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Immanuel Velikovsky (1895–1979) was a Russian Jewish psychiatrist who in later life emigrated to the USA and embarked upon a second career as a self-styled iconoclast, polymath, and 'intellectual heretic' with some gobsmackingly unorthodox theories.
Of peculiar breadth in scope, his ideas centred around reinterpretation of events in the Old Testament as historical fact, but with God seemingly replaced by a catastrophist scenario of "interplanetary billiards", involving near-collisions between the Earth, Venus, and Mars. Following a canny previewing in Reader's Digest and Harper's Magazine which piqued the curiosity of the biblically-aware US public, his book Worlds in Collision (1950) became a best-seller. A dense tome, it was written in the persuasive style of a lawyer's summing up, and bolstered with innumerable footnote references to academic literature purporting to support Velikovsky's point of view, arguing its case in a way which seemed remarkably convincing to many a layman. Controversy reigned when the book's publisher (Macmillan) was forced to tear up Velikovsky's contract and pulp the book when it was top of the best-seller list, due to the ire of the scientific community who threatened to boycott Macmillan's textbooks if it did not stop peddling the egregious bullshit.
However, Velikovsky's contract was snapped up by a rival publisher, and half a dozen other books in similar style followed over the next two decades, accompanied by copious lecture tours enthusiastically attended by his fans. Meanwhile academic consensus remained firm in almost unilaterally rejecting Velikovsky's work as impossible woo.
One less explored aspect of the Velikovsky affair is that his wild and infamous theories were arguably fuelled by his Zionist political leanings. His books strove to validate the Hebrew Bible, in two main ways:
- Rewriting history. By the early 20th century, archeology could find precious little evidence of the events described in the Old Testament. For instance, Solomon's magnificent temple and Jericho's walls (allegedly knocked over by trumpet blasts) seemed conspicuous by their absence in the stratigraphic record. Velikovsky took it upon himself to declare the accepted chronology of the Near and Middle East to be erroneous, and offered his own cut-and-pasted version, shifting and realigning centuries of Egyptian and Greek history to match the Hebrew Bible.
- Rewriting celestial mechanics. Velikovsky sought to explain various supernatural events described in the Old Testament (e.g. Noah's flood, the zapping of the Tower of Babel, the Plagues visited upon Egypt as Moses led the Exodus…) as being real, physical events, caused by planetary billiards.
Velikovsky's Zionism is a matter of record. In 1923, working in Berlin, he published two inaugural volumes of an academic journal entitled Scripta Universitatis atque Bibliothecae Hierosolymitanarum, containing papers by various Jewish academics, and with the kudos of an editorial by Albert Einstein. The journal was then used by the fledgling Hebrew University of Jerusalem to help set up its library, by offering copies of its Scripta to other universities in exchange for their publications. Velikovsky settled in Palestine during the 1920s/30s and practiced medicine and psychiatry, before emigrating to New York to work as a psychoanalyst. In 1947, he began writing a regular Zionist editorial for the New York Post under the pseudonym 'Observer'.
Worlds in Collision
Worlds in Collision (1950) was Velikovsky's first book, and his biggest seller. A remarkable work of bullshit, it reads rather like some kind of elaborate drama-documentary. The narrative begins at the Biblical tale of Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt, with plagues, parting Red Seas, columns of fire, and manna raining from heaven, and proceeds through various Old Testament bible stories (e.g. the Sun standing still for Joshua). In some rather eye-watering leaps of imagination, Velikovsky uses (wait for it) comparative mythology to painstakingly argue his case that these Biblical events were real, and happened not just in the Near East but all over the world, and are described in the legends, religions, and writings of other cultures too. The best bit of all is his conclusions as to the cause of the events: Planetary Billiards. Yes, in 1500 BCE, Venus nearly collided with the Earth, causing pole shifts and general mass catastrophe. In 747 BCE, he claims Mars did likewise.
Upon reading such suggestions, of course, the scientific community choked on its coffee and tried to explain to Velikovsky that it did not matter what ancient legends said; such events were physically impossible. In short, comparative mythology was not a valid way to perform research into astrophysics, as it neglected such small matters as the conservation of angular momentum. One of the reasons Velikovsky's woo was so popular was that, to the non-scientific layman, his vast confabulations of meticulously footnoted historical and mythic sources seemed rather erudite and convincing. However, later scrutiny of his use of sources by specialists in cuneiform, Egyptology, etc., tended to be more of the opinion that Velikovsky indulged in a helluva lot of selective quoting, recontextualisation, and mistranslation when weaving his sources, and they frequently did not support his case to anywhere near the extent he contended. Moreover, he would often cite sources as contemporaneous when they were actually from different centuries or even millennia. Indeed, in a splendid piece of circular logic, Velikovsky would often re-date sources, claiming that those which appeared to describe the same "events" must be contemporaneous. He would then claim that the existence of multiple contemporaneous and mutually supporting mythic sources was proof of his catastrophic scenarios.
An earlier unpublished book was all set to blame the Global flood on Saturn and the destruction of the Tower of Babel on a near miss with Mercury, whilst Venus was alleged to have been ejected as a monstrous comet from Jupiter.
While Velikovsky continues to have followers (including the notorious internet kook Ted Holden), his teachings can be quite easily rejected on their face for a number of reasons. Among other things, he made very few testable predictions, and produced much butchered science:
- No mechanism was ever offered to eject Venus from Jupiter, and current science shows no way to do this without expending impossible amounts of energy or disrupting the rather complex Jovian orbital system, including its rings and many moons. Velikovsky also does not explain why a body consisting mostly of hydrogen would eject one whose geology much more closely resembles that of Earth in this odd game of planetary pinball. In addition, we know what comets are; scientists most succinctly refer to them as "dirty snowballs", blobs of water ice, rock, and organics. Venus is a rocky planet with a stable orbit, with no comet-like qualities. How this is supposed to emerge from Jupiter of all places is baffling. How Venus is supposed to change from a comet to a planet is also unexplained.
- In attempting to explain the fall of manna in the story of the Exodus, Velikovsky routinely confused hydrocarbons with carbohydrates, a mistake that should be impossible for any person with a high school education in chemistry.
- Velikovsky also butchered his mythology, twisting known historical chronology and making elementary mistakes such as conflating the goddesses Aphrodite and Athena to explain the origin of the myth of Athena's birth from a hole in Zeus' head cut by Hephaestus, the god of fire.
Ages in Chaos
Although mainly known for his revisionist views on astronomy, Velikovsky may have attached equal importance to his revisionist views on ancient history. Ages in Chaos (1952) was the first in a series of books where, to the derision of pretty much every archaeologist and ancient historian in tenure, Velikovksy attempted to single-handedly rewrite the chronology of the Near East. His starting point was that there was no generally accepted date for the Exodus from Egypt. Sceptics might question if it was a historical event at all, and point to the lack of archaeological corroboration for the earlier books of the Hebrew Bible. Also, if as he claimed the Exodus took place against the background of a major natural disaster, this would require some revision of Egyptian history.
He pointed out that the chronology of Egypt, with its Old, Middle and New Kingdoms and dynastic lists of Pharaohs had been taken as the yard stick against which that of the rest of the region was matched against. However, he argued that these dynastic lists were settled upon by Egyptologists before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of hieroglyphics, and also relied upon Sothic dating (relating to cycles of the star Sirius) which he "debunked" as total woo! Instead, Velikovsky claimed that several of the dynasties in the list were duplicates of each other — the same history, duplicated in Greek or Persian/Assyrian sources. This had caused, he argued, phantom 'dark ages' in Greece and duplicate historical figures who were simply 'alter egos' of each other (for example, he equated the biblical Queen of Sheba with the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut).
As usual, his scheme seemed well-researched and plausible to laymen, but batshit insane to academics in the field. In particular, his misuse of cuneiform sources was utterly torn to shreds by Abraham Sachs at Brown University in 1965, and Velikovsky was never able to refute the charges.  David Lorton, an Egyptologist, has produced a detailed critique of Chapter 3 of Ages in Chaos which equates Hatshepsut with the Queen of Sheba. Overall he judges Velikovsky guilty of sloppy scholarship, although this does mean going into some complex issues, but he detects a few instances of "abuse of evidence" by pulling quotes out of context. He makes the fairly fundamental criticism that although Velikovsky was not entirely ignorant of archaeology his reconstruction is based mainly on the written records of the literate peoples of the Ancient Near East, so it is therefore surprising that he never went to the trouble of learning any of the languages of these peoples, relying entirely on translations, which led him into various pitfalls. 
Ages in Chaos may have achieved a degree of apparent plausibility since, in arguing that Israelite history from Exodus to roughly King Ahab coincided with Egyptian history from the collapse of the Middle Kingdom to the end of the 18th dynasty, he considered that this did not mean radically changing the traditional view of the relevant periods, mainly changing how they fitted together chronologically, although read carefully it was stretching things in places (and he may even have had a point that adopting this approach did make it easier to defend e.g. the historicity of the Exodus). However many of his readers would have been left wondering how he was going to complete his reconstruction, although he had earlier put forward a brief outline in his Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History. He stopped at the end of the Egyptian 18th dynasty, where he would have been getting into murkier waters, claiming that it was followed not by the 19th dynasty but the Libyan dynasty. His second volume, Oedipus and Akhnaton, was a bit of a damp squib, covering only one relatively minor part of his reconstruction.
Near the end of his life Velikovsky did attempt to bring his reconstruction to a conclusion. This involved making very drastic claims, which went some way beyond a radical re-think of chronology, e.g. that the Hittite Empire was an invention of modern historians, and changing the order of some Egyptian dynasties. Velikovsky failed to publish all parts of the series, with the third and fourth volumes (Peoples of the Sea and Ramses II and His Time) slipping out in the two years before his death, and the middle part of the scheme remaining unpublished, although now available online as The Assyrian Invasion and The Dark Ages of Greece. Why did Velikovsky delay publishing all of his reconstruction? Cynics will suggest difficulty assembling evidence to support it, which may well be the main reason. However, in Ages in Chaos, he considered that he had shown that the history of Israel was glorious, in some ways more glorious than anyone had expected, and defended e.g. the historicity of the Exodus. His later volumes did not have major implications for Israelite history, but they did for e.g. Egyptian history.
The grain of truth in Ages in Chaos may have been, as Velikovsky discussed in some detail at the start, that it was becoming difficult to reconcile the Biblical account of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan under Joshua with Egyptian history at the time this was believed to have taken place, since this was the New Kingdom, when ancient Egypt was at the height of its power, controlling Canaan. This was an unlikely context for a mass escape by rebel slaves involving the death of the pharaoh, followed by a conquest of Canaan under the noses of the Egyptians, and attempts to identify the pharaoh of the Exodus were little more than guesswork. This was leading some historians to doubt the historicity of the Exodus or reduce it to a migration by a few nomads, and reduce the Judges period to 100 years. Velikovsky's approach of shifting these events back to the Second Intermediate Period was one way, albeit a drastic one, of defending the historicity of the Biblical account. Many historians would reply that the orthodox chronology is sound and it is the Biblical account which should be treated with caution. There continues to be some controversy over to what extent the Biblical account can or cannot be reconciled with the archaeological and other independent evidence, although the specific solutions put forward by Velikovsky seem to have few supporters these days. Recent revisionists such as Peter James and David Rohl have also argued for a sizeable lowering of the dates for much of ancient Egyptian history. However, as Peter James put it:
"The idea of a radical shift in the chronology of this period is not entirely new. At the turn of the century the classical scholar Cecil Torr and Egyptologist Jens Lieblein stood firm against the newly established 'high' Egyptian chronology, but their arguments for a lower dating fell on stony ground. The next challenge to the status quo came in the 1950s from Immanuel Velikovsky, the wayward polymath whose work outraged scientists in many fields other than ancient history. His model for a 'revised chronology', based on a new series of links between Egyptian and Israelite history, proved to be disastrously extreme. Involving a reduction of Egyptian dates by a full eight centuries at one point, it produced a rash of new problems far more severe than those it hoped to solve. Sadly, while he pointed the way to a solution by challenging Egyptian chronology, Velikovsky understood little of archaeology and nothing of stratigraphy."
At the opposite extreme, there is also the "biblical minimalist" or "Copenhagen school" of writers such as Thomas L. Thomson, who have challenged even the historicity of the United Monarchy of Saul, David and Solomon as not supported by the archaeological evidence. In their view, kingdoms of Israel and Judah did exist prior to the Assyrian invasions of Palestine, but these were small kingdoms which had simply emerged out of the existing population comparatively recently.
Earth in Upheaval
Velikovsky's 1955 book Earth In Upheaval strove to do for geology what Worlds in Collision had done for astronomy. Attempting to collect the "physical evidence" for the planetary billiards described in the former, the book espoused an extreme form of geological catastrophism (i.e. that the majority of the Earth's geological features had been formed within timescales of hours, days, or weeks, rather than gradually over "millions of years"). Vulcanism, pole shifts, mass extinctions, and orogeny were all grist to the mill. However — in two stopped clock moments — Velikovsky did not question the conventional view of the age of the Earth, nor did he question evolution.
Subsequent decades have seen some catastrophist ideas gain some acceptance within the scientific community, most famously in the form of a possible meteoric impact event at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary causing extinction of the dinosaurs, although oddly, the extinction of the dinosaurs did not figure much in Earth in Upheaval. There may even be a little bit of similarity between Velilovsky's claims about "catastrophic evolution" and recent theories of punctuated equilibrium. However, the timescales and causes proposed by Velikovsky (near collisions with Venus and Mars in 1500 and 747 BCE) continue to be regarded as ludicrous nonsense by the mainstream, and it is now clear that many of the phenomena Velikovsky put down to catastrophes can be much better explained by continental drift. Velikovsky spent a significant part of Earth in Upheaval criticising continental drift, then a relatively new theory, which he realised that, if true, could explain some of the geological phenomena he put down to catastrophes (ironically adopting the sort of pooh-poohing attitude which many would have adopted towards his own ideas). As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his essay Velikovsky in Collision, while Velikovsky's objections were shared at the time by some orthodox geologists (i.e. that there was no mechanism to explain continental drift), this problem has now been resolved. 
A large part of Earth in Upheaval was taken up with an account of debates between 19th century geologists which led to the uniformitarian view being accepted, which, whatever its merits as an account of the history of geology, said little about where geology was currently at. Towards the end, Velikovsky questioned the methods used to date the end of the last ice age, suggesting that it may have taken place significantly more recently than the conventional date of around 10,000 years ago, and he seemed to be toying rather cautiously with the idea that it may have taken place as recently as the catastrophe which he believed took place around 1500 BCE.
The Velikovsky Affair and the cult of the martyred heretic
Velikovsky deftly bolstered his cult status among devotees; this helped his books to become best-sellers. A skillful self-propagandist, he largely portrayed himself as the victim of an academic dirty-tricks campaign, claiming that universities did not give his ideas a 'fair hearing'. This is a trick often known as the Galileo gambit, although Velikovsky preferred to liken himself to that other renaissance martyr, Giordano Bruno. A substantial amount of writings concentrated on his own hagiography in this respect (e.g. Stargazers and gravediggers : memoirs to Worlds in collision, 1983), however more often he would persuade other friends with letters after their names to write pieces on his behalf. More often than not, these academics would come to Velikovsky's defense in an area outside their own field — historians and linguists asking for a fair hearing for his physics, and geologists for his history. Velikovsky was also keen to namedrop his acquaintance with Einstein.
Particular pro-Velikovsky capital came inadvertently from the actions of the astronomy faculty at Harvard University, led by Harlow Shapley. Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision, initially published in 1950 by Macmillan, became a runaway bestseller. Shapley threatened to organise a US-wide boycott of Macmillan's textbooks if they did not drop the book. Macmillan duly caved in and within months had transferred Velikovsky's contract to Doubleday.
By the early 1970s Velikovsky started claiming that findings from NASA's Mariner space probes (e.g. that Venus was hot) provided confirmation of his theories. (This overlooked some incorrect predictions - for example, that the Apollo landings would find oil on the Moon.) In an era of hippiedom, free love, and anti-Vietnam War protests, these claims were finding enthusiastic support across US campuses, with Velikovsky milking support in a series of sellout lecture tours. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) became sufficiently alarmed by the levels of rising woo that they staged a special conference on the matter in 1974. Poor Velikovksy thought the event would involve a serious examination of his theories, but the AAAS had other ideas, clearly intending it more as a grand debunking. They assigned showbiz astronomer Carl Sagan to lead the attack, and Sagan proceeded to deliver a rollicking demolition of Velikovsky's work to the amassed audience. This rather backfired however, as Sagan, underestimating the dedication of the faithful, had allowed himself the liberty of including a few flip strawmen in his talk (for example, claiming Velikovsky had written of "plagues of frogs falling to Earth from Venus") and handwaving schoolboy errors in his maths. The Velikovsky fanbase merely seized upon these details, a strategy which allowed them to ignore the big-picture impossibility and instead quibble with the details for years to come. The planned debunking was held up as yet another example of establishment suppression of an academic martyr.
Velikovsky was in a sense the most serious of pseudoscience writers. His books are densely argued, show some extensive reading on his part, albeit often misdirected, and to a very limited extent he did address a few genuine problems in relation to mainstream scholarship, although he ended up rather wildly going off at tangents, and mainstream scholarship has moved on since he was writing in the 1950s. He was a peculiar secular Jewish fundamentalist, and religious fundamentalists might have found some of his theories offensive or problematic. He made the assumption that if anything in the Hebrew Bible conceivably could have a natural explanation then this is how it should be interpreted, even if this meant (for example) adopting highly unconventional astronomical theories. Faced with something like the "killing of the firstborn" in the plagues of Egypt which he realized that even he could not come up with a natural explanation for, instead of just dismissing it as a myth, he put it down to a mis-transcription. Like some other forms of pseudoscience, Velikovsky's approach meant gutting the religious content from what are to a large extent religious texts, an approach which many people would find problematic whatever their religious views. Somewhere in his writings you might find the word "God", but you might have to look long and hard before you found it. (He also considered that King Saul was a better ruler than the Bible makes out, there might just possibly be a tenable case for saying this, Stefan Heym's novel The King David Report explores some similar terrain, but not the sort of claim which would go down well with some religious types.)
For all his radicalism Velikovsky was in some ways a conservative: arguing against continental drift, resurrecting debates between 19th century geologists, and assuming that the history of the Ancient Near East only became firmly established during the Hellenistic period, and that our best guide to what happened before then is the Hebrew Bible, with serious support from The Iliad. Although even the writings of conventional historians can sometimes reflect the concerns of their own time, Ages in Chaos now reads as a product of a time when the Holocaust and the formation of the state of Israel were a very recent memory.
Current supporters and legacy
Velikovksy's followers today can generally be grouped into three main areas:
Despite all this utter bullshit, Velikovsky's legacy lives to this day: his planetary billiards paved the way to Zecharia Sitchin's planet Nibiru, which in turn mutated into Nancy Lieder's Planet X, which is one of the contenders for the late 2012 end-of-the-world scare, which has gone the way of all other such predictions by experiencing the ultimate refutation. Internet crank Robert W. Felix has piled a good deal of his own nonsense on top of Velikovsky's pseudo-scholarship. However we may hope, this hasn't disappeared since 2012 December 22. Another fantastic development of Velikovsky's planetary science centres around Saturn, and the novel notion that Earth orbited it within human memory, before the Sun came along and spoiled everything, never mind that the Sun preceded them both.
Velikovsky's ideas are arguably the origin of the various Electric Universe claims, a fertile area generally centred on the notion that electromagnetism is the dominant force in the cosmos, and gravity is not. Velikovsky did not push very strongly on this issue after he first raised it, possibly because he realized that many people with a basic knowledge of astronomy would be aware that the effect of gravity on the motion of the planets is a very well understood phenonenon.
Velikovsky's Ages in Chaos series provided a starting point for a plethora of armchair scholars to devise new and exciting chronologies for Egypt, the Near and Middle East, and even Europe. The general methodology is to claim that "dark ages" in the historical record are imaginary, and arise from bogus falsely-inflated dynasty lists and the like, which contain made-up centuries containing rulers who never existed. Another trick is to claim that historical figures listed in the annals of different sources (e.g. writings of Greeks such as Herodotus, versus Egyptian hieroglyphics) are actually "alter-egos" of each other, and correspond to the same people, rather than different rulers from different centuries.
Proponents have even made it to successful TV series and books, such as the 'New Chronology' of David Rohl. Other names in the field include Gunnar Heinsohn and Peter James (author of Centuries of Darkness). Much use is made of obscure Assyrian king lists and Pharaohs.
The major difficulty with these methods is that they tend to focus on facile comparisons of names and dynasties, which gloss over the detailed archaeological evidence from the ground, or mundane information about everyday life in these periods which show clearly that the proposed chronologies are bullshit.
A particularly extreme version of these methodologies sees claims that there are 'phantom centuries' in the history of AD Europe. A popular notion is that the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne did not exist. Writers such as Herbert Illig and Gunnar Heinsohn have peddled ideas arguing that many of the years between the fall of the Roman Empire and circa 1200 AD simply did not exist. To support this, they claim that there was a vast continent-wide conspiracy to fabricate historical documents and chronicles. It is not entirely clear what was to be gained from such wholesale deceit; one hypothesis is that it was created by a crooked Pope and/or Holy Roman Emperor who wanted to be able to say that they reigned during the year 1000.
Trumping all of this is Russian writer Anatoly Fomenko, who manages to go so far in truncating history that he claims the Great Wall of China was not built until the 1950s. It is not unusual for their theories to be apparently motivated by strains of nationalism.
- An example of the sort of cranks that support Velikovsky
- talk.origins' Catastrophism FAQ (deals with both Velikovsky and Holden)
- talk.origins on Velikovsky, many arguments collected by Jim Meritt
- http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/gould_velikovsky.html Stephen Jay Gould Velikovsky in Collision
- See the Wikipedia article on Harlow Shapley.