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Remembering an Ancient Catastrophe


" In my memories as a King child, my favorite event was the Venus Festival. A celebration when the most important buildings were illuminated with candles placed inside the Gods' masks. It was a time when the Universe was beautiful and our gods smile to please our people because we knew nothing would remain constant in our fragile lives. Only the Gods trapped in cages inside the stars." (Lord Pakal).


  (From the

In 1950 a Russian-born psychiatrist named Immanuel Velikovsky authored a controversial book. Velikovsky was extremely knowledgeable in the texts of ancient peoples. Based on his interpretation of these texts, Velikovsky reached the conclusion that our solar system, with its nine planets, was not always the same as we see it today. The book, Worlds in Collision, asserted that around 3,500 years ago the planet Venus was somehow ejected from the planet Jupiter as a comet. Comet Venus then started wandering through the solar system. Its gravitational field pushed other planets out of their orbits or changed their rotation.


Velikovsky attributed many of the disasters recorded in ancient times to this strange interaction the Earth had with Venus. Material that fell from Venus's comet tail into Earth's atmosphere caused the plagues visited upon Egypt as recorded in the Bible. "Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere," cried the Egyptian Ipuwer. "Men shrink from tasting, human beings thirst after water..." According to Velikovsky's thinking, a fine rusty ferruginous dust from the comet's tail filtered down on the globe turning everything red.

As Earth went deeper into the comet's tail the dust turned to small stones and a hail of gravel pelted the Earth: "...there was hail, and fire mingled in with hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation," the Bible reads. Velikovsky also credits the manna that nourished the nation of Israel during their forty-year wandering through the desert in Exodus to carbohydrates that fell to Earth from comet Venus's tail. As Venus grew closer, the gravity of the planet caused the Earth to rock on its axis or stop and start its rotation. Earthquakes broke out and vital waves engulfed mountain ranges. Velikovsky speculates that this maybe when the legendary city of Atlantis sunk beneath the waves.

The changes in rotation, according to Velikovsky, caused a prolonged darkness overA sign on the sky the Earth. His research discovered that in Iran scholars recorded a night lasting three days followed by a day lasting three days. The Chinese recorded the same phenomena. The Bible speaks of a day when the sun stood still to allow Joshua to finish a battle. According to Velikovsky's work ,somewhere in the eighth century B.C., the Venus comet pushed Mars out of its proper orbit and into a close encounter with Earth. This caused earthquakes to shake the world: "Both the poles shook," wrote one observer at around 747 B.C. "and Atlas (who according to legend carried the Earth on his back) shifted the burden of the sky...The sun vanished and rising clouds obscured the heavens..." The year shortened and ancient astrologers were forced to develop a new calendar.

Finally, after many years of causing catastrophes on Earth, Venus and Mars settled into their current near-circular orbits. Velikovsky's theories didn't fit in at all with modern astrophysics and he was criticized by most scientists. They saw his work as just another crackpot theory. And they had quite a bit of evidence to refute it. A few scientists weren't satisfied to duke it out with Velikovsky in the marketplace of ideas, though. They made the blunder of putting pressure on Velikovsky's publisher not to publish "Worlds in Collision" as a part of the company's textbook series.

When this became known, public sympathy shifted toward Velikovsky, increasing his popularity. He was a persuasive author and many began to believe in his theories. Isaac Asimov, a Velikovsky critic (and not a bad wordsmith himself) once wrote: "He is an interesting writer. It's fun to read his books. I have read every book he has published and hope to read any he writes in the future. Although he doesn't lure me into accepting his views, I can well see where those less knowledgeable in the fields Velikovsky deals with would succumb."


So what makes scientists doubt Velikovsky's views? They have a long list of reasons why such a scenerio was not possible.

A few of the more important ones are:

The temperature of Venus. Actually, both sides in this controversy point to this as evidence for their claims. When Velikovsky first published his ideas the temperature on the surface of Venus was not known. As Frank Drake of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory wrote, "We would have expected a temperature of only slightly greater than that of Earth..." Velikovsky had predicted Venus, after its close encounter with Earth, Mars and the Sun, would have a much higher than expected temperature. Indeed it was discovered that the surface temperature was 750 degrees Kelvin. Hot enough to melt lead.

Carl Sagan, one of Velikovsky's most ardent critics, argued that if Venus had been ejected out of Jupiter, the required amount of energy would have heated Venus so much the planet/comet would have vaporized. And even if somehow the planet had managed to survive the ejection the temperature, even thousands of years later, claimed Sagan, would have been much greater than those found today. Sagan also argued that if Venus had been on an extremely eccentric orbit as Velikovsky suggests, it would be highly unlikely that it could have changed its orbit so radically in the few thousand years to the nearly circular orbit that the planet enjoys today.

Velikovsky didn't seem to be concerned with the problems his theory generated for physicists. He himself said, "the ancient traditions are our best guide to the appearance and arrangement of the earliest remembered solar system, not some fancy computer's retrocalculations based upon current understanding of astronomical principles."

However, other scientific disciplines don't seem to bear out Velikovsky's ideas, either. Geologists who have cored into the world's icepacks and ocean bottoms have not found signs of the deposits Venus made upon Earth as the Earth passed through the planet/comet's tail (In fact Venus is much too massive with too strong a gravity to ever have had a visible tail as Velikovsky claims).

Venusian geology doesn't seem to support a young Venus, either. Radar studies of the planet's surface show a landscape saturated with craters. The overlapping edges of these craters show they are impact craters instead of volcanic. The high number of them show that the Venusian surface is very old. There are just too many of them to have accumulated in just the past 3,500 years. Even in the realm of anthropology there seems to be problems with the Velikovsky theories.

According to Worlds in Collision Venus did not exist before about 1,500 B.C.. In his book Velikovsky says that neither the Hindus or the Babylonians recorded the planet Venus. However Peter Huber, from the Edgennossische Technische Hochschule, Zurich, reports that in Cuneiform texts stetching as far back as 3,000 B.C., Venus is mentioned as the star connected with the rising and setting sun. Clear evidence that it occupied an orbit in between the Earth and the sun as it does today. Also in records from 1580 to 1560 B.C. observations were made of Venus that clearly puts it in an orbit identical with the planet's current orbit.

So are Velikovsky's ideas that events in the solar system might affect life on Earth worthless? No, not at all. While Velikovsky is apparently wrong about a Venus that wanders through the solar system in historical times, he may have in some small way stimulated scientific thinking on the stability of the solar system. Isaac Asimov, who referred to Velikovsky's theories as a type of "exoheresy" wrote: "For one thing Velikfovskianism, and indeed, any exoheretical view that becomes prominent enough to force itself on science, acts to puncture scientific complacency-and that is good. An exoheresy may cause scientists to bestir themselves for the purpose of reexamining the bases of their beliefs, even if only to gather firm and logical reasons for the rejection of the exoheresy-and that is good too. An exoheresy may cause scientific activity which, in a serendipitous fashion, may uncover something worthwhile that has nothing to do with the exoheresy-and that is very good, if it happens."

When Velikovsky first wrote Worlds in Collision, many scientists rejected it not only because of reasoned arguments, but because the idea that the solar system could change or that events in space could have a profound effect on life on Earth was unsettling. Since that time science has accepted that asteroid impacts have led to massive extinctions on Earth (just ask the dinosaurs).

Even the orbits of the planets no longer seem set in stone. In an article in the September 1999 edition of Scientific American, Renu Malhotra makes a case that the planets Saturn, Uranus and Neptune may have expanded their orbits since the beginning of the solar system, while Jupiter's orbit has shrunk. He also argues that interactions between Neptune and the planet Pluto have caused the smaller planet to shift from a near circular orbit to a more eccentric one that is on a plane inclined from the rest of the planets.

Will we one day find evidence of events in the solar system that might explain what Velikovsky observed in some ancient texts? Perhaps so. But if we are to take any explanation seriously, we must bring the full weight of several scientific disciplines like anthropology, physics and geology, to bear the problem and get their results to agree.