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.

No comments: