Velikovsky’s Venus

A controversial 1950 book declared that our neighbor world was spawned by Jupiter 3,500 years ago and nearly struck Earth — twice.

Immanuel Velikovsky (1895–1979), seen here in 1968, wrote controversial books about the history of Earth and the solar system.
Bettmann/Getty Images

As northern winter gives way to the longer daylight hours of spring, Venus returns to the evening sky for a long engagement. As the chart below shows, the planet doesn’t get as dramatically high in the sky as it did back in 2015. But the Evening Star will remain in view through September.

Telescopically, Venus never offers much to see aside from its gradual change in apparent size and an attractive progression of phases. Observers have strained for centuries to glimpse any detail on its cloud-cloaked disk. We sometimes forget that astronomers knew very little about this neighbor world — so like Earth in size and mass — until powerful radar probing and spacecraft visits started to peel back the layers of mystery in the 1960s.

The first artificial satellites were still a decade away when, in 1946, Immanuel Velikovsky finished the manuscript for Worlds in Collision, a book that capitalized on our relative ignorance and put forward a theory of solar-system formation that goes beyond bizarre. Born in 1895 and a student variously of history, law, biology, and psychoanalysis, Velikovsky maintained that the inner planets only recently assumed the serene, stable orbits they have today.

Rather, in his scheme Venus took the form of a huge, rogue comet after being ejected by Jupiter not long before 1500 BC. It then hurtled sunward, sideswiping Earth twice and colliding with Mars before settling into the almost perfectly circular orbit it now occupies.

Venus mimics all the phases of the Moon as it circles the Sun inside Earth’s orbit, as shown in this near-ultraviolet sequence recorded in 2007.
Sean Walker

The basis for all this astounding, historically recent chaos wasn’t a detailed computation of orbital motion but rather Velikovsky’s unwavering belief that Old Testament narratives and cosmological myths drawn from China, Central America, India, Assyria, and elsewhere were accounts of real events.

What got him started was the biblical story of Joshua commanding the Sun and Moon to stop moving for an entire day and invoking a devastating hail of stones from the sky during his battle with the Amorites. Velikovsky was also seeking a physical reason for the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians in Exodus.

Venus provided all the answers. That long tail it trailed after leaving Jupiter had also created all kinds of havoc for Pharaoh as Earth passed through it not once but twice. And although we escaped an outright collision, the proximity of Venus caused Earth’s orbit and axial tilt to change, a magnetic reversal, and worldwide floods, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions — all within recorded history. None of this catastrophism was chronicled by our ancestors, Velikovsky asserts, because they suffered from a “collective amnesia” that repressed all memory of these occurrences. As further proof, he details how Venus is conspicuously absent from various historical tabulations of planets prior to about 2000 BC.

Venus spends much of this year lingering in the west after sunset. It reaches greatest eastern elongation in mid-August but isn’t its brightest until late September. Disks are enlarged for clarity.
Sky & Telescope

Velikovsky acknowledged that his scenario was at odds with established physics. But any inconsistencies weren’t due to his myth-as-fact interpretations; instead, he pointed to the “need for a new approach to celestial mechanics” in which electrical forces and magnetism trumped the power of gravity.

Understandably, astronomers of the day were outraged by all of this. It took Velikovsky four years to get Worlds in Collision published, finally getting a green light from Macmillan in part because a sympathetic Gordon Atwater, then head of astronomy at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, promised to create a show for Hayden Planetarium to depict the book’s planetary pinball. But Atwater was summarily fired before that could happen. Strenuous objections by Harvard’s Harlow Shapley, Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin, and other academics — including a boycott of Macmillan’s astronomy textbooks — caused the publisher to jettison this literary hot potato to Doubleday. The book and its author merited a blistering editorial in Sky & Telescope.

Normally featureless to the eye, Venus revealed subtle atmospheric features when captured in far-red and near-infrared light (wavelengths 610 nm and longer) during its apparition before dawn in mid-2017.
Simon Kidd

A Curious, Believing Public

Remarkably, Worlds in Collision became phenomenally popular in the summer of 1950, especially among the New York literati. Advance articles about the forthcoming book in Harper’s, Collier’s, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere whetted the public’s appetite. Once in print, the book rocketed to the top of the New York Times’ best-seller list and remained a top-ten pick for five months.

Although pilloried almost universally by professional astronomers, Velikovsky remained a frequent acquaintance of Albert Einstein. More than a decade later he gained a modicum of support thanks to Princeton physicist Valentine Bargmann and Columbia astronomer Lloyd Motz, whose letter in Science (December 21, 1962) pointed out Velikovsky’s successful predictions that Jupiter was a source of radio energy and that Venus must be very hot.

Still, one has to wonder why the outlandish premises of Worlds in Collision got so much traction in the first place. Science historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “The Velikovsky affair raises what is perhaps the most disturbing question about the public impact of science. How is a layman to judge rival claims of supposed experts? Any person with a gift for words can spin a persuasive argument about any subject not in the domain of a reader’s personal expertise.” Advocate-turned-critic Leroy Ellenberger notes, more pointedly, “The less one knows about science, the more plausible Velikovsky’s scenario appears.”

Six decades later, Worlds in Collision is rapidly disappearing in the rear-view mirror of history, yet our human penchant for intriguing but outlandish scientific claims remains.


This article originally appeared in print in Sky & Telescope's March 2018 issue.

30 thoughts on “Velikovsky’s Venus

  1. Oortcloud

    The Kuiper belt ( http://solarviews.com/eng/kuiper.htm) is home to a population of orbiting bodies both large and small. Right now astronomers are actively looking for a planet ~3x Earth size. There is no reason to think that planets smaller than that might also be lurking in the Kuiper belt. Rogue planets and rogue moons are now accepted and are thought to be as numerous as stars ( http://www.space.com/35277-planet-nine-captured-rogue-exoplanet.html) . That link is to a space blog, but it does make a useful overview of the thinking among at least some astronomers. A planet at that distance would probably have the same overall composition as the inner planets but atmospheric gases and all volatiles would be frozen and much of that would likely be subterranean.

    A rogue, planet sized object, could have been perturbed and entered the outer solar system. We can speculate as to what might have happened. An Earth-size planet, either native to our solar system or captured may have orbited in the Kuiper belt for a long time until a chance gravitational alignment gave it a little tug. Around it goes in its new orbit until it gets another tug. The process of pulling a large body from the Kuiper belt into a steep orbit may have taken millions of years, but how long doesn’t matter.

    At some point the planet may have come under the influence of that great vacuum cleaner in the sky: Jupiter. Jupiter is huge and so draws small bodies in wide orbits closer to it such as it did with a large comet just a few years ago. I think it likely that in addition to the small bodies in the [asteroid belt]( http://www.space.com/16105-asteroid-belt.html) those large bodies like [Ceres]( https://www.engadget.com/2017/01/22/ceres-surface-is-not-what-was-expected/) might have been wandering Kuiper objects shepherded into the belt by Jupiter.

    An Earth-size planet that comes under the influence of Jupiter might already be accelerating on the inward portion of its perturbed orbit. It would get a large gravity assist in speed, and if it had sufficient momentum it might have grazed Jupiter’s atmosphere much like a Mars probe uses that atmosphere to airbrake. The result of a collision with Jupiter’s atmosphere would be that the previously cold and icy planet would heat up, oxygen and volatiles would thaw and the atmosphere would literally be on fire. At that point the planet would likely be coming to the inner solar system at a steeper angle and glowing brightly. Ancient people would only have likened the object to a comet and that’s exactly what they reported.

    There is no reason to think that a planet sized object could not interact with both Earth and Mars. Comets from the outer solar system pass close to Earth all the time. Any pass by a planet-sized body, close enough to exert a gravitational influence, would certainly have resulted in earthquakes, floods, eruptions and extreme weather. Some of those would prove to be disastrous. However, the extent of that interaction may have been overstated by the writers of the time, or the story got bigger with the telling. But the rogue planet would continue on towards the sun, accelerating and swinging back around in an elongated orbit. That is exactly what the ancient people recorded; that it receded and disappeared for time only to emerge again some months later. It was also recorded that the rogue made another and less disastrous pass by the Earth ~50 years later as it traveled on a long orbit. Eventually the orbit settled down to what we see today and we call it Venus. What we see today is a very hot planet with a surface that is newly lain, with more volcanic activity that the Earth, and an atmosphere of CO2 which is a by-product of burning volatiles. And remember too that of all that volcanic activity takes place without a moon to create tension.

    I don’t buy most of the fanciful speculations of Velekovsky. I think it likely that the written evidences of unusual occurrences were a result of being too involved in the subject and having too little information to properly assess the information in front of him. The Kuiper belt had only been theorized at that point and it’s unlikely that he knew where the planet might have originated. I think that what he came up with is a brilliant deduction based upon piecing together the timelines of ancient accounts world-wide. The scholarship of his work is second to none. Where he gets in trouble is reading more into those accounts than perhaps he should and entering into speculations as to the meanings of supernatural accounts.

    Since we have only scant knowledge of the outer solar system and the behaviour of objects that far out, I can say nothing about the probability of Velekovsky’s hypothesis being accurate. Based however upon what I’ve described above I think that Velekovsky’s conclusion that Venus is a new planet to the system is possible. Velekovsky’s hypothesis does explain many of the weird features of Venus: retrograde rotation being the most evident. All of what I’ve written does not mean that I exclude all other explanations or possibilities for Venus. Until something is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt I entertain all possibilities. Outright dismissal of possibilities shows a lack of imagination and curiosity.

    1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

      Oortcloud wrote:

      <>

      Based on my rudimentary understanding of orbital mechanics, this is the weakest link in Velikovsky’s chain of suppositions. It would take one hell of a lot of energy to move an Earth-sized object on a highly elliptical orbit into the most perfectly round orbit in the solar system. Where did that energy come from? Even short-period comets that have been captured by Jupiter’s gravity, which are much less massive than Venus, continue to follow highly elliptical orbits.

        1. Oortcloud

          I don’t know who it is that has been disabling the reply buttons here. Probably a person who doesn’t enjoy seeing facts posted that contradict precious beliefs.

          Waaaay down in this thread, and where the button has been removed, you say that Venus is in the position that it’s occupied since the formation of the solar system. That only reveals how little you know about current thinking about the evolution of the solar system. I said earlier that none on the planets are in their original positions (https://blog.planethunters.org/2014/05/09/the-role-of-planetary-migration-in-the-evolution-of-the-solar-system/). The gas planets could not have formed in their current positions because the gas needed to create them was more plentiful in the inner system than where they are now. The rocky planets formed farther out from the sun. I supplied a link where Ceres is supposed to have migrated to it’s present position due to Jupiter. You would rather ignore all of the references in order to stick to your precious accretion model, even when contemporary research and thinking on the subject modifies it.

      1. Oortcloud

        That’s a common objection raised by people who have not read the book. According to the sources cited by Velekovsky Venus followed an erratic path for hundreds of years, approaching Earth on several occasions. Often overlooked by critics is that none of the planets are in the same orbits as they were in at the formation of the solar system. Uranus and Neptune are now thought to have been inner planets shepherded to their present positions by Jupiter. In fact, all of the planets are in their present positions due to Jupiter either flinging them out or pulling them in.

        Yes, it takes a lot of energy to establish an orbit. That energy comes from the sun, which is the same source of gravitational energy that holds and guides all of the orbiting bodies. When we look at the orbits of all of the planets we see that deviance from circular orbits increases with distance. And keep in mind the effect of frame-drag (also called the Lense-Turing effect) which, though tiny, is continually at work and has it’s greatest effect on the inner planets.

        The moons of Jupiter are now considered to be captured bodies. So Jupiter does not tear apart every body that approaches it. Several of those moons are geologically active due to gravitational interaction with Jupiter. The fact that none of the moons is tidally locked tells us that those moons have only recently joined the Jovian system.

        Asteroids that have migrated to the inner solar system follow nearly circular orbits that are perturbed only when planets give them a tug. Earth has an asteroid trailing behind us right now that was picked up only recently. The closer a body gets to the sun the less time it takes to establish a close orbit. The dynamics of orbits are a lot more involved than most people think.

        1. Cicero

          Perturbing the orbit of Venus from a steep elliptical orbit to a circular orbit would perturb earth’s orbit just as much. Since earth is now in a circular orbit, it would have had to have been in a highly elliptical orbit–and just the right one–before Venus passed it. Had it been in such an elliptical orbit, life could not have survived the temperature extremes before that time.

          As for frame dragging, gimme a break. The effect would be irrelevant over the time we’re talking about.

          Velikovsky was a total quack.

          1. Oortcloud

            “Since earth is now in a circular orbit”

            It’s not:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth%27s_orbit

            See the link below (section Observations and theories) to see that Earth has the greatest orbital inclination of all of the planets. The orbits of all of the planets have been perturbed, through various processes, at various times. Over time the inclination will reduce due to frame-drag. If Earth were not recently perturbed it’s inclination would be less.

            “As for frame dragging, gimme a break. The effect would be irrelevant over the time we’re talking about.”

            That is (more or less) correct, as the link above shows us. All of the facts learned about Venus and the rest of the solar system since publication support V rather than refuting his hypothesis. And, I call it a hypothesis for the same reason that i call all thinking on Venus hypothesis – none has been proven unequivocally.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbital_inclination

            So far, none of the people attacking V, including the author of the article, have shown that they know anything and the solar system or the planet Venus. Everything that has been said in opposition has been wrong.

        2. Kelly BeattyKelly Beatty Post author

          sorry, the orbital gyrations envisioned by Velikovsky really are the weak link. there’s a long list of dynamical consequences that would ensue when planets with similar masses pass close to one another **in historically recent times** (within the past 10,000 years). the most obvious would be a dramatic increase in the eccentricity of the Moon’s orbit. conversely, changing a planet’s axial tilt (in this case, Earth’s) is just about the *hardest* thing to do — in fact it’s virtually impossible unless there’s a significant mass asymmetry inside Earth (which there wasn’t and isn’t). it’s important to note that Velikovsky never attempted to verify the likelihood of his scenario with even high-school-level physics — he left that to others. and when others tried to point out the errors, he rejected their assessments. those interested in “the rest of the story” should read Velikovky’s follow-up book, *Stargazers and Gravediggers,* in which he recounts the many interactions he had with astronomers of the day both before and after the publication of *Worlds in Collision.*

          1. Oortcloud

            My defense of V’s hypothesis lies in two inexplicable problems. The first is Venus’s retrograde rotation. The second concerns the surface temperature. While there are problems with his analysis and relating Earth-bound events, his hypothesis does account for both problems. (Yes, I’m aware of the “run-away greenhouse’ hypothesis. I don’t buy it.)

            So how close would Venus have come? Possibly not as close as V claimed based upon his sources. Certainly earthquakes and flooding could have been expected making the passing of such a large bright object more notable. That the moon would have been affected is not in doubt. But we have to keep in mind that time has passed and if the eccentricity was not great there has been plenty of time for the orbit to steady down to it’s present minor parabola.

            But let’s assume that V was right and that Venus did pass close by; close enough to tilt Earth’s axis. Not only would it’s parabola be increased, but the moon’s orbital inclination as well. Well, the orbit of the moon is very much inclined (http://earthsky.org/space/why-is-the-moons-orbit-tilted-collisionless-encounters). And, the moon’s orbit is parabolic rather than circular. Given the length of time that the moon has orbited the Earth there is no other explanation for those eccentricities other than a close encounter with a body that perturbed it’s orbit. Frame drag is a relativistic effect whereby a spinning body drags an orbiting body to an equatorial orbit ( See Gravity Probe B) . This effect is most notable in the Uranian system. So, we can see that moon’s orbit is in fact perturbed without alternative explanation.

            The people who pointed out his errors were the same cadre who showed up to gang up on V at that public ambush. People like to point out Carl Sagan’s insistence that the temperature of Venus was already known and that all V had done was look it up. The paper that Sagan refers to is this one:
            http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1940ApJ….91..266W

            where the surface temperature was estimated to be just above the boiling point. Another of V’s vociferant attackers was Issac Asimov whose works include at least one story of people colonizing a Venus with a nice equatorial climate. V’s estimate of the surface temperature of Venus was bang on the mark; everyone else was dead wrong.

            1. Kelly BeattyKelly Beatty Post author

              you note: “My defense of V’s hypothesis lies in two inexplicable problems. The first is Venus’s retrograde rotation. The second concerns the surface temperature. While there are problems with his analysis and relating Earth-bound events, his hypothesis does account for both problems. (Yes, I’m aware of the “run-away greenhouse’ hypothesis. I don’t buy it.)”

              let me take these one at a time. (1) it’s true that Venus’s retrograde rotation is problematic, but it’s not inexplicable. rotation rate and direction can be changed by off-center impacts. it *can’t* be changed by near-misses, unless the mass distribution inside was/is seriously asymmetric, which it isn’t. (2) whether you accept Venus’s runaway greenhouse or not, it’s reality was basically proven in 1978 when a Pioneer Venus probe discovered an extremely high D:H ratio in Venus’s atmosphere. the only plausible explanation was a wholesale escape of hydrogen from the top of its atmosphere — and the only plausible source of all that hydrogen was a wholesale breakdown of (and irreversible loss of) water. consider this: Earth and Venus contain roughly the same amount of CO2. here, we lucked out: CO2 dissolves in water, and the vast majority of our CO2 lies safely buried away in seafloor sediments. were it not for Earth’s water, we’d be a planet pretty much like Venus.

          2. Oortcloud

            I note that you’ve replied to my last reply to you. But now someone has disabled the reply button below that. So I’ll have to reply here – out of order.

            Off-center impacts could indeed cause retrograde rotation. However, that would require a lot of impacts by many small bodies on only one side of the planet. A single impact of sufficient force to reverse rotation would shatter the planet. So there is no way that I buy that explanation without proof. At the same time, i would not put it out of the realm of possibility. There is no proven or accepted explanation for the rotation. So long as there is nothing definitive it’s foolish to reject any explanation out of hand without investigation. I find it interesting that you propose an explanation that is just as “outlandish” as V’s despite any evidence in support.

            Venus’s atmospheric CO2 content is nothing like Earth’s:

            https://www.space.com/18527-venus-atmosphere.html

            Sunlight does not penetrate to the surface. It only penetrates the upper layer where it warms that layer directly. Below that is a broad band of cold atmosphere, and below that the atmosphere is extremely hot. Yes, there seems to be a greenhouse effect, but that the trapped heat comes from the planet, not incoming sunlight. And keep in mind that Venus reflects over 90% of the light that falls on it. Earth and Venus are not the least bit similar.

        1. Eric-Holcomb

          Greenhouse gases radiate heat both up and down within an atmosphere, so it turns out that near-surface layers of the atmosphere are still relatively warm even if sunlight does not penetrate to the surface, and there is no internal heat from the planet itself. A simple spreadsheet of multiple ideal “blanket layers” can be set up to demonstrate this effect. No matter which layer(s) you assume absorb the sunlight, the layers below that will still be the warmest, although not as warm as in the case where all the sunlight is absorbed at the surface.

          1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

            I am very grateful to Kelly and Eric for your patient explication of orbital dynamics and atmospheric circulation. I’ve learned a few things.

            Since my original comment above, I’ve written half a dozen more or less snarky comments in this thread and deleted each before posting it.

            This discussion demonstrates the subtle power of framing the terms of a debate. If we are trying to convince the reader calling themselves Oortcloud that Velikovsky’s hypothesis couldn’t possibly be correct, and that even those Venusian phenomena that are still being investigated make sense in terms of accepted physics, we could go on until doomsday and never reach agreement. But if the question is which is the likelier scenario, Velikovsky’s “worlds in collision” or the mainstream conclusion that Venus accreted more or less in her current orbit, high school physics wins by a mile.

          2. Eric-Holcomb

            To clarify, none of the volcanoes on Venus are currently known to be active; it’s likely that the heat from this source is negligible compared to solar heating.
            I did not include thin outer layers of atmosphere heated by solar UV or X-ray. While these layers do have impressive high temperatures, they are very thin (low density) and contain little actual heat. Sorry about any confusion caused by omitting those layers from my previous statement.

          3. Oortcloud

            Someone is disabling the reply buttons so I have to reply here, and out of order.

            If you look closely at the link provided you’ll see that the surface of Venus has been resurfaced and appears to be composed of basalt. The sheer number of volcanoes makes such a resurfacing an awesome scenario. Consider though that if those volcanoes are old and inactive for so long, then why have they not been weathered down? Surely a planet with a thick acidic atmosphere and high winds would have eroded those features, But if that is not sufficient then perhaps this link will clarify that Venus is indeed geologically active and has an internal heat source: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Venus_Express/Hot_lava_flows_discovered_on_Venus

            My unpopular opinion regarding V and his work means that i have to do more research and keep up on all of the latest findings. Seriously, you’re not going to win an argument with me over the nature of Venus or the solar system because my information is more up to date. Before commenting you should investigate whether or not your belief matches facts or more informed opinion.

            1. Eric-Holcomb

              My original point was simply that the lower atmosphere of Venus can be warmed by downward thermal radiation from the cloud layers, even if little sunlight penetrates to the surface. Such downward thermal radiation is a well-established and easily measured (at least on Earth) fact. About anything else (such as the extent of internal heat), I suppose we’ll need to agree to disagree.

              1. Oortcloud

                We can certainly agree to disagree on that point. The major problem with arriving at a final answer is that Venus is hard to research. So what we have is a rough idea of the cloud layers and temperature, but the dynamics are unknown.

                It’s the sheer number of unknowns that make the V hypothesis worth consideration. It answers questions and is consistent with observations since the book was published. The vitriol aimed at the book both in the article and in the comments have been from people who have not read the book and have not done any investigation.

  2. jdborgh

    My dad, a nuclear physicist, loved this book and the others Mr. Velikovsky wrote. I, too, have read much of what he wrote and enjoyed the thought journey he took us on. I miss his writings.

  3. Dennis-McCarthy

    What I find disturbing is that, as loony as Velikovsky’s theories were, the scientific community worked to suppress them. I figured the proper approach would be to encourage (or at least tolerate) new theories, and then put them to the test. In this case, demonstrating them wrong should have been easy enough without acting like bullies to Macmillan.

    1. theBaron

      I had the same thought, as I read the article. Its author may be unaware of that part of Velikovsky’s story. I learned about it in one of Carl Sagan’s books-I can’t recall if it was “Broca’s Brain”. But Sagan made precisely that point that you make-it would have been better to engage Velikovsky and debate him, and let his theory fall apart, than it was to suppress the story. If I recall, Sagan concluded that the whole episode was and is an embarrassment for scientists. I think it was right.

    2. bobfink

      I agree. Science claims to take all kinds of theories, and place them in the crucible of the tests of the scientific method. Let good science refute improbably theory, not common consensus.

    3. Eric-Holcomb

      In Sagan’s Cosmos (see pp. 90-91 of the book), he agrees with you: “The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that his hypotheses were wrong or in contradiction to firmly established facts, but that some who called themselves scientists attempted to surpress Velikovsky’s work.”

  4. bwanabwana

    “our human penchant for intriguing but outlandish scientific claims remains”

    Ain’t it the truth!? Interesting that the same applies to politics…

  5. rungrandpa

    “acting like bullies’ – Physics and Astronomy professor in our family told me many new ideas are not tolerated in the scientific community until there is a generational change.
    We’ve seen this often repeated in history.
    “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Max Planck

  6. Joseph-Adlhoch

    It seems that there are some people who still put stock in Velikovski’s nonsense. I would hope that astronomers would push back against a publisher today who sold *flat earth* books under the guise of science.

    There is an excellent book (edited by Carl Sagan, I believe) called something like Scientists Confront Velikovski. It shreds his nonsense methodically, coherently, and completely.

    1. Kelly BeattyKelly Beatty Post author

      another excellent book by Sagan that bears on the seeming acceptance of outlandish theories (and the growing anti-science sentiment of our times) is *The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark*

  7. Kim-Boriskin

    The caption under the images of Venus from 2017 reads “…features when captured in near-infrared light (610 nm)….” 610 nm isn’t infrared; it’s visible orange. So what wavelength were the Venus images really taken at?

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