“I Survived, As You See”
Velikovsky at Harvard
Stephen L. Talbott
“I have been waiting for this evening for 22 years.” It was Thursday, February 17, 1972, and Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky was addressing 900 members of academia at Harvard University. “I did not come here for revenge or triumph,” he remarked at a seminar afterwards. “I came here to find the young, the spirited, the men who have a fascination for discovery.”
If revenge was not what Velikovsky sought, surely he at least savored the taste of vindication. For he spoke with the confidence and satisfaction of a man whom events had finally proven right—despite both the embittered opposition of science’s most powerful authorities, and a protracted conspiracy of silence—and not only proven right, but vindicated by such a rapid and breathtaking series of surprising discoveries as science has rarely if ever before witnessed.
“Nonsense and Rubbish”
It was at Harvard that Dr. Harlow Shapley, then director of the observatory, branded Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision as so much “nonsense and rubbishy—without bothering to read the book. And it was Shapley who prevailed upon his Harvard colleague, Pr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, to write “the first detailed answer to Dr. Velikovsky’s theory”—before she had read the book. This “answer,” at first circulated widely under a Harvard letterhead, then appeared in the popular press as the opinion of an authority on astronomy and history, and was later reported in Shapley’s Science News Letter.
It was at Harvard that Dr. Fred Whipple, succeeding Shapley as director of the observatory, wrote a letter to a subsidiary of Velikovsky’s publisher, threatening to break his relations as an author with that house unless Worlds in Collision was suppressed. It was at Harvard that astronomer Donald Menzel ridiculed Velikovsky, claiming his theories would require an impossible solar charge of 1019 volts. The sun, he said, couldnt have more than 1800 positive volts (or, it follows, one negative volt)—this before physicist V. A. Bailey calculated that the sun has a negative charge of 1019 volts.
And so, in a stronghold of ill-starred resistance to his views, Velikovsky was finally asked to tell his own story and to call forth his own witnesses. He spoke before an audience hosted by the Society of Harvard Engineers and Scientists, comprising faculty, alumni, graduate, and undergraduate students. The decision to invite Velikovsky originated with Herbert Zisch-k,au, a Harvard sophomore; Louis Sutro, on the research staff of MIT’s Draper Laboratory, worked out the arrangements with Velikovsky.
The invitation came at an opportune moment for Velikovsky. Five days after his lecture, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation would air a one-hour television special on the man who for years was barred from nearly every academic institution in the country. Where once he was met by the epithets “crank” and “charlatan,” doors are now slowly opening, revealing not a few sheepish, if academically dignified, faces. Many respected scientists are finally willing to discuss his work and acknowledge his contributions. His books are required reading at such colleges and universities as Antioch, Oberlin, and Princeton. The Harvard lecture itself was filmed by a team preparing a full-length documentary on Velikovsky.
Although the lecture’s timing added its own drama, Velikovsky did not take advantage of the occasion by attempting to pay old debts. He counterattacked with facts. Characteristically, he did not even mention his sometimes libelous Harvard critics, but instead praised the late Robert Pfeiffer, former chairman of the Department of Semitic Languages. Pfeiffer, the first person to read Velikovsky’s Ares in Chaos, retained an open and fair mind, publicly conceding that this dramatic historical reconstruction could be correct.
Velikovsky did refer, however, to the difficult period following publication of Worlds in Collision. “The scientific journals not only refused to publish my articles, but also ignored my replies to critics. It became an emotional crisis for me. But despite years of neglect, I survived, as you see.”
The capacity audience in Lowell Lecture Hall, obviously sympathetic toward Velikovsky, listened attentively as, in a slow and deliberate manner, he described how he “pitted history against folklore, folklore against geology, geology and paleontology against astronomy. I found that my thesis can be sustained.”
That thesis came under severe attack in 1950; but today, he observed, it is not his book, but the textbooks that “are mostly outmoded. Those of 1950 are antiquated.” An astronomer could write during the 1950’s that the celestial bodies “could not possibly possess electrostatic charges enough to produce any of the [observed] effects on motion within the solar system.” “But how,” Velikovsky asked the physicists and astronomers present, “could the satellites of Jupiter, plowing through the intense Jovian magnetosphere, do so without any observable effect? Or how can you explain the, movement of cometary tails around the sun when, by ten totwenty thousand times, solar light pressure is insufficient to do the job?.”
Darwin, and with him all the biology and paleontology textbooks through the Fifties, “frequently invoked absence of the fossil record to explain what appear to be sudden changes. Today many of the prominent evolutionists of the Fifties have been forced to become catastrophists, but call themselves ‘neo-catastrophists’ to separate themselves from me.” Further, “the theory that fossils are formed when animals die in shallow water is ‘impossible’. (Who ever saw a cat wading in water?)"
The controversial scientist recalled his predictive successes based on deductions,from his historical reconstructions: “I was bold enough to claim that Venus must be hot. I explained Venus’ equal temperatures on its day and night sides by saying that Venus gives off heat. I claimed that Venus has a massive atmosphere, while Royal Astronomer Spencer Jones said it has less than the Earth. I claimed that Mars would be moon-like, its surface cracked. I claimed there would be remanent magnetism on the moon, resulting from the close approach of planetary bodies.! do not claim to be an astronomer. But I had a guiding idea that carried me into many different fields. Critics can call me all kinds of names, but they cannot make Venus cold.”
“We Are Alone”
What terrible force gripped the Earth, Velikovsky wondered, causing a giant rift along the ocean bottoms—a rift that stretches nearly twice around the globe? What caused the ocean levels suddenly to drop 18-20 feet 3,500 years ago? Where did the white ash which covers the ocean bottom, and which its discoverers attribute to a comet, come from? Why do the clay tablets from Assurbanipal’s library, utilizing advanced mathematics, depict the celestial theater completely unlike it is today?~the length of the day, month, and year, and the positions of the moon and planets are all “wrong.”
Velikovsky reviewed the anomalies which, from one discipline to another, lend support to his belief that global paroxysms convulsed the Earth in historical times. In cosmology, celestial mechanics, geology, evolutionary theory, and psychology he questioned assumptions—“of Victorian vintage”—which have remained unchanged despite the accumulation of evidence against them.
Finally, of the students of religion he inquired: “Why was Jupiter—not as bright as the sun and not as important for our sustenance as the sun—why was it the supreme deity for a long period? How many of you could go out at night and point out Jupiter, the chief deity of ancients around the world? Why were the other planets worshipped, and why were temples built for them? Why were human and animal sacrifices brought to them? . . .
“We are alone in the solar system. We are irrational because we do not know what happened to us in the recent past. From Freud we learned that traumatic experiences are easily forgotten. We also learned that we tend to repeat them. We have, in these two arsenals across the Atlantic, enough destructive power to make life impossible. There is some ancestral heritage in us which was born in traumatic, awful experiences. Freud knew this was so, but he did not find out what those experiences were.”
The cosmic actors, now in a state of “peaceful coexistence,” lend deceptive credence to the belief that all things have continued in peace and stability since time immemorial. But the real tale is different—a tale of destruction and terror.
"I have only said, ‘Know yourself; know your past’ ”...
"The cause of the opposition to me was in great part psychological: my critics could not accept my bringing their unconscious to consciousness.”
Concluding his lecture on an offbeat, Velikovsky recalled the remarks of an archaeology professor at Southern Methodist University: Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision, the professor warned the nation, has caused more damage than “communism and prostitution combined.”
The audience, which included faculty from Harvard, Brandeis, and MIT, vigorously applauded the one-time heretic, and responded with questions ranging from the Queen of Sheba to Atlantis to Stonehenge, to the carbon dating of New Kingdom pharaohs. The hecklers, apparently, chose to stay home. After formal questions and answers, an eager crowd enveloped the lecturer, pressing him with questions about his work. He seemed to enjoy the exchange.
The next day Robert Goldfarb interviewed Velikovsky for the campus radio station, WHRB. The one-half hour taped interview was aired February 27. During the interview Goldfarb remarked, “Your theories have been very controversial. I think it’s come to a stage where the people who believe them believe them very strongly, and the people who dont believe them disagree with them strongly ...”
Velikovsky: “Characteristically enough, the demarcation line lies between those who have read my books and those who have not. I would like to be confronted with a scientist who has read my books (not just glanced at them or read the reviews) and then offered me a straight refusal of belief. I have not seen him.”
Goldfarb: “To what extent have you adhered to the scientific method in your researches?.”
Velikovsky: “Every statement, every reference in my books is supplied with a footnote where Ive given the author, the article or book, the place of publication, the year, and the page. So it is easy to control. Take for comparison Darwin’s Origin of Species (which was also presented simultaneously for the scientific world and the general public): he omitted all footnotes. Here there is no method of control—you have to believe that this or that claim about some discovery or find is really true. In my books you have nothing to take on belief. You have only to read and then to follow your own logic. For example, my Earth in Upheaval is a book on the paleontologi-cal record. I never did any field work in geology or paleontology. But I collected the printed material, and when it is collected and presented, whoever reads it cannot regaina believer in slow evolution.”
Goldfarb: “To what extent do you believe the Bible is an accurate document or historical record?.”
Velikovsky: “Im not a fundamentalist and I oppose fundamentalism. I consider any work written by a fundamentalist — say on geology or paleontology — as of reduced value (even though it may have some interesting facts brought together) because there is an axe to grind. You cannot approach the Bible differently than you approach any other source. I found, however, that the Old Testament is a carefully composed history. I was gratified to discover that it is basically a truthful document.”
Goldfarb: “Your investigations have included both scientific sources and the Bible. Some people see this as a contradiction.”
Velikovsky: “The Bible in my work plays no other role than the Vedas, Upanishads, Icelandic Edda, etc. We must find the common denominator. If the Old Testament records that before the sun was disturbed in its motion stones fell from the sky, then we are close to a suspicion that maybe it was a natural phenomenon, because the ancients could not know the connection between the rotation of the earth — of which they had no inkling — and the disturbance caused by meeting a shower of meteorites in the tail of a large comet.
"But then we have to go to the legends across the oceans and find whether the Indians have the same stories. They saw the sun rising over the eastern horizon, remaining standing or even going down a little, and all the forests were burning. How could they know the connection between a disturbance in the rotation of the Earth and the conversion of motion to heat? Our suspicion grows, but we are still not satisfied. We have to find the same story in all places. These events created the mythology of all the peoples. Besides, we have the historical records.
"One must go again and again to specialists. As an interdisciplinary synthesis! you are not a jack-of-all-trades. You are the one who dares to cross the barriers. Every department is divided into compartments, and scholars believe that in other compartments there are no fundamental, unsolved questions. All is solved. Only he has some questions. He does not know that in other compartments is the very same situation.”
During an informal workshop the next day Velikovsky reflected on the value of his trips to campuses: “In science a theory is considered established when, besides proving better than an old theory in explaining the known facts, it also predicts facts yet unknown. I mention my advance claims not for the purpose of saying ‘I told you so,’ but for the purpose of inducing you, young scholars and scientists, to see your task. It is not destructive. Those of you of noble spirit should think, ‘Where can I put in my little part? Which test can I do? Which calculation can I perform? Where can I be of assistance?’ My visits to campuses are not in vain if some new, younger minds will tackle what I could not.”