapley's
opposition since "unless I mistake certain reasonably clear
indications the chief inspiration for these adverse views stems from
Dr. Harlow Shapley of the Harvard College Observatory!" Furthermore,
Thackrey noted that "Mrs. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's article [in
The Reporter] was directly inspired by you" and that Atwater had
told him that Macmillan had received two letters from Shapley that
were "so sizzling that your letter to me might seem tepid by
comparison!" And Thackrey also agreed that many people "hold views
which coincide with your own; but I should be astonished to find
that they had reached their conclusions completely independently of
discussion with you." So how could Shapley honestly maintain that he
had only sent a single "hot communication"—only to Thackrey
himself—on the subject of Velikovsky? How could he maintain that,
in the interests of the freedom to publish, he was trying to
dissuade his colleagues from taking intemperate action?
And second, Thackrey pointed to:
elementary factor which continues to perplex and dismay me; at the
time your views were expressed... not you, nor Dr. Gaposchkin, nor
the professors you cite-not one-had read the manuscript or the
book. At most, they have read comment upon it, or digests of
sections of it, without benefit of reference notes or complete
In the letters section of the April 11 issue of The Reporter, Eric Larrabee
responded to Dr. Gaposchkin's criticisms, which he found to be
"either irrelevant or inexact," while her insistence on the conflict
between Velikovsky and Newton was "less an attack than a redundancy,
especially since she has neither read [Velikovsky's] discussion of
gravitational theory nor... consulted the physicists and astronomers
who have read it." In reply (printed in the same issue), Gaposchkin
stated that she had just spent the weekend reading Worlds in
Collision (thus indirectly admitting that Larrabee's main point
was valid) and that her "opinion of the 'theory' is in no way
modified by having done so." And she also wrote that she had read
Velikovsky's sketchy abstract, his hapless Cosmos without
Gravitation, and that she found it "completely unconvincing."
Two days later (April 13), at a Smith College lecture on the scientific method,
Gaposchkin stated part of her reasons for taking a stand against Worlds in Collision:
"What I criticize
is this: the book purports to be science; the publisher classified
it as science. But it was not introduced to the world as science.
Scientific work is given to the world in a scientific journal, and
expressed in scientific terms, with numerical facts and
discussions. In Worlds in Collision, there are no
numbers, no calculations, everything is expressed so vaguely that
criticism is impossible... And it was not presented to any reputable
scientists before being given to the public...
reaction isn't funny. It is rather terrifying, a sort of
The April 15 issue of Science News Letter again reviewed the book. The
reviewer repeated Likely's views that the book was a conscious
attack upon the slow gains scientists have made over many centuries
but hoped that:
"the people will
follow Dr. Velikovsky's advice to judge whether Worlds in
Collision is science or science fiction. And [scientists] are
confident the people will decide that this is a book of science fiction."
The Christian Science Monitor for the same date
carried readers' responses to Herbert Nichols' earlier critique,
plus a new attack by another staff writer. Robert Dolling Wells,
one of the correspondents, insisted that "writers and theorists who
call attention to flaws in the reasoning of natural scientists-their
'void places,' and their occasionally untenable hypotheses" have a
valuable place in society: "There is room for an honest criticism of
Dr. Velikovsky's strange story, but no room... for ridicule of an
honest point of view laboriously arrived at." Mary Lib Woodin took
a more fundamentalist position: "To speak of confirming the
so-called miracles of the Old Testament, with whatever theories, as
‘embracing outrageous improbability'...leaves the Christian believer
slightly aghast." The editors responded to her objection to Nichols
by wondering rhetorically if Worlds in Collision really did
support the veracity of the Bible:
"Or does it follow
the line of those who have tried to "explain away" Jesus' miracles
or make them acceptable to modern Thomases by attributing them to
material causes? Does Dr. Velikovsky present Moses and Joshua as
inspired leaders, understanding divine power and supported by it, or
as charlatans... attributing to spiritual causes phenomena that the
doctor strains credulity to explain ... ?"
The Monitor's editorial position, trying to maintain a skeptical balance against Velikovsky
on both Christian and scientific grounds, was further exemplified by
R. C. Cowen's column in the same issue, which criticized Velikovsky,
"who is claiming to write, not as a metaphysician, but as a natural
scientist," for not adhering to scientific methodologies;
Velikovsky's approach was "argument by implication, invoking a
conglomeration of old legends and chronicles picked, it would seem,
for their fitness in the light of the author's preconceived theory."
In the April 22 issue of the Toronto Globe and Mail, Frank S. Hogg, director
of the David Dunlop Observatory, noted with some chagrin that, due
to the "high pressure magazine publicity," even his review copy of
Worlds in Collision was a second printing despite the book's
high price. He claimed that among "a fairly wide circle of
acquaintances" which included archeologists, Biblical scholars,
geologists, physicists, and astronomers, he had "yet to find one who
feels that the book is consistent or acceptable even in one of these
fields, let alone in interrelating all of them." After discussing
Velikovsky's thesis and methodology, Hogg concluded by professing
surprise that Velikovsky "has not accompanied the Ute legend of
Cottontail by tales of Henny-penny, Humpty-dumpty, or even Paul
Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe."
Another scientist, Harrison Brown, expressed his views on Velikovsky and
Macmillan in the April 22 Saturday Review of Literature:
"It is difficult
to condemn a man who is obviously seeking truth... But when the
truth-seeker goes to the public for approval of his ideas before he
submits his viewpoints to men expert in his field for the ruthless
criticism and cross-checking that is the very life-blood of science,
abstinence from criticism becomes difficult. Dr. Velikovsky... has
attempted to create a world history (and for that matter a
solar-system history) that makes sense. The fact that what he says
makes little sense is not important. The fact that many persons not
versed in science are now hailing Dr. Velikovsky as the
twentieth-century Newton is important and should be addressed...
"Had I the energy
I might have written a letter to Dr. Velikovsky outlining, from the
point of view of the physical sciences, the errors both in fact and
theory which I believe he has committed. However, such a letter
would have been at least thirty pages in length, a fact which in
itself explains my reasons for not writing it. It further explains
why no attempt will be made in this review even to list the errors
in fact and conclusion contained in this book...
"This book will
be, for years to come, a shining example of book and
magazine-publishing irresponsibility. I do not object to
publication of this book-or for that matter any book. But the
reader may rightly be offended... by the irresponsible publicity ...
The publisher, who in this case is usually most meticulous in the
publication of scientific treatises, should have sought the advice
of reputable scientists before launching its sensational fireworks...
"And thus, the
book was launched by a wind which bodes good only to those on the
receiving end of the cash line. Ten years from now it will probably
be forgotten by all except those unfortunate scientists who will
have had to answer questions about the book in every public lecture."
John M. McCullough, in his April 23 Philadelphia Inquirer review,
thought that few other books "have so stirred the world of
thoughtful men;" discussion would surely lead to a reassessment of
some conclusions about modem views, since "if any part of
Velikovsky's thesis is true, then some scientific assumptions must,
of necessity, be untrue." For his own part, McCullough "would like
to hear a jury composed of—let us say, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer,
Professor Arnold Toynbee, Dr. Harlow Shapley, Dr. James B. Conant
and Dr. Arthur C. Compton—argue the merits and demerits" of the theory.
David Dempsey, whose "In and Out of Books" column was a regular feature in the
New York Times Review of Books, in his April 23 piece
quoted a review from the Boston Sunday Globe that
Velikovsky's book was probably "the most stimulating horror story
that has ever been written." Based on his own examination of
thirty-two reviews, Dempsey decided that sixteen of them "are
inclined to go along with the dedicated scholar", ten "gave him a
wide variety of Bronx and six are sitting tight."
According to the director of the National Bureau of Standards, Edward U. Condon
(New Republic, April 24), Velikovsky had "studied nearly all of
the sciences except astronomy." Because of his reliance upon the
religious literature of many peoples in his attempt to
"de-supernaturalize" their myths, people "may expect that quite a
number of gods will be seriously displeased if his book comes to
their attention"; but for Condon himself, "it is much easier to
believe that the events in question really were caused by the direct
intervention of these various gods than that they happened in the
circumstances which Velikovsky invents for their correlation."
Unlike many scientist reviewers, who had bitterly criticized
Velikovsky's book before it was published (by basing their arguments
on its popularization by Larrabee, Oursler, or Lear), Condon
preferred to criticize the popularizations even after the
publication of the book itself:
reader's digestion is so adequate that none but the specialist will
need to go to the book itself. It starts off with a dictum by that
noted authority on celestial mechanics and genetics, Clifton
Fadiman, in which the opinion is ventured that this book "may be as
epochal as the Origin of Species of Darwin or the
Principia of Newton."
Condon, a political progressive, had been one of the notable victims of
McCarthyism; in fact, his story had been given wide currency in the
same issue of Harper's which introduced Velikovskianism.
Noted literary critic Alfred Kazin was scarcely less vociferous in his New
Yorker denunciations than were the scientists. The book, "which
is preposterous and intellectually primitive to an extreme, is
plainly not a hoax" but, rather, "a pathetic, ominous, and
superstitious piece of work by a man whose thinking is completely
dominated by cataclysms, catastrophes, and global disturbances."
Kazin seemed to think that Velikovsky's ultimate motive in writing
the book was to legitimize "the physicists' irresponsible scare
warnings" about the potential of a universal nuclear holocaust as
part of their efforts to promote a single world state: for, "how
shall we ever create a world order except by first threatening
everyone with world destruction?"
Dempsey, in his survey of public reactions to Worlds in Collision, had noted
that scientists were critical of the work but that ministers were
trying to ignore it. However, America, the National Catholic
Weekly Review, featured commentary in its April 29 issue by Louis W.
Tordella, the scientific research administrator for the Office of
the Chief of Naval Operations. He expected Velikovsky's performance
to gain his book "prominence in some lists of science fiction." To
Tordella, the book was "an unusual conglomeration of scientific fact
and fiction, interspersed with extraordinarily numerous references
to ancient and modem writings which range all the way from obscure
legends of folklore to the latest treatise on the physical
sciences." And in the June issue of the nondenominational
Christian Century, W. E. Garrison wondered why "a collection of
such errant nonsense gets such a wide reading." Among some half
dozen possible solutions to his question, Garrison suggested that an
"age that is weak in faith is strong in gullibility. The loss of a
sane and reasonable faith leaves a hunger that mere facts cannot
feed, and produces a morbid appetite for fantasies and
superstitions." Garrison advised "religious conservatives" to weep
rather than go into spasms of delight over this reinforcement of
their position ... What good does it do to prove that [the biblical
miracles] were purely natural occurrences? According to this book's
line of argument, Jehovah goes out of the picture as Venus and Mars
come In... If anybody gets any confirmation of his position from
this line, it is the naturalist, not the supernaturalist.
The supposed support given to the book by "religious conservatives" was even more
roundly denounced by "Erasmus," a spokesman for the National Liberal
League's organ, Truth Seeker, the "Oldest Freethought Paper
in the World". Velikovsky was a "learned zany" and his volume "full
of preposterous prevarication." Like Garrison and Stewart, Erasmus
also wondered why "all this hysterical acclaim for a book so far
below the standard expected hitherto of all historical and scientific books?"
The answer is
very simple—and very distressing. The book claims to prove
scientifically and historically some of the more preposterous of the
Old Testament miracles... To "prove" them, [Velikovsky] deliberately
rejects or rea(sic)dates or rearranges many facts of history and
astronomy, and what he does to and with etymology, anthropology and
folklore is sheer prostitution of these sciences...
"Worlds in Collision" is a natural for today. It is Buck Rogers out of
Fundamentalism. It "proves" the Bible miracles "scientifically."
Well, it is certainly a big enough lie to stretch even the already
distended gullets of the credulous Science-Fiction thrill seekers
and miracle swallowers. I hope they choke.
and hopefully, however, this book's publication may be a good thing,
after all. It has emetic value [Paragraphing altered]."
In Engineering and Science (May 1950), H. P.
Robertson blasted Worlds in Collision: "The scientific
pretensions of this jejune essay at cosmology are too ludicrous to
merit serious rebuttal."
But let us turn
from the inanities of the book itself to the truly remarkable manner
in which it has been promoted... Well in advance of publication a
little band of literary apostles spread its message... [N]one among
them is a scientist-only one, a science writer, is listed in the
standard reference work American Men of Science, which
includes some 50,000 names...
It is sincerely
to be hoped that the prospective publisher of [Velikovsky's future
volumes] will seek competent editorial advice, which will enable him
realistically to weigh the value of his firm's reputation against
the monetary rewards to be reaped by catering to those with a taste
for sleazy pseudo-science.
By May 2 1, Worlds in Collision—"a soggily written, heavily annotated,
'scientific' explanation of Old Testament miracles" according to
David Dempsey in his "In and Out of Books" column for that day—was
number one on the New York Times Best Sellers List. Only
four days later, the book's author was told that its publisher was
going to dump it; on June 8, it was transferred to Doubleday. From
June 18, the story of the academics' boycott of Macmillan began
leaking into the press. As Bob Considine put it in his June 23
column, "Shaking a best-seller loose from a publisher roughly
approximates the task of persuading a bulldog to let loose of a
bull's schnozzola or a Broadway hat check girl to give back the ring.”
The Bergen Evening Record for June 23 declared:
aptitude of the intelligentsia for treating academic freedom as an
award and not a due, a small group of influential scientists has
lately been busy burning one of the more unorthodox members of their
Craft. The alleged witch today is Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky... [His]
somewhat Jules Verne treatment of accepted dogma apparently stirred
the academicians unto their innermost equation... Sic transit gloria
Mother Goose, Buck Rogers, et al., including freedom of the press
and of the mind [Paragraphing altered]."
On June 25, the New Haven Register ran a longish polemic entitled "4 Yale
Scholars 'Expose' NonFiction Best-Seller": R. S. Latourette,
professor of missions and Oriental history; George Kubler, professor
of art history; Rupert Wildt of the Yale Observatory (who in 1940
had first postulated a "hot" Venus, but as a result of a "greenhouse
effect" in the planet's atmosphere); and geologist Chester A.
Longwell, American Journal of Science editor, conducted a
sort of multidisciplinary inquest into the merits of Worlds in
Collision. Latourette admitted that Velikovsky had "combed an
amazing range of historical records for evidence to corroborate his
thesis" but had failed to apply modern historical methods to
evaluate his sources: "he is quite unaware of the finds of recent
scholarship and depends chiefly upon ... authors who... have now
been largely superseded." According to Latourette, Velikovsky also
collated statements from ancient writers from "a number of different
centuries, usually with no effort to determine whether the events
they are said to describe can be shown to belong to the same period,
and with no apparent attempt to evaluate the writers' accuracy."
Kubler preferred to quarrel with specific details in Velikovsky's reconstruction,
noting in particular that the old Mexican and Mayan days for the New
Year ranged over a wide span of individual dates, so that Velikovsky
was being quite arbitrary in selecting one of them (February 26)
just because it corresponded with an Old World date.
Wildt, in common with his brother astronomers, chose to pursue the path of invective
rather than that of rational investigation: "By a merciful
ordination of the economic system under which we live, the host of
amateur cosmologists seldom command the means of bringing their
speculations before the eyes and ears of the world," he
pontificated; but Velikovsky "has scored over his brethren... He has
found a publisher eager to promote the sale of his opus by the sort
of publicity commonly reserved for the more florid contemporary fiction."
Longwell followed the same path, insisting that Velikovsky presented his case:
complete ignorance or with cavalier disregard of all evidence...
Without hesitation he sweeps in to discard the results of critical
research... and then, unhampered by any embarrassing facts, he
rushes in with his own grandiose speculations. All but Velikovsky
are out of step!"
When Longwell reprinted the article in his American Journal of Science
(August 1950) he posed the question: "why... should a scientific
journal give the least attention to such patent nonsense? Frankly,
our chief concern is to focus attention on the publisher." In one of
its catalogues, under the "Science" heading, Macmillan had dared
list Worlds in Collision together with four other books
"whose titles suggest that they may be properly classified. The
four authors must feel much flattered at finding themselves in
company so distinguished!"
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin resumed her crusade with an eight-page book review
in the June Popular Astronomy: "A work can scarcely be
dignified by the name of science that displays ignorance of the
scientific method and inability to handle the scientific
vocabulary." And as a work of history, Worlds in
Collision fared scarcely better. While Latourette had complained that
Velikovsky had ignored the latest experts, Gaposchkin chastised
Velikovsky for neglecting the oldest ones. Instead of relying on
the Old Testament, Homer and Hesiod, Velikovsky preferred to employ
rabbinical and patristic sources, and Ovid and Apollonius Rhodius.
"One might as well turn to 'Paradise Lost' for a factual account of
the Creation. The more primitive sources lend his ideas little weight."
Gaposchkin's Harvard colleague, Donald Menzel, published in Physics Today
(July) an addendum to Velikovsky's scholarship, pointing to evidence
that Velikovsky had somehow missed. For example, Menzel recalled
the famous "year of the hot winter" when Paul Bunyan was logging in
Utah. It was so hot that Babe, the Blue Ox, drank the river dry
every fifteen minutes, and the sweat from Paul and Babe was so great
that it collected together to form the Great Salt Lake. The
presence of Babe in the tale was obviously another representation of
the bull motif that Velikovsky associated with Venus worship, "the
pure bull that was undoubtedly the comet (or vice versa)." According
to Menzel, even the "Hey Diddle Diddle" nursery rhyme becomes an
important historical document if analyzed in a proper Velikovskian
manner. The cow that jumped over the moon was the comet of course;
the "cat and the fiddle" are the constellations Lynx and Lyre.
"The fact that
both names begin with "L." is also significant of something or
other. The "little dog" is the constellation Canis Minor. The dish
that ran away with the spoon was the original flying saucer. And
the spoon, clearly the Little Dipper, was used as a paddle to propel
the unusual vehicle through the sky. The Milky Way marks the trail
left by the cow in its magnificent leap... Anyway the milk was
probably not pasteurized. Velikovsky indicates that vermin and
germs inhabited the comet's tall."
Harvard geologist Kirtley Mather's remarks appeared in the July issue of American
"If Worlds in Collision's publishers had
announced it as a "science-fiction thriller" under the title
Forever Venus, there would have been no basis for adverse
criticism of the whole performance. But to publicize it as the
sober report of scholarly research, worthy of serious consideration
by intelligent readers, is quite another story. There could be no
better argument for the great necessity of helping a considerable
number of supposedly literate persons gain a little proficiency in
the fine art of distinguishing the "plausible but false" from the
"astonishing but true."
The populist New York Sunday News refrained from endorsing Velikovsky's
particular views, bul took the occasion in a July 2 editorial to applaud his pugnacity:
"We think it is a
healthy thing all around when a man like Velikovsky, himself armed
with wide scientific knowledge, stands up and bawls that the
orthodox scientists are wrong in their basic ideas about the
universe and challenges them to prove him mistaken.
"If we might
presume to offer the scientific brotherhood a tip, it would be to
get busy trying to disprove Velikovsky with facts and figures and
lay off trying to promote boycotts aimed at his book as some of them
are alleged to have done."
In April the Catholic America had already panned the book itself. But in
July the boycott disturbed the journal's editors:
"Suppose Worlds in Collision were a book that distorted the teachings of the
Catholic faith. Suppose a flood of protests from Catholic teachers
had said, "Stop publishing this book or we won't buy any more of
your textbooks." What a cry of "censorship" would rend the welkin!
But there will be no such cry in the present circumstances. Why?
Because the strange idea roams about these days ... that science has
its truths that just cannot be tampered with or distorted ... This
type of contradiction is bringing our world into a collision with
the world of truth which is much more frightening than the one Mr. Velikovsky imagines."
The Jewish News,
however, in its July 21 issue, was more blase about the matter of
press freedom. The issue was merely an "East versus West
‘Publishers' Collision" from which Doubleday would profit since
Worlds in Collision was still atop the nonfiction best sellers
list, but "Velikovsky's book—which reads like a fairy tale—should
be given rating both in the fiction and non-fiction lists."
St. Louis University philosopher Thomas P. McTighe insisted in the August 15
issue of Best Sellers that "it is a conservative estimate to
remark that the American publishing enterprise has been set back at
least twenty-five years with one publication of a senseless piece of
work." The reputable astronomers were easily able to reject the
book's "astronomical bosh," but the "extreme danger of this
pernicious book" lay in its "entirely new exegesis of one of the
treasured fonts of divine revelation... [I]t is a sly and cunningly
contrived attack against the entire Judeo-Christian heritage of God
and the truth that He has revealed ... The 'Higher Criticism' has
finally reached the best-seller list!" McTighe advocated placing
Worlds in Collision on the Index of Prohibited Books.
Ben Hunt, in the September Catholic World, agreed that Velikovsky was "as
high-handed with the Scriptures as the most stratospheric higher
critics," but placed him among the poets and the moralists, not
among the speculative philosophers and the scientists. His
appreciation of the mystery "deep-down things" is spoiled by all the
"scientific" and mythological apparatus that surrounds it.
Certainly the religion of Israel and the Gospels would be rash to
call on him as a witness.
Otto Neugebauer, who had missed the chance to influence the fate of Worlds in
Collision in February, finally got his chance to review it in
Isis, George Sarton's journal on the history of science:
"In its pitiful
ignorance of the most elementary physics it is on a level far below
science fiction. In its attempt to explain Biblical narratives
rationally, it shares all the characteristics of a widespread type
of crackpot publication. It attains, however an exceptionally high
degree of distortion of scientific literature...
"... The Macmillan
Company can congratulate itself on having found a very effective
method for extracting money from a wide public which will not be
able to check the factual basis of these "works in confusion."
The November 18 Saturday Evening Post pointed to a long list of "silly"
McCarthyist events from the summer suppressions: boycotts,
dismissals, and the like. The scientists, unfortunately, had
succumbed to the pressures of the season and had "acted like the
authoritarians with whom they are continually in conflict." It was,
however, fortunate for the publishing industry that "specialists in
other fields are less easily hexed than astronomers are. Otherwise
professors of history might take an attitude toward the publishers
of Forever Amber [also Macmillan] as stuffy as that of the scientists... "
It was in response to these volleys and others like them that Velikovsky
finally went public. On May 7, 1950, the New York Times
carried Velikovsky's rather lengthy response to science editor
Waldemar Kaempffert's critical April 2 book review, followed by
Kaempffert's equally lengthy reply. The disputation was conducted
in a gentlemanly manner by both parties, with Kaempffert even
conceding that he had erroneously claimed that in 3000 B.C. Egyptian
astronomers had described a modern Venusian orbit. Otherwise,
however, Kaempffert remained adamant in his criticism.
Two days later, the debate resumed as an unplanned component of Velikovsky's
Graduate English Society-sponsored lecture at Columbia. The venue
was fitting, since Velikovsky had earlier told Journalist Harvey
Breit that he had "opened and closed the library at Columbia for
eight or nine years (certainly I was the greatest exploiter of that
institution)" during the decade of the 1940s. At the lecture,
Velikovsky spotted Kaempffert, who, according to student journalist
"had come armed with reams of challenging data." Guessing
Kaempffert's identity on the basis of the points he raised,
Velikovsky graciously gave him the floor. "Relying heavily on wit
and an amazing memory for minute, historical details, the doctor
beat back all comers." Velikovsky
later recalled that on this occasion he was able to cite "from
memory the issue, the sources, book, year, and page." This episode
marked the real beginning of Velikovsky's career as charismatic
orator; on such public occasions he rarely failed to gain his
audience's sympathy and respect. And often he converted them to his cosmic cause.
A month after the Columbia confrontation, on June 8, Velikovsky signed a contract
with Doubleday, which launched a $10,000 national advertising
campaign for a so-called "fifth edition" of Worlds in
Collision (actually the fifth printing). Ten days later, on
June 18, David Dempsey of the New York Times broke the story,
calling the Doubleday takeover the "greatest bombshell dropped on
Publishers' Row in many a year." A publishing official (perhaps
Velikovsky's editor James Putnam, who had been forced to resign on
June 16) had privately admitted "that a flood of protests from
educators and others had hit [Macmillan] in its vulnerable
underbelly—the textbook division."
Holding a press conference on June 21, Velikovsky denied the report of a "flood" of
protests and claimed instead that his former publisher had been
"subjected to pressure on the part of a little and seemingly
organized group of scientists." Asked who the conspirators were,
Velikovsky replied rather cryptically by quoting from Freud and
Isaiah. (The next day, however, Leonard Lyons of the New York
Post, Observer's old paper, named Shapley, "the left-winger
who in other cases screams against censorship of any kind," as the
ringleader. It is certainly possible that Velikovsky leaked
Shapley's identity.) "It's as if the Dodgers had been forced to
trade Jackie Robinson to some other club," Velikovsky pointed out;
but Jackie was only balling second in the National League and
Velikovsky was number one on the best seller list. He also broke
the story that Putnam had been ousted and that Atwater, who had been
fired from the Hayden because of his support for Velikovsky, had
received an order not to proceed with his plans for a Velikovskian
skyshow on March 10, the same day that the first review copy
of Worlds in Collision had come off the press. Velikovsky also
used the press conference to launch a counter attack against his oppressors:
thought of our time is dominated by dogma, preconceived ideas,
man-made laws, and intolerance... [S]cientists would like to believe
that they have built on firm foundations and what is left is only to
investigate and to fill in details. They would not agree to any
questioning of the basic truths of science."
On July 30, at a University of Bridgeport's University Club luncheon, Velikovsky
repeated his charges that, like religious thought in the past,
scientific thought in the present is dominated by the intolerance of
dogmatics. "The first rule of the scientific attitude is to study,
then to think, and then to express an opinion" Velikovsky
proclaimed. "A reverse of this is not a scientific approach, and
this is exactly what has been done about my work."
The same May 7, 1950, issue of the New York Times that had featured the
exchange between Velikovsky and Kaempffert also ran a letter by
Ronald Heymanson pointing out the similarities between the
cosmographies of Velikovsky and cosmic iceman Hoerbiger.
Velikovsky's reply, denying any similarity, was printed on June 25.
Lambert Fairchild, in the June 4 New York Times, had pointed
to Velikovsky's appropriation of Ignatius Donnelly's "cometic
theory," but Velikovsky seems to have ignored this charge. Several
commentators, including Henry H. Bauer, have made much of "the great
and many similarities... the similar use of the same legends and
references" by Velikovsky and Donnelly.
Certainly the central concept of cometary collisions being at the
root of historic catastrophes is identical, as is the methodology
and reliance on myths as legitimate sources of information. A close
comparison of citations, however, reveals only a small overlap in
sources. Like Bauer, though, Velikovsky seems to have been
inordinately sensitive to the Donnelly connection. Any hint that
"his" hypotheses had been foreshadowed by others was deeply
disturbing to his ego.
In November, Doubleday and Velikovsky signed a book contract for Ages in
Chaos. Some days later, there was more good news for
celebration. On December 1, Abraham Tulin, the lawyer who had
handled the transfer from Macmillan, wrote what must have been a
particularly gratifying letter to the beleaguered author. Tulin
told him that within the last three or four days, Sigmund Janas (the
president of Colonial Airlines, the forerunner of El Al) and Moshe
Sharett (the Israeli foreign minister) had both expressed great
enthusiasm for Worlds in Collision.
The good news may have tasted all the sweeter in the midst of the continuing
controversy. In the December 1950 Antioch Review, Martin
Gardner wrote a sweeping condemnation of "hermit scientists" such as
Reich, Hubbard, Donnelly, and Fundamentalist geographer George
McCready Price, who had been William Jennings Bryan's primary source
at the Scopes "monkey trial" only a quarter century earlier (and
would later be one of Velikovsky's consultants for Earth in
Upheaval. Worlds in Collision took its share of criticism;
Gardner called it "a tissue of absurdities" which "throws together a
jumbled mass of data to support [its] preposterous theory."
Gardner's disdain for Velikovsky in particular and for
pseudo-science in general would be a long-lived affair; in the late
1970s he co-founded (with other notable anti-Velikovskians such as
Carl Sagan) the debunking Committee for the Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal.
Similarly, another long-term critic, Gardner's SCICOP colleague, science
fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp, also linked Velikovsky with
Donnelly, Hoerbiger, and other discredited catastrophists.
Worlds in Collision, which he alluded to
alliteratively as a "farcical farrago of preposterous amphigory,"
was "just one more head of this particular Hydra, save that the
author's errors are even more flagrant and his nonsense even more
transparent." (Somewhat curiously, his review, in Astounding
Science Fiction, was followed by an advertisement for the next
issue of the magazine, promising that L. Ron Hubbard's article would
be "of major interest"; Dianetics "is not simply a system of
therapy, it is a science of the whole process of human thought," the
Harvard University president James Conant gave a press conference on
February 16, 1951, to plug his new book, Science and Common
Sense. According to the Feb. 17 New York Herald Tribune,
Conant stated his hope that his tome's sales would "give at least a
small run of competition" to Velikovsky's, “which he made clear he
regards as pseudo-science of a kind that is befuddling the public."
Conant, at least according to Shapley, had been implicated in the
1950 suppression of the rival book, which he called a distressing
phenomenon," "a grotesque account," and "a fantasia which is neither
history nor science."
(It is ironic that in 1950 Conant had been denied the presidency of
the National Academy of Sciences because of an informal coalition of
The AAAS publication Science, which is arguably the most influential
scientific journal in America, finally got around to mentioning
Velikovsky in its April 13, 1951, issue (p. 418), almost exactly one
year after Worlds in Collision first appeared. Chester
Longwell, who had already attacked Velikovsky's ideas in the August
1950 American Journal of Science, had some sharp words to say
in reply to the pro-Velikovsky editorial in the November 18, 1950,
Saturday Evening Post. Later, the July 13 issue of
Science, distributed more than a year after Macmillan had been
pressured to abandon the book, disclaimed (p. 471) any "dignity" for
their long silence on the matter; they had only refrained from
entering the fray because they had "been only too mindful" of the
financial success which often accompanied some well-meaning
denunciation of unworthy literary works.
Despite the meticulous care he took in getting Ages in Chaos to press,
Velikovsky continued to spend a great deal of time defending his
published theories. On May 27, 1951, he spoke at the Young Israel
Institute and, on November 3, the Jewish Club, Inc. But more
importantly, he tried to address "all" of the criticisms leveled
against his work in a paper debate with Princeton astronomer, John
Q. Stewart, who had co-authored a textbook with H. N. Russell
and R. S. Dugan.
In 1950, Velikovsky had been scheduled to present his own theory in Harper's
after the formal publication of his book, and he thus
decided to use the opportunity to answer his critics, but Frederick
Lewis Allen told him that the article would only be used if it were
accompanied by a rebuttal from qualified specialists. Velikovsky
agreed on condition that he be given the final word. But it took
months for Harper's to find a suitable establishment figure.
The magazine invited Shapley, who suggested Otto Neugebauer instead;
Neugebauer apparently encouraged Stewart to enter the lists since
Stewart had debated Velikovsky early in 1951 at a regular Princeton
Presbyterian discussion. So Stewart received Velikovsky's general
"Answer to My Critics" and drafted his reply, using arguments
provided by Neugebauer, Payne-Gaposchkin, and Shapley, and citing
Conant's recent definition of science to support his position. Then
Velikovsky answered Stewart's charges.
The triptych was presented in its entirety in the June 1951 Harper's.
Although Velikovsky maintained that no argument "was
left unanswered, and no new one has been presented since then,"
and that "I answered for the first and only time all my critics on
every point that merited an answer,"
he (perhaps significantly) ignored Neugebauer's charge that he had
completely mistranslated from the German a passage vital to his
overall presentation regarding ancient Venusian orbits. On the
whole, however, Velikovsky (with some technical assistance from his
old schoolmate Komarewski) presented his case, as usual, in a
convincing manner. It was beguiling enough for Julius Sumner
Miller, a Dillard University professor of mathematics and physics
who had earlier written In praise of "Larrabee's 1950 article, to
write for the August Harper's letters column that he had
become "the first of my profession" to join Velikovsky's ranks:
paucity and the barren weakness of explicit criticism... have
impressed me. There have been vitriolic and abusive utterances
filled with fever but amazingly bare of fact."
Many readers undoubtedly agreed with Tulin, who wrote to Velikovsky again on June
25 concerning a series of articles by Fred Hoyle that appeared in Harper's
during the winter and spring of 1950-51:
"The thing that
struck me most... was the ephemeral character of the theories which
successive generations of astronomers have been pontifically
propounding to the world as "discoveries" of absolute truth. I
could not forget that [James] Jeans and [Arthur] Eddington
thoroughly discredited [Pierre-Simon] Laplace... with their new
theories as to the origin of the solar system. Now come Hoyle and
Nettleton only ten or twenty short years after Jeans and Eddington,
and thoroughly discredit their theories as well. It therefore
occurs to me that if the holy script of orthodox astronomy is of so
temporary and ephemeral a nature and if directly contradictory
theories and beliefs are the fashion among them every ten years or
so, what night have they got to question your hypotheses with such
It is perhaps worth noting that in 1955 Hoyle suggested, as Velikovsky already
had, that Venus is covered with oceans of petroleum and its
atmosphere is clouded by hydrocarbon droplets; and that in the late
1970s he would begin propagating his theory that micro-organic life
was brought to Earth by comets--a proposition that closely resembled Velikovsky's assertion that the Venus comet had brought
disease-bearing micro-organisms in its wake.
Kallen re-entered the lists as Velikovsky's public defender and as a foe of
the "religionism of scientists" in the July 28, 1951, issue of
Saturday Review of Literature.
He complained that the modern tendency to consider "science as in
some sense holy" was both "widespread and dangerous," particularly
when the dogmatists "insist on their own orthodoxies, exercise their
own Index, and impose their own imprimatur."
The scientists, while continuing to seek sanctions, did little to improve their
public image. In the July 13, 1951, Science, John Pfeiffer
ranked Velikovsky's book with "Grimm's fairy tales and the
Rubaiyat," and queried why the astronomers, linguists,
geologists, and anthropologists had not "come out with their
feelings about Worlds in Collision. Or should that be the
function of AAAS? If no, is there an organization that represents
the body of American science in such matters?" In the November 23
issue, Samuel A. Miles, a technical writer for the Hagstrom Company,
advocated an "Operation Knowledge" to be launched at the upcoming
annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science; its purpose would be to create a new organization to combat
Velikovsky. And in the November 1951 Scientific Monthly, the
popular journal put out by the AAAS to complement its more technical
Science, Florida State University philosopher Lawrence
Lafleur tried to draw a clear distinction between an innovative
scientist and a crank—with Velikovsky portrayed as the perfect paradigm of crankism.
Until Lafleur's article appeared, Kallen and O'Neill had urged patience; but now
Kallen advised Velikovsky to sue for libel. O'Neill suggested that
he refer his complaints to Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller
Foundation, a prominent critic of the AAAS. Velikovsky met with
Weaver but no action was taken, so in December he consulted with
Arthur Garfield Hayes, a lawyer who had represented John Scopes and
Sacco and Vanzetti; Hayes advised Velikovsky not to seek legal
action but suggested that it may be appropriate to publish the
letters that Shapley and others had sent to various parties.
Velikovsky began compiling the files which later were published as
Stargazers and Gravediggers, but (deferring to the wishes of
his wife) he did not publish the material during his lifetime. In
fact, the first public presentation of the material did not occur
until Kallen broke silence in 1972.
Meanwhile, however, over the years Velikovsky showed the files to
potentially influential allies such as Einstein, Walter Kaufmann, and Freeman Dyson.
On February 24, 1952, in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joseph Henry Jackson
announced that on March 27 and May 8 Doubleday would publish
Velikovsky's Ages in Chaos in two volumes; he also informed
his readers that Velikovsky was working on a catastrophic
re-examination of geological history. Volume one of Ages in
Chaos, dealing with the six century span from the Exodus to the
reign of Akhnaton, was published a few weeks late, and volume two,
although typeset, was never published. It was to have dealt with
the five centuries between Akhnaton and Alexander the Great, but
soon became a projected multi-volume work comprising In the Time
of Isaiah and Homer (further subdivided into works dealing with
The Dark Age of Greece and The Assyrian Conquest, both
unpublished). Ramses II and His Time [ 1978], and
Peoples of the Sea .
In the April 20, 1952, New York Times, Kaempffert reviewed Ages in Chaos
with scarcely less truculence than he had Worlds in Collision.
Velikovsky had written the first book "[k]nowing
virtually nothing about mathematical physics or celestial
mechanics," while the second was "an exasperating mixture of fact
and fancy, presented with great solemnity and a show of specious
erudition." Another old foe, W. E. Garrison of Christian Century,
wrote that Velikovsky's new book, while disturbing to
historians, would probably not produce as much "popular excitement"
as the other: "There are thousands of otherwise intelligent readers
who could lose 600 years of Egyptian history and never notice the
Harry Orlinsky of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati contrasted
Velikovsky's approach with that of a "reasonable person... who is
interested in the truth rather than in a fantastic form of science
The April 20 New York Herald Tribune featured a devastating review by William
Albright, one of the most renowned Orientalists of the day and
already a long-time correspondent of Velikovsky. He would continue
to be a Velikovsky critic,
even though in 1965 he would be one of the first recognized
authorities to move the Ipuwer papyrus up to the end of the Middle
Kingdom, in accidental accordance with Velikovsky's dating. In his
influential 1952 review, Albright listed what he viewed as
Velikovsky's methodological sins: "a completely eclectic use of
evidence," "unjustified inference from sources of unequal value,"
"total neglect of fundamentals and a penchant for dealing with the
bizarre and incredible," and "total neglect of the laws of evidence
as carefully worked out by linguists, philologians and critical
historians of every specialty."
Even as Albright was writing, his colleague and former pupil, Nelson Glueck (who in
1950 had inveighed against Velikovsky in collaboration with
Shapley), was busy conducting an archeological survey of the Negev.
Applying Albright's pioneer shard-dating techniques to the numerous
Iron II sites there, Glueck assigned them to Solomonic times. But
later, supported by Yohanan Aharoni, Glueck's photographer Beno
Rothenberg disputed Glueck's findings, assigning the sites to an
earlier period. In March, 1969, Rothenburg would clinch his
argument by excavating, at Timna, a Hathor temple that contained
inscriptions definitely assigned to the Nineteenth and Twentieth
Egyptian dynasties. The Glueck-Albright/Aharoni-Rothenberg dispute
was but one of many puzzling cases Velikovsky could point to where
rival dating methods indicated large discrepancies which disappeared
entirely under his revised chronology. It may have been no accident
that, while not embracing Velikovsky's scheme, after the discovery
of the Hathor temple Albright began attending Velikovsky's lectures,
even praising him for his “extreme brilliancy".
Whether Albright would have moved closer to Velikovsky's
revisionism, however, cannot be known since he died in September,
1971, some nine months after Glueck.
Almost simultaneously with the appearance of Ages in Chaos, O'Neill
told Velikovsky that the American Philosophical Society was going to
hold a symposium on "Some Unorthodoxies of Modern Science"
(including Velikovskianism) at its annual meeting in Philadelphia on
April 24. Velikovsky, his daughter Shulamit, and O'Neill traveled
there together by train. Albright was also there, although he
played no significant role in the proceedings. The session was
introduced by Harvard science historian, I. Bernard Cohen, Isis
editor and a sometime collaborator with Conant. The first two
papers concerned Joseph Banks Rhine's ESP experiments at Duke
University and dowser, Henry Gross. The third paper was a new
attack against Velikovsky by Payne-Gaposchkin.
In Europe at the time, and thus unable to read the paper herself,
Gaposchkin had asked Donald Menzel to read it in her stead; but
Menzel was too busy and so it was read by someone from the Bell
Telephone Laboratories. Her newest paper was no less venomous than
her earlier ones: she endorsed Velikovsky's claim that his work was
a heresy—"in the original sense of the word. He has not only chosen
his sources; he has even chosen what they shall mean." The fifth
paper was on "The Validation of Scientific Belief"; in it Harvard
psychologist Edwin G. Boring
characterized Velikovsky as "nearer to crankiness than unorthodoxy."
"He has... no
university laboratory, no special scientific journal running through
the years, no great following. He is probably a nova and will soon
fade to the dim status of an historical instance of the instability
of an intense implausible conviction."
Although Velikovsky was an uninvited guest, symposium chairman George W.
Corner graciously gave him a half hour to reply to Gaposchkin's
charges. Velikovsky only needed fourteen minutes to challenge the
astronomers, physicists, and archeologists to examine his theses
with more objectivity than they had shown so far. After the session
was over, Velikovsky chatted with Albright and got into a row with
paleobotanist, Ralph W. Chaney, who claimed that he had declined a
Harper's invitation to rebut Velikovsky because he did not
want to help publicize Worlds in Collision.
Some months later, the American Philosophical Society published the symposium papers
in its Proceedings. On the train to Philadelphia, Velikovsky had
read O'Neill's advance summary of Cohen's remarks,
and thought that Cohen had written "sympathetically, almost
about Velikovsky's role. Cohen had discussed Velikovsky in a historical
perspective and (at least by implication) classed his ideas with "the
great revolutionary scientific theories" of Ptolemy, Galileo, Kepler,
Mesmer, and Einstein. But the actual remarks Cohen made in Philadelphia
were "less favorable" in "the general tone and content" than his
abstract. In the Proceedings, Cohen was even less favorable,
claiming that the "utter rejection" of Velikovsky's theories "is not
based on their unorthodoxy, but only on the palpable fact that they are
unsupported by a body of reliable data such as is demanded of every new
In addition, Velikovsky had written to the Proceedings editor to
protest against Payne-Gaposchkin's misquotations of his own words and
misrepresentation of his ideas, but the journal's editorial board
rejected the letter. Instead, a short piece by Menzel
(who was not even at the symposium) was added as an appendix to
Gaposchkin's paper: "If Velikovsky wants quantitative discussion, let us
give him one." Then Menzel demonstrated that the sun would have to have
a voltage charge equal to 10 to the nineteenth power in order for its
electrical attraction to equal only ten percent of its gravitational
strength, "as much energy as the entire sun radiates in 1,000 years."
(In 1960, in Nature, V. A. Bailey related solar voltage to
eighteen astronomical phenomena; he also calculated the sun's voltage to
be ten to the nineteenth power, but suggested that that amount of energy
would be sufficient.)
. Velikovsky, Stargazers and Gravediggers (New York, 1983), pp. 85, 88.
H. Graff, "Scientific Prejudice: The Velikovsky Incident,"
Bulletin of the Philadelphia Association of Psychoanalysts (1973), P. 293.
Macmillan Company Records, E. Velikovsky File [hereafter MMP].
. I. Velikovsky, op. cit., pp. 96-98.
C. Whelton, “The Gordon Atwater Affair." S.I.S. Review
4:4 (Spring 1980), pp. 75-76.
I. Velikovsky, op. cit, pp. 113-119-, H. Bauer, Beyond
Velikovsky: the History of a Public Controversy (Urbana, 1984), p. 2S.
G. Atwater, "Explosion in Science," This Week (1950).
I. Velikovsky, Stargazers and Gravediggers (New York, 1983), p. 114.
. I. Velikovsky, op. cit., pp. 121, 176.
. Edmondson to Ellenberger, June 23, 1983.
. I. Velikovsky, op. cit., pp. 108-110.
J. Fox, "Immanuel Velikovsky and the Scientific Method,"
Synthesis (1980), pp. 52-53.
Hal Levine, "Dr. Velikovsky Reiterates New Theories Here: 300
Hear Him Blame Bible Miracles on Venus," Columbia Spectator
(1980, May 10).
. I. Velikovsky, op. cit., p. 126.
Publishers' Weekly, June 24, 1950, p. 2739. See also New
York Herald Tribune, June 22, 1950, and Frederick Babcock's
syndicated "Among the Authors" column.
. H. Bauer, op. cit., pp. 218-223.
Immanuel Velikovsky Papers; Manuscript Division, Princeton University (hereafter IVP)
M. Gardner, Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus (Buffalo, 1950), pp. 447-448.
. L. de Camp, "Worlds in Collision," Astounding Science Fiction
(Sept., 1950), p. 139.
J. Conant, Science and Common Sense (New Haven, 195 1), p. 278.
M. Goran, Science and Anti-Science (Ann Arbor, 1974), p. 109.
. One of Velikovsky's critics, in World Affairs Interpreter
21:1 (Spring 1950), 108-10.
I. Velikovsky, "Answer to My Critics," Harper's 202
(June, 1951), pp. 63-66. Repr. in Pensee 3:3 (1973).
. I. Velikovsky, Ages in Chaos (Garden City, 1952), p. viii.
I. Velikovsky, Stargazers and Gravediggers (New York, 1983), p. 210
. H. Kallen, Creativity, Imagination, Logic: Meditations for
the Eleventh Hour (New York, 1973), p. 7
. I. Velikovsky, op. cit., pp. 112, 232-234.
W.E. Garrison, "Chaos in the Cosmos," Christian Century
(1950); "Review of Ages in Chaos," Christian Century (1952).
. Harry Orlinsky, "Chaos in Ages," In Jewish Bookland
(Sept., 1952), p. 5.
W. Albright, "Velikovsky's Tour de Force of Legend, History and
Psychoanalysis," New York Herald Tribune Book Review (May 29, 1960).
E. Danelius, "The Identification of the Biblical 'Queen of
Sheba' with Hatshepsut, Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia as
Proclaimed by Immanuel Velikovsky—in the Light of New
Archaeological Discoveries,"Kronos I:3 (Fall, 1975), pp. 9-17.
C. Payne-Gaposchkin, "Worlds in Collision, " Proceedings of
the American Philosophical Society (Oct. 1952), pp. 519.
. Edwin G. Boring, "The Validation of Scientific Belief: A
Conspectus of the Symposium," Proceedings of the
American Philosophical Society 96 (Oct. 5, 1952), pp. 536.
. I. Velikovsky, op. cit., pp. 246-58, 268-76.
. reproduced iin Velikovsky, op. cit., pp. 247-48.
A. de Grazia, "The Scientific Reception System and Dr.
Velikovsky, "American Behavioral Scientist 7:1 (1963), p. 4a.
B. Cohen, "Orthodoxy and Scientific Progress," Proceedings
of the American Philosophical Society 96 (Oct. 5, 1952), pp. 505-12.
D. Menzel, "The Celestial Mechanics of Electrically Charged
Planets," Proceedings of the American Philosophical
Society 96: 5 (Oct., 1952), pp. 524-25.