Worlds in Collision

I was at my in-laws for Christmas and as they cleared their shelves of the chaff, I became the lucky recipient of “Worlds in Collision”, a piece of crackpottery par excellence that I’ve been wanting to read for some time, but there’s no way I was going to spend perfectly good American currency on it.

The premise, in case you’ve never read it, is that at various times in the history of the solar system, the planet Venus had close fly-bys near earth causing, among other things, Noah’s flood, and other biblical disasters. For instance, to explain the bit in Joshua in which the sun and moon stand still in the sky while accompanied by a shower of stones:

A torrent of large stones coming from the sky, an earthquake, a whirlwind, a disturbance in the movement of the earth — these four phenomena belong together. It appears that a large comet [which ultimately became Venus] must have passed very near to our planet and disrupted its movement; a part of the stones dispersed in the neck and tail of the comet smote the surface of our earth a shattering blow.

We’re not even talking about billion year excursions here; both Mars and Venus have apparently been trotting around the solar system for the past few thousand years. I shouldn’t have to say this, but not only is there no evidence for any of this, but it is so mind-bogglingly wrong that it should never have been published.

The amusing thing, if you’ve never read it, is that this was marketed as non-fiction, was completely serious, and was a best-seller. This book came out 60 years ago, and as I just found out, it’s currently the #58 cosmology book on amazon. It sports cover blurbs like:

  • “…fascinating as a tale by Jules Verne, yet documented with a scholarship worthy of Darwin.” – Reader’s Digest. (Really? Darwin?)
  • “His final conclusions are even world shaking.” – Newsweek. (Way to take a stand there, Newsweek!)
  • “A Strange and wonderful book.” – Detroit News. (No doubt.)

“Scientists confront Velikovsky” on the other hand, is sadly out of print.

The lesson here, if you’re looking for one, is that just because you see a pop-science book which purports to describe a revolutionary new theory doesn’t mean that you should take it seriously.

-Dave

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2 Responses to Worlds in Collision

  1. Meir Shani says:

    There is one thing that struck me in this book: Velikovsky made a prediction, which went vehemently against the established conventional wisdom of the time and which there was no way for him to cheat on. Years later, he proved to be at least partially right.

    Isn’t this what science is all about? sticking your neck out and making a prediction, willing to say “if this-and-that does not prove to be thus-and-so, my theory is wrong”? Shouldn’t the fact that he was right count in his favor? This is such a high standard to hold people to, that we ONLY hold people to it in the physical sciences, not in fields like archaeology.

    What I’m talking about is the prediction he makes that the atmosphere of Venus is going to prove to be Carbon Dioxide-rich. He made those into carbohydrates, which did not prove to be true, but even this…

  2. dave says:

    It isn’t sufficient to make a prediction. Your postdictions need to accord with what we’ve already seen. His statements were so utterly at odds with what we could observe to be true that any prediction that happened to be correct would have been purest chance.

    Example: The near misses by Venus and Mars were recent enough that they should have significantly altered the orbit of the moon during the period of written history. But there have been written records (and lunar calendars) for ~five thousand years, and no such dramatic change occurred.

    Example 2: He completely mischaracterized the existing model for planetary/star formation, even as it existed in his own time. He was arguing against something that didn’t exist. More to the point, his own arguments weren’t based on any sort of physical model.

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