Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Velikovsky Incident

The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. The laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. ~ Carl Sagan

Years ago, I read a book called Worlds in Collision, by Immanuel Velikovsky. It is the most monumental of understatements to say the Velikovsky had a vivid imagination. In his book, he describes a comet being ejected from the planet Jupiter; how this is done is somewhat unclear, but, for the moment, take it on faith. There's stranger things to come.

The comet comes wandering into the inner solar system during Biblical times where it parts the Red Sea for the Hebrews and provides them with manna. It swings back around, in a remarkable display of orbital mechanics, and arrives in time to stop the rotation of the Earth so that the sun will stand still for Joshua. After a few more adventures, including causing volcanoes (and possibly the Great Flood, but I could be exaggerating), it finally settles down in between Earth and Mercury, becoming the planet Venus, which Velikovsky claims no one had reported seeing before.

This is, of course, entertaining gibberish. Ignoring all the things a Venus-sized comet wouldn't do and ignoring what it would do if it passed close to the Earth (like perturb the orbit of the planet rather significantly), it's not even accurate to say that no one had reported seeing Venus before the Exodus. In fact, ancient Sumerian astronomers recorded it quite accurately. The book was totally unbelievable but quite entertaining. But, then
something really remarkable happened.

The scientific establishment is a rather strange entity. It is decidedly stodgy in many ways. New ideas from new thinkers have to pass a high degree of scrutiny before being accepted. New ideas from established thinkers, though, are accepted more readily. Thus, Lord Kelvin's erroneous observations on the age of the Earth would be accepted by the establishment, despite the growing evidence at the time that the planet was many times older.

Nutty ideas seem to pose a greater dilemma. Scientists don't have a very high opinion of the lay public in general and of politicians in particular. They recognize that these groups have a tendency to latch on to the kooky while refusing to accept thoroughly researched concepts. As a result, there was a call from some scientific groups to ban Velikovsky's book.

Carl Sagan has written in detail of the attempt to stop dissemination of Worlds in Collision. After all, the book was such a fabric of pseudoscience that no one could possibly believe it. Except, of course, there were people who did. So, to “protect” the public, there were scientists who wanted to stop any further publication of Velikovskty's theories.

Ultimately, of course, Velikovsky's book actually benefited from the attempt to censor him. Later editions had introductions that made it sound as though Velikovsky was a voice in the astronomical wilderness, trying to make his humble voice heard over the knee-jerk negativism of the establishement.

Scientists did, to some extent, learn their lesson. When Eric Von Daineken wrote Chariots of the Gods, scientists said little unless asked. Then, they would point out the fallacies, and leave it at that. Similarly, Graham Hancock, noted for his own “out-there” theories, now finds his ideas dissected intelligently, rather than being stifled.

We'd like to imagine that Science is an ivory tower where dedicated, intelligent people work together toward common goals, sharing knowledge freely so that the goals may be reached more quickly.

Would that scientific progress worked like that. In fact, scientists are human beings who want the credit of discovery. And they don't like being proved wrong. But, to their credit, when the theory stands up to the test, even the most hardened opponents will reluctantly accept what appears to be right. The trouble is that, when a whacko theory starts gaining momentum, scientists don't want to waste time properly debunking it; they want it to go away.

Fortunately, they seem to have learned a valuable lesson from the Velikovsky debacle. It's a good thing, too, because with the advent of the Internet, there is no way to ban something that's been released. Someone, somewhere, will post it on the web for the world to see. Better to answer the questions than to let the uniformed run wild with speculation. Whether it's cometary Venuses or cold fusion, rational discussion is better than dismissal.

We should always remember that it was a clerk in the Swiss patent office who came up with some really crazy ideas that ultimately changed the world.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles? ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, 20 June 1815
There were some reports lately about a scientist that had come up with a theory that Jesus was able to walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee because – wait for it – it was frozen. Riiiiiight.

I read his explanation, and, while I might concede that one might expect the possibility of a skim-coat of ice under rather extreme conditions (which would almost be miraculous in themselves), getting enough ice for someone to walk on is asking a little too much.

This same scientist once explained the parting of the Red Sea in terms of meteorological phenomena, apparently being unaware that the “Red Sea” is, in fact, a mistranslation of “Reed Sea”, a decidedly shallow body of water. It is eminently possible for the Reed Sea to be dry due to shifts in wind and tide. The guy wasted a perfectly good theory.

Trying to find explanations for miracles has been a long-time area of interest to skeptics, realists, and even the mostly devout who just like to think God plays by the rules He set up. I like an interesting, well developed theory of how, say, the Plagues of Egypt might have occurred. But some miracles, like walking on water, have to be taken in the context of teaching a lesson. As many theologians point out, whether the miracle happened or not is unimportant. What is important is what the actions around the miracle teach us.

It doesn't help that we have been beset over the years with bogus miracles, hoaxes intended to either foster a point of view, or enrich someone. Lately, it's been popular to find holy images in toast, on sewer walls, in Rice Krispies, or wherever. E-bay is littered with this stuff, and a certain casino has enough of them, along with other such memorabilia like William Shatner's kidney stone, to be considering a traveling exhibit.

We have two problems here. First, there are people who seem to need to explain miraculous or supernatural events, even when such events are quite possibly allegorical or at least not very well reported. Whether it's the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is not really necessary to explain the methods in which a miracle may have occurred in obedience to natural laws. It is be interesting to speculate on, say, Noah's Flood being a remembrance of the collapse of an ice-age ice dam at the opening of the Black Sea. If there is proof of such an occurrence (and there seems to be pretty good evidence for it), then, perhaps it did inspire the stories of worldwide floods. It is not necessary, though, to insist that theological thinking be revised to take it into account.

Secondly, there are people who, perhaps because of the aforementioned people, refuse to brook any scientific investigation of a miraculous or supernatural happening. This group has closed its collective mind to the idea that any event from scripture or other religious, mystical, or legendary writing could have a natural explanation. This is no big deal when we are talking about Jesus walking on water. But, it is not appropriate to say that scientific theories, based on accumulations of fact, should be ignored because there is some mystical, scriptural, or legendary explanation.

Personally, I find some explanations of miracles to be interesting, while others, like skating of the Sea of Galilee strike me as silly. Either way, I am not put out by the possibility that a miracle had a natural cause. Ultimately, it is not even important to me whether the miracle happened (a feeling held by many theologians), because the recounting of the story carries a lesson to be learned. Whether there was a historical event that matches up is unimportant compared to the message being delivered.

The only reason I even bring any of this up is that the subject of miracles has become yet one more divisive issue between the “faithful” and the “blasphemers”, er, excuse me, the “skeptics.” On the one hand, it seems that some of the “faithful” have a fearful lack of faith, because they are unable to stand any explanation or interpretation of scripture beyond their own.

On the other side, we have those who take far too much pleasure in trying to break down the faith of others. For the most part, this group does not include those who actually look for natural causes of the events. I'm talking about those who gleefully quote these theories as if they somehow invalidate the whole concept of faith.

Some scientists believe in God. Some don't. The ones that do find no contradiction in understanding the physical laws of the universe and worship. They seem to figure that God gave them a brain and the free will to use it.

The only “blasphemy” would be to not use to the fullest the resources we have been given to discover the wonder of the universe around us.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The End of the World As We Know It

I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book. ~Groucho Marx
I know that television feels it has to cater to the lowest common denominator (Translation: they program for the dumbest viewers). And, I am also very aware that networks are quick to pick up on a trend (Translation: we'll keep churning out the same crud until you stop watching). But when science and history channels join the party of stupidity, I begin to get ill with it.
I don't know who started it. The Discovery desk set (Science, Times, Discovery Channel, et al) started showing meteors and comets crashing into the planet. Global warming generated another pile of doom and gloom. When the tsunami hit Asia, these guys went nuts with tsunami shows. National Geographic has their own set (Yellowstone is gonna blow any day now). The Weather Channel, not to be outdone, came with wonderful scenario programs about New York getting hit by Katrina's closest relative, San Francisco rocking and rolling to the earthquake of the century, and Dallas getting swallowed by an umpteen-mile-wide tornado.
In the Weather Channel's case, I imagine that they figure anything they can do to take people's minds of the inaccuracy of their forecasts is a good thing.
Even the History channels take turns showing programs about the same potential disasters. However, just to spice things up, they also feature idiotic analyses of “prophecies” from the past: “In 1406, Jerkius Foobar predicted that a leader from the east and a leader from the west would go to war when the leader from the east crossed the River Zuggerat.” It is then lamely shown that “Zuggerat” is lower Slobbovian for “rind” which sounds like Rhine, so this was an accurate prediction of Hitler attacking France. With this sound foundation, we are then told that Foobar also predicted that “Something really bad would happen in 600 years,” which clearly means that the world is about to end.
John Titor would be so proud.
When they're not making things up, these guys mess up actual events. For example, a show that I've mentioned before spent a lot of time with some “revolutionary” theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs. Conventional scientific wisdom says it's most likely that the long reign of T-rex and friends was ended by a meteor that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, just off the Yucatan peninsula. The “revolutionary” theory was that it wasn't the Mexican meteor that caused the extinction event; it was another meteor that did it.
But, what got me irritated was their discussion of the actual effect of whichever meteor it was. According to the narration, it was “generally believed” that the impact explosion caused a world-wide conflagration, destroying the food supply and most of the dinosaurs. Most? The whole planet catches fire and some survive? How? But, just to make sure, they say that the material thrown up into the atmosphere would cool the planet for a very long time, killing off all the vegetation. What vegetation? You just burned it all up!
It turns out, of course, that there is no evidence for a planetary blaze, and the period of cold climate was not all that long. This is explained by several scientists on the program, which leaves us to wonder just who these “generally believing” people were that the narrator referred to.
Now a meteor like the one that hit the Gulf 65 million years ago would be a catastrophe of major proportions. Why, then, did the producers of the program feel the need to overstate the effect? If they can't describe a factual event accurately, why should we trust them to describe a hypothetical one correctly? And why do these networks insist on selling Armageddon on a nightly basis?
Oh, occasionally, these shows will talk about preventing the ultimate disaster in some manner, but most of their time is spent showing the same CGI effects of death and destruction. One program went so far as to imagine the weather of other planets occurring on Earth. Rather than simply discuss the planet-wide sandstorms of Mars, they have to have one here (even though it's an impossibility on Earth). Using these sorts of scenarios, there's simply no hope for any of us.
They're not getting any better, either. The other night, one of the channels did a show on comets. It imagined a comet passing near enough to be perturbed by Earth's gravity, with pieces breaking loose as a result. So as people watch the lovely meteor shower that comes from passing through the comet's tale, they are suddenly assaulted by flaming rocks rushing down from the sky.
Okay, firstly, meteor showers are caused by comet residue to be sure, but when the Earth has passed through a cometary tail, there's no such effect. The tail is almost all tenuous gas, not little bits of comet. Secondly, if we're passing through the tail, the comet has passed us. There's no mechanism for the pieces of comet to do a U-turn and head for LA (so they can hit the Hollywood sign, just to show how hokey the show was). Thirdly, it's almost impossible for all the chunks to come down in a narrow area like LA (in astronomical terms, LA is a pimple; most of these chunks would land in some of the two-thirds of the world covered in water). And finally, meteors that hit the ground aren't flaming. As they come through the thicker atmosphere, they are slowed significantly and cool down a good bit. They may be hot to the touch, but the image of fireballs crashing into cars is ludicrous.
If you doubt that last one, ask the lady in New Jersey who actually had a meteor hit the car in her driveway. It punched a nasty hole, but nothing exploded or was set aflame.
At any rate, that was all of that program that I watched. I figured that if they could get that much wrong in five minutes, the remaining hour and 30 minutes (after commercials) was just going to be drivel.
What bothers me is what these shows are telling us about the target audience. Evidently, somebody is watching these shows. I'm not, because I avoid these things, but somebody must be glued to the set, because networks keep producing them. Are people so turned off by the future that they'd rather imagine the biosphere being torn apart?
Seems to me that mankind needs an attitude adjustment. All right, now, all 7 billion of you, go take a timeout until your attitude improves.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Gospel of Who?

How can you put on a meaningful drama when, every fifteen minutes, proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper? ~Rod Serling
This past Sunday night, the National Geographic Channel had a two-hour program about the discovery of an ancient codex that contained the Gospel of Judas. Now, here was a potentially fascinating look at a piece of early Christian history, but, as usual, television managed to turn it inside out. Instead of focusing on the document and what it said, they focused on the peripheral nonsense that surrounded the discovery of the manuscript.
Of course, the discovery could have been just as interesting, except that the document was bought from a black market antiquities dealer. Now, it's nice that the book was saved from rotting in a safe deposit box, but to bore us with a lot of supposition about how it got there, complete with entirely fictional sequences of how it was found and stolen, was so much filler. Oh, there was a comical sequence showing some “expert” standing in front of a cave saying that the gospel “could have come from a cave like this.”
There was also the endless cycle of foreshadowing and repetition. Before each of the many commercials, there would be a “tease” about what was coming, which would show some upcoming footage. Sooner or later that footage would be used. Then it would be shown over and over again as if we could have forgotten the episode we had just seen.
And there was the usual misleading teases, to wit: ”To carbon date the Gospel of Judas, I'm going to have to burn it.” Oh, my goodness! To have survived all those centuries only to be burnt up just to test its validity. Oh, the horror! Oh, the bull. Carbon dating takes little teeny samples, of which exactly five were taken from various places in the book, none of which had any writing on them. Total amount of book destroyed: About 1 square centimeter.
What we had here was a good one hour program that was stretched into two hours to make a better commercial for a couple of new National Geographic books on the subject.
If one could overlook all of the above, the program distilled down to a few notable points.
A codex was purchased from an illegal dealer in Egyptian antiquities. Despite not having any provenance, carbon dating, analysis of the writing, and analysis of the content style seemed to indicate that it is a genuine text from 200-300 AD.
The codex contained a copy of the Gospel of Judas. Contrary to the impression given in the advertising leading up to the showing of the program, this gospel was reasonably well-known. It was one of, perhaps, 30 gospels that were making the rounds of early churches.
The gospel was a Gnostic writing. The Gnostics had taken a very mystical view of Christianity which set them at odds with the more mainstream elements of the early Church. One aspect of Gnosticism was that the spirit was a spark trapped in the body, yearning to be free. The show did cover this, but failed to mention that, in it's most extreme form, some believers felt that suicide was a proper way to free the spark. This was one reason that the Church formed such a strong attitude toward suicide and euthanasia.
The Gospel of Judas, as you might expect, portrays Judas in a very favorable light. Rather than acting as a betrayer, he was following the instructions of Jesus when he turned Jesus into the authorities. Not only that, Jesus shared information with Judas about the nature of the soul and the hereafter that He never told to any other disciple.
That's pretty interesting stuff. Had the program emphasized the place of the Gnostics in the early church and spent more time on the text of the Gospel with some analysis by Biblical scholars (Robert Shuler hollering, “I only need four gospels!” does not qualify as expert analysis), it would have been an excellent program. It would only have needed to be an hour long (well, 45 minutes after commercials) and wouldn't have been suited to sensationalist ads, but it would have been a better program.
I have read some of the books that didn't make it into the Bible, and, it's usually easy to understand why some of them didn't make it. Some are too fantastic, with miracles occurring in every paragraph. Others are at odds with what we have come to accept as the philosophy of Christianity. The Gospel of Judas is in this latter category, not because of its sympathetic portrayal of Judas, but because of its interpretations of the spirit and of God.
Unfortunately, the program harped on the portrayal of Judas as the big item. I hate to break it to them, but not all Christians have a hatred of Judas. In fact, no Christian who follows Jesus' teachings should hate anyone, even Judas. But, even if one is inclined to revile Judas, I think many Christians have the attitude that was presented to me in Catechism classes. Judas had a part to play in the assuring that the prophecies were fulfilled. He should not be condemned for that, because it wasn't as though he had another choice.
An alternative view was detailed in an episode of Mysteries of the Bible (one of the best programs of the type I've ever seen; it's on the Biography Channel on Sunday mornings). The interpretation, as I recall, involved some necessities of Jewish law that come into play when a wanted individual is turned over to the authorities. In this theory, Judas, because of his connections and his role as the treasurer of the group, was the logical one to manage the handing over of Jesus to the Pharisees, again because it was something that had to be done.
It's a pity, really, that National Geographic couldn't dwell on the theology and history surrounding the Gospel of Judas, rather than trying to sensationalize the story. I guess they just don't understand that the story of the Bible and what did and didn't make it into the Bible is fascinating in and of itself to many of us.
Postscript: After I wrote this piece, the channel showed a program on Herod that was much better done, covering aspects of Herod’s life that I had heard before. They still had too many of the same scenes shown over and over, but they generally were just using that as backdrop to some new information, not merely repeating what had been said earlier. Now if they could do Herod so well, why couldn’t they do as good a job with the Gospel of Judas?