Episode 46: Immanuel Velikovsky's "Worlds in Collision"
Recap: Immanuel Velikovsky's "Worlds in Collision" laid forth the idea that Venus was a comet ejected from Jupiter just a few thousand years ago, and much crises happened as a result. Many today still use his ideas. What they were and whether they stand up to scrutiny is the subject of this episode.
There was no Puzzler in Episode 45.
Puzzler: There is no puzzler for this episode.
Q&A: This episode's question comes from Warwick (pronounced Wo-rick, rhyming with Derek) who asks: "I have a question about craters and the impacts that create them. Is the energy of the impact the only determinant of the size and morphology of a crater? In other words, is there any difference in the craters (size, depth, wall shape, ejecta etc) made by an iron meteorite and a comet, if the comet's velocity is higher by exactly the right amount to give them the same kinetic energy? Does the higher density have any detectable effect on the crater?"
To answer Warwick, there is a lengthy equation that describes the size of the transient crater formed, and then another that describes how large the final crater will be given the size of the transient crater.
The variables that go into the transient crater equation are: the density of the impactor, the density of the target, the surface gravity of the target, the diameter of the impactor, the velocity of the impactor, and the angle of impact.
The exponents on the densities of the projectile and target are such that that term is really just the cubed-root of the ratio of the projectile to target.
The length term is to the 0.78 power, while the velocity term is to the 0.44 power.
When I use the real equation rather than the approximation of kinetic energy, I still get that the comet would make a larger crater, everything else being equal. If you take extreme values - such as the least dense comet, most dense asteroid, fastest asteroid at Earth, slowest comet at Earth, then you can make a similarly sized crater.
But really, it does get down to a basic argument of energy. There is nothing special about a higher density impactor to make a different kind of crater so long as it has the same energy as a lower density impactor.
That's really because the projectile itself gets destroyed within just the first few seconds of impact.
- Additional Resources
- Velikovsky on Skeptic Dictionary || Wikipedia
- Wikipedia on "Worlds in Collision"
- Top 10 Reasons Why Velikovsky Was Wrong
- Logical Fallacies addressed in this episode: Argument from persecution, argument from antiquity, argument ad populum, argument from ignorance.
- Relevant Posts on my "Exposing PseudoAstronomy" Blog
Before I actually talk about the scenarios that Velikovsky proposed, I need to first say that much of what you will likely find out there today is not what Velikovsky originally thought. The essence of many of his primary claims have been co-opted by many different people for many different purposes. The most common that I've encountered has been by proponents of the Electric or Plasma Universe idea, often abbr. as "EU," that will the the subject of several podcast episodes in the future. That said, I'm going to give you an overview about the man himself before we get into his ideas.
Background into the Person
Velikovsky was alive during what many might call the golden age of physics in the early 1900s when the two main pillars of modern physics - quantum mechanics and relativity - were formulated. Velikovsky was born in 1895 in Vitebsk, or present-day Belarus, and he died in 1979 in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. Velikovsky was Jewish, and he worked with Albert Einstein to prepare and publish two volumes of scientific papers into Hebrew. Velikovsky proponents will say that when Einstein died, he was holding or had on his nightstand a copy of one of Velikovsky's books, though I have yet to find any actual confirmation of that from anywhere but pro-Velikovsky sources.
And that's about as far as I can get in his bio - though other people somehow manage to get much further - without saying that Velikovsky was a psychiatrist. As in, not a historian, not a physicist, astronomer, chemist, biologist, geologist, archaeologist, nor scientist in general. Wikipedia makes note of him as an "independent scholar," which is generally a polite term for a basement amateur scientist who doesn't really know what he's doing. Think, the kind of person who develops perpetual motion devices in their spare time.
And Velikovsky's ideas about astronomy are akin to the claims of perpetual motion devices. His ideas, which I'll get to in a moment, were published mostly in two main books, the first being "Worlds in Collision" in 1950, and the second was "Earth in Upheaval" in 1955. He also published "Ages in Chaos" between those two, in 1952, where he claimed to completely revise the history of Ancient Egypt and Israel. It should be noted that that book has been rejected by all mainstream historians and Egyptologists and many of the sources he used for that book have been discredited.
Claim: Which brings us back to his first book, the main one that I'll be talking about in this episode, "Worlds in Collision." The tagline of the book that appeared on the original cover is: "The daring and original vision of Earth's history -- the great scientist-prophet's revelations of cosmic drama!"
The main premise of the book is that around 16,000 years ago, Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet or comet-like object, passed by Mars and drained its water, passed by Earth one or two times changing Earth's orbit and axis and causing many catastrophes mentioned in early mythologies, and then settled into its current orbit that we see today. In a sense, this could be thought of as yet another "Planet X" idea.
It bears mentioning that Velikovsky's ideas have been addressed many times before, and the contemporaneous refutations by astronomers were extensive. In particular, the original publisher, Macmillan, was forced after only two months to sell the book to another publisher because of the outcry by astronomers and physicists that Macmillan included it within their textbook catalog for college professors. Many professors started to send their textbooks from Macmillan back unopened and refused to be editors for their books.
Part of this may have been because the New York literati considered Velikovsky to be on par with "Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and Freud," to quote from Carl Sagan, whereas to a scientist reading just a page, it would be clear that Velikovsky was more on par with L. Ron Hubbard. Most scientific circles denied Velikovsky the forum to address his critics which made him state that he was a "suppressed genius" and likened himself to Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for saying that not only did Earth revolve around the Sun, but that the sun was just a star like any other. In other words, a modern-day Galileo complex and, as a psychiatrist, I'm surprised that he would revert to it. It's also been carried forward to most of his disciples today who use the Argument from Persecution quite frequently.
There's an extensive history here politically that I'm not going to get into, otherwise this episode will last a very long time. Suffice to say, if you're interested in that, I'll have a link or two in the shownotes.
My personal opinion is that if Velikovsky had just tried to present this as historical science fantasy rather than fact, he would have had a better time with it. Problem is, he tried to present it as science fact and tried in later versions to remove some of the more direct statements that violated basic physics in his appendix on celestial mechanics.
Alleged Evidence: Mythology
Velikovsky had hoped that most of of his proposal would stand on the mythology and ancient writings evidence that he had collected. Now, before I really get into some of the mythology here, I want to state something that should be obvious if not politically correct: Mythology from world religions does not count as evidence for a scientific happening. Sorry, it doesn't.
In fact, it's two logical fallacies for the price of one: Argument from antiquity and argument ad populum.
This should NOT be confused with me saying that anything people wrote 5000 years ago can't be evidence for something. For example, the Choco Canyon culture recorded a supernova event in A.D. 1054, and astronomical evidence today that anyone could investigate has validated that recording which we now see as the Crab Nebula. Similarly, I have no reason to doubt census records from ancient Rome because they make sense in light of other things we know historically.
But, a myth about Athena springing from her father, Zeus's head, being used by Velikovsky and today by Velikovsky proponents is something I have issue with. And it's not just because they wrongly tie Athena to Venus when it was actually Aphrodite who was tied to Venus -- so not only are they trying to use a Greek myth as evidence for something, but they're changing the people in that myth to make it work with their bigger idea. It's not something that I will accept as evidence that Venus formed from Jupiter in the historic, recorded past.
But Velikovsky did. His main approach was to openly flout pretty much all branches of science and rely on disparate world mythologies that discussed the same thing. For example, if the ancient religions of India talked about a giant flood and the ancient religions of native Canadians talked about a giant flood, then Velikovsky would say that is evidence that a giant flood happened over the world and Venus caused it. He blames Venus for the sun standing still in the book of Joshua and the plagues on Egypt in the book of Exudus, both part of the Hebrew bible.
He's also been criticized for cherry-picking what he wants to use. For example, the conflicting accounts in pretty much every world mythology of the origin of the cosmos and Earth itself are ignored by Velikovsky. But he happily selected ones that agreed with his idea. Or modifies them as needed, such as the example I gave about the birth of Athena, AKA Minerva, versus the birth of Aphrodite, AKA Venus.
As another example, he blames Venus for world-wide accounts of vermin and insects, stating, "The question arises here whether or not the comet Venus infested the earth with vermin which it may have carried in its trailing atmosphere in the form of larvae together with stones and gases. It is significant that all around the world people have associated the planet Venus with flies." He does not explain how larvae could survive the near-vacuum of a comet's tail nor the heat of Venus' surface nor how they would get there in the first place after Venus was ejected from Jupiter.
Instead, Velikovsky seemed to openly expect astronomers and physicists to be so enamored by his work that they would go out and provide the evidence for him.
Alleged Evidence: Venus' Spin
One of those lines of evidence that some people put forward is Venus' spin. For those who don't know, Venus is unique among the planets in the solar system because it spins clockwise when looking down from above Earth's north pole. Everything else spins counter-clockwise. Venus also spins very slowly. Modern Velikovsy-ites say that this is evidence Venus didn't form with the rest of the planets in the solar system.
To skeptics who may be listening to this episode, you may be yelling at the moment, "Argument from Ignorance." All because we do not have a definite, known reason for Venus spinning slowly and in the opposite direction, it does not mean that you can use it as evidence for your own otherwise unsupported idea.
And, we actually do have two possible explanations, both which physically work and don't violate any basic laws. The first is that it was whacked by something big and this changed its rotation. The second is that tidal forces and resonances with the sun - basically a dynamics argument - acted to flip it over. And, even if you don't like either of those, they are still more plausible than Venus being shot out of Jupiter 16,000 years ago.
Alleged Evidence: Venus' Heat
Another claimed line of evidence has to do with Venus' heat. Velikovsky thought that Venus' surface was as hot as it is -- about 450°C or 850°F -- because it was left-over heat from its recent birth from Jupiter. Except that the reason for the heat - the greenhouse effect - had been explained by Rupert Wildt in 1940, 10 years before Velikovsky published his book. In the end, Venus does not emit more heat than it receives from the sun, and its heat is easily explained by basic math that I've had introductory astronomy students do for homework.
Refutation: Physical Mechanism Lacking, Violation of Classical Mechanics and Conservation of Energy and Momentum
Which brings us to the first of several categories of refutations I'm going to go into in this episode.
The first is the basic fact that there is a lack of any physical mechanism, and that his ideas violate the previous 300 or so years of physics. Physics that had been developed and tested innumerable times over 300 years, and then based on Velikovsky's reading of world mythologies, he thinks he can throw it away.
For a VERY short two-item list, there is no known mechanism for a gas giant like Jupiter to spontaneously eject a giant comet that turns into a planet, and there's no way to get Venus to a stable orbit around the sun that it's in now due to conservation of energy and momentum.
If it seems as though I'm being flippant here, it's with a purpose, one that I'll talk about again in maybe 5-10 minutes: If you have a new idea, but in order to make it work you have to ignore several major branches of science that have been developed up to that point, the burden of evidence is on you. Well, it's always on you, regardless, but especially if it violates what was previously shown to be true. I'm facing this now in my own research where I'm working to revise a fundamental set of observations that we base most of what we think we know about the ages of surfaces in the solar system on, and the bulk of the paper I'm writing is going through the older literature dating back over 45 years to show what they missed and why my new data is what people should believe.
Velikovsky would need to not just present his thesis, which he did, and the evidence for it, which he did and to most people was found to be lacking, but he also needs to go that extra step that scientists do but pseudoscientists usually do NOT do: He needs to go back through work that's been done before and show why his model explains the observational data AT LEAST AS WELL IF NOT BETTER THAN what has been done before. Velikovsky did not do this, and he specifically stated on page 11 of his book: "If, occasionally, historical evidence does not square with formulated laws, it should be remembered that a law is but a deduction from experience and experiment, and therefore laws must conform with historical facts, not facts with laws."
If it's not obvious, the problem with that is what Velikovsky considers to be a "historical fact." And, if that sounded like a young-Earth creationist argument if you replace "historical fact" with "what the Bible says," you would not be the first person to think that.
Refutation: Venus' Orbital Elements, Surface Age, and Atmosphere
The second line of refutation - and I swear I'll go into a bit more detail on this one - is Venus itself. Specifically its orbital elements, surface and surface age, and its atmosphere.
Venus' orbit is stable. "Too stable," some modern Velikovsky-ites might argue. The orbital eccentricity of Venus is only 0.007, meaning that the difference between its closest and farthest approach to the sun is only 1.4 million kilometers. Versus Earth's difference at 5.01 million kilometers. This is important because it's something that we often use with the outer solar system planets' moons to argue whether they formed with the planet or were captured -- if it orbits with the planet, is in the plane of rotation of the planet, and has a low-eccentricity orbit, then it's much more likely that it formed with the planet. Similarly, the fact that Venus orbits close to the plane of the rest of the planets and has a very low-eccentricity orbit is a good indication that it formed in that location. It would be very, very difficult for it to dynamically arrive at its current orbit if ejected from Jupiter, though the electric universe crowd does have their own mechanism. It should be mentioned that this is in fact the opposite of Velikovsky's claim that Venus has an abnormal orbit as a consequence of its birth.
For surface age, we go back to episode 40 and 41 where I talked about craters. Based on everything we think we know about crater age-dating, Venus' surface is much older than Earth's, and it dates to around 700 million years ago as the last time it was majorly resurfaced. I've not seen any Velkovsky supporter argue this point.
Velikovsky directly stated that Venus must be rich in petroleum gases and hydrocarbons, which you would think you could use as a test to support or falsify his idea. We have had many spacecraft orbit and land on Venus, and none have detected petroleum nor hydrocarbons nor even carbohydrates. Venus' atmosphere, in fact, is made almost entirely of carbon dioxide, carbon in its oxidized form as opposed to the reducing form that Velikovsky needed. It could not have taken this kind of atmosphere from Jupiter because Jupiter is mostly hydrogen and helium, and it couldn't be the source of hydrocarbons to react in our atmosphere to produce carbohydrates during its two close encounters with Earth.
Really, when you get down to it, everything about Venus falsifies Velikovsky's idea except for the way Venus spins about its own axis, the opposite way of other planets, that I talked about earlier.
Refutation: Asteroid Belt Stability
Another line of evidence against the idea that Venus headed from the outer solar system to the inner has to do with something I've discussed before when talking about Zecharia Sitchen's 3600-year-orbiting Planet X: The stability of the asteroid belt. The asteroid belt is dynamically stable over very long periods of time, and it shows absolutely no evidence of a large, planet-sized object having passed through it within the last few hundred million years. Not much else to be said about this point ...
Refutation: Mars' Geology
... which takes us to Mars' geology. One of the claims is that ancient cultures once saw Mars as blue, but then after an encounter with Venus, Venus sapped its water and atmosphere and Mars is as it appears now.
But, this violates most of what we know about Mars' history and what we can see in its geology today. If you don't believe the crater evidence which shows that the northern hemisphere was resurfaced around 3 BILLION years ago and valley networks last were active around 3.5 BILLION years ago, then we can look at the erosion of the surface features.
We can measure the erosion rate today, and in fact many have based on data from landers and rovers on the surface. In a post-water age, the current erosion rate is not enough to have eroded surface features such as craters and valleys to the state that they are in now in just a few thousand years. You either need more time or much more active erosion ... but that would violate Velikovsky's idea about Venus sucking up the water and atmosphere of the planet.
Therefore, Mars' geology is another way to show that at least this aspect of Velikovsky's ideas is wrong.
Refutation: Earth's Moon's Orbit Stability
Another line of evidence is Earth's moon's orbit and Earth's day, an argument that I first saw from Phil Plait and might be original to him. In just the last episode, I explained how we can measure how long Earth's day has been dating back not only a few thousand years with the Babylonian record of the eclipse about 2150 years ago, but going back hundreds of millions of years ago if to about 2.5 billion. As I established last time, Earth has had a fairly steadily increasing day for several billion years, and the Moon has been in a stable orbit, as well.
But that would not be possible if Venus swung by, especially if Venus was close enough to exchange some atmosphere with Earth. This three-body dynamics problem would very likely have kicked the Moon not only out of Earth orbit but out of the solar system itself. At the very, very least, it would have significantly altered its orbit and it would (a) not be in nearly the exact same orbit it was a million years ago, and (b) it would not be in the regular, tidally locked orbit that we see it in today.
Refutation: Earth Geologic (lack-of) Evidence and Historical Account (lack-of) Evidence
A final, quick line of refutation brings us back again to Earth, our home planet ... unless you follow Richard C. Hoagland who believes we're all Martians, but that's another episode.
Velikovsky claims that these things happened within the last few thousand years. As in, a friggin' planet passed so close to Earth that larvae from it were deposited on our surface and it baked the planet and caused floods at the same time while changing our rotation.
Velikovsky made great use of world mythologies and interpreted them to fit with his model of Venus galavanting around and coming really really close to Earth. One would think that the ancient civilizations wouldn't be writing about a goddess springing forth from a god's head, or making much ado about flies and rats. You'd think they'd directly write something like, "Looked up today and this giant ball bigger than the Moon nearly hit my hut and had this giant trail of crap it left behind!" Okay, I exaggerate a bit, and I don't know the ancient Sanskrit word for "crap," but my point is that one would expect people to be a tad more literal only a few thousand years ago, and yet they weren't.
And, Venus has pretty much always been, as Yul Brynner famously put it in a very, very long movie, "The Morning and the Evening Star." Sumerians, Babylonians, Mayans, and other ancient civilizations had its orbit pinned down very well several thousand years ago, and we have written records of that that survive today. That could NOT be the case if it was still galavanting around the solar system and encountered Earth in 1440 and 1395 B.C.
For more physical evidence close to home, the asteroid that created the Chicxulub impact crater 65 million years ago left a blanket of soot, ash, and iridium across the entire planet. There's a 5 cm (2")-thick layer just a few hours south of me. And yet, somehow, ice cores, tree rings, rock layers, and all other methods that we have of detecting an abnormal event, are all missing, just from a few thousand years ago.
That's about all of the major lines of evidence against what Velikovsky in his original book wrote. As I said at the beginning, there are many variants of it today, and most Velikovsky followers today say that Velikovsky had some things wrong, but most of what he said was correct. Those may be addressed in one or more future episodes.
I also think it's important to note at the end of the main segment for this episode that this is the first anniversary episode of this podcast. You may have noted in the last few episodes, and this, that I've referred back to previous episodes for evidence or for topics discussed as lines of reasoning for the current topic. That might seem lazy on my part, but it serves another purpose: One of the major problems with all of the pseudoscientific claims that I've discussed and will discuss is that the claimants often state that the problem with science today is that it's too specialized, yet they - as an outsider - are able put everything together that the establishment can't.
To the contrary, by bringing back up topics that I've discussed before, or basic scientific principles that were developed hundreds of years ago - like Kepler's Laws - and have been tested over and over and over again, my point is to emphasize that it is THEIR ideas that tug on and violate all of these intricately woven threads throughout many fields of science. Velikovsky not only would change what we know about Venus, but it would have to change everything we know about orbital dynamics and geology and history and physics and other fields.
Rather than these people creating a new, cohesive idea that they like and think explains many different fields of science, it violates parts of established, demonstrable, and incontrovertible theories, laws, and observations that they never even thought of. So to all the so-called, self-described "amateur scientists" out there, be careful. When someone tells you - heck, when every scientist from several different disciplines tells you, as they did Velikovsky - that your ideas are wrong, rather than claim persecution and run to the History or Discovery channel and late-night radio, pause for a bit, and maybe ... just maybe ... you should listen to them.
Provide Your Comments:
Comments to date: 5. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:
Stuart Robbins Boulder, CO, USA
1:48pm on Tuesday, August 21st, 2012
Lucas, it sure sounded as though your comment was a criticism of the episode's material. If you agree with the conclusions but simply don't like the generalizations I made about his persecution, then I misunderstood your overall intent.
Lucas D. The Netherlands
11:28am on Tuesday, August 21st, 2012
@Stuart: Never did I say that Velikovsky was correct because he was persecuted and never did I say Velikovsky was correct because some people don't reject his work.
Stuart Robbins Boulder, CO, USA
11:11am on Tuesday, August 21st, 2012
Lucas, I find it intriguing that you choose not to critique ANY of the science points I brought up explaining how Velikovsky's ideas could not be true, but rather revert almost completely to the argument from persecution that I discussed in the episode. All because someone is persecuted does not mean they are correct.
Lucas D. The Netherlands
4:25am on Tuesday, August 21st, 2012
Interesting how you "forget" to mention that all of Velikovsky's early critics had not even read his book.
Rick K. St. Louis
9:03am on Saturday, August 4th, 2012
I read both Velikovsky's books and Sagan's refutation in Broca's Brain. Very entertaining fiction on V's part, but trying to pass it off as science? lol Acting like he was persecuted was very low -- demonstrated he was nothing but a crank.