Velikovsky: his theory lives on (unfortunately)

Immanuel Velikovsky is no longer with us; yet his eccentric theories live on. Loyal supporters defend them. New authors elaborate them, as David N. Talbott has done in his recent book "The Saturn Myth," which maintains that the Ringed Planet, not the Sun, was once the brightest object in the sky.

He too draws on ancient myths and sacred symbols more than on physical data to build his thesis. Scientists are no more likely to accept this cosmic scenario than they did Velikovsky's planetary collisions that supposedly followed the ejection of Venus from Jupiter a few millenniums ago. However, since his followers continue to claim that many of Velikovsky's predictions based on this odd notion have been confirmed, it's worthwhile noting how shaky that confirmation actually is.

Indeed, space scientist and author James E. Oberg points out in the magazine Astronomy that a close look at the Velikovsky predictions shows confirmation to be lacking. Take moonquakes, for example. Because the moon was shaken up by the supposed planetary encounters, Velikovsky predicted moonquakes would be numerous and strong enough to be felt by astronauts. In fact, moonquakes were observed by seismometers. But they are too weak to be noticed by astronauts, are quite rare, and probably are excited by tidal stresses. Velikovsky's supporters call this confirmation. Most scientists would say the prediction didn't pan out.

This is equally true of one of the most widely touted predictions -- that Venus, being recently born of Jupiter, would be hot. Velikovsky didn't say exactly how hot; but the temperature would be high enough for Venus still to be cooling down. Discovery that the Venusian surface is hot enough to melt lead would seem to confirm this. However, the heat Venus radiates merely balances what it receives from the Sun. The planet isn't cooling down. And the heat-trapping effect of the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere could explain the high surface temperature.

As Oberg notes, ". . . the heart of Velikovsky's argument was not so much the temperature, but that Venus would be giving off more heat than it received from the Sun . . . Velikovsky's key claim is wrong."

This is true of many of the other predictions. Mar's atmosphere is not rich in neon, as Velikovsky insisted it should be. You cannot eat the Martian caps, which he thought probably would have carbohydrates of the type once called "manna" on Earth. And Jupiter's Great Red Spot turns out probably to be a kind of semi-permanent eddy floating freely in the atmosphere -- not a scar left by ejection of Venus.

"The record, if it proves anything, demonstrates that Velikovsky's chief skill has been in making flexible predictions and reinterpreting them skillfully in the light of later discoveries," Oberg says. This should be remembered when his disciples try to have Saturn usurp the solar throne. Even Velikovsky only claimed that Saturn was once a double planet with Jupiter, exploded, and showered Earth with enough water to cause the biblical flood.

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