A controversial 1950 book declared that our neighbor world was spawned by Jupiter 3,500 years ago and nearly struck Earth — twice.
As northern winter gives way to the longer daylight hours of spring, Venus returns to the evening sky for a long engagement. As the chart below shows, the planet doesn’t get as dramatically high in the sky as it did back in 2015. But the Evening Star will remain in view through September.
Telescopically, Venus never offers much to see aside from its gradual change in apparent size and an attractive progression of phases. Observers have strained for centuries to glimpse any detail on its cloud-cloaked disk. We sometimes forget that astronomers knew very little about this neighbor world — so like Earth in size and mass — until powerful radar probing and spacecraft visits started to peel back the layers of mystery in the 1960s.
The first artificial satellites were still a decade away when, in 1946, Immanuel Velikovsky finished the manuscript for Worlds in Collision, a book that capitalized on our relative ignorance and put forward a theory of solar-system formation that goes beyond bizarre. Born in 1895 and a student variously of history, law, biology, and psychoanalysis, Velikovsky maintained that the inner planets only recently assumed the serene, stable orbits they have today.
Rather, in his scheme Venus took the form of a huge, rogue comet after being ejected by Jupiter not long before 1500 BC. It then hurtled sunward, sideswiping Earth twice and colliding with Mars before settling into the almost perfectly circular orbit it now occupies.
The basis for all this astounding, historically recent chaos wasn’t a detailed computation of orbital motion but rather Velikovsky’s unwavering belief that Old Testament narratives and cosmological myths drawn from China, Central America, India, Assyria, and elsewhere were accounts of real events.
What got him started was the biblical story of Joshua commanding the Sun and Moon to stop moving for an entire day and invoking a devastating hail of stones from the sky during his battle with the Amorites. Velikovsky was also seeking a physical reason for the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians in Exodus.
Venus provided all the answers. That long tail it trailed after leaving Jupiter had also created all kinds of havoc for Pharaoh as Earth passed through it not once but twice. And although we escaped an outright collision, the proximity of Venus caused Earth’s orbit and axial tilt to change, a magnetic reversal, and worldwide floods, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions — all within recorded history. None of this catastrophism was chronicled by our ancestors, Velikovsky asserts, because they suffered from a “collective amnesia” that repressed all memory of these occurrences. As further proof, he details how Venus is conspicuously absent from various historical tabulations of planets prior to about 2000 BC.
Velikovsky acknowledged that his scenario was at odds with established physics. But any inconsistencies weren’t due to his myth-as-fact interpretations; instead, he pointed to the “need for a new approach to celestial mechanics” in which electrical forces and magnetism trumped the power of gravity.
Understandably, astronomers of the day were outraged by all of this. It took Velikovsky four years to get Worlds in Collision published, finally getting a green light from Macmillan in part because a sympathetic Gordon Atwater, then head of astronomy at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, promised to create a show for Hayden Planetarium to depict the book’s planetary pinball. But Atwater was summarily fired before that could happen. Strenuous objections by Harvard’s Harlow Shapley, Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin, and other academics — including a boycott of Macmillan’s astronomy textbooks — caused the publisher to jettison this literary hot potato to Doubleday. The book and its author merited a blistering editorial in Sky & Telescope.
A Curious, Believing Public
Remarkably, Worlds in Collision became phenomenally popular in the summer of 1950, especially among the New York literati. Advance articles about the forthcoming book in Harper’s, Collier’s, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere whetted the public’s appetite. Once in print, the book rocketed to the top of the New York Times’ best-seller list and remained a top-ten pick for five months.
Although pilloried almost universally by professional astronomers, Velikovsky remained a frequent acquaintance of Albert Einstein. More than a decade later he gained a modicum of support thanks to Princeton physicist Valentine Bargmann and Columbia astronomer Lloyd Motz, whose letter in Science (December 21, 1962) pointed out Velikovsky’s successful predictions that Jupiter was a source of radio energy and that Venus must be very hot.
Still, one has to wonder why the outlandish premises of Worlds in Collision got so much traction in the first place. Science historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “The Velikovsky affair raises what is perhaps the most disturbing question about the public impact of science. How is a layman to judge rival claims of supposed experts? Any person with a gift for words can spin a persuasive argument about any subject not in the domain of a reader’s personal expertise.” Advocate-turned-critic Leroy Ellenberger notes, more pointedly, “The less one knows about science, the more plausible Velikovsky’s scenario appears.”
Six decades later, Worlds in Collision is rapidly disappearing in the rear-view mirror of history, yet our human penchant for intriguing but outlandish scientific claims remains.
This article originally appeared in print in Sky & Telescope's March 2018 issue.