The estimated reading time for this post is 5 minutes.
In the classic 1990s television show The X-Files, the Federal Bureau of Investigation relegated files of mysterious cases to a backwater office to be investigated by a lonely pair of agents, forgotten by the rest of the world (except when they got into trouble). The Immanuel Velikovsky Papers, stored in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, are in some ways rather similar. The purpose of the present short post is to encourage other historians to use these documents, which can aid in exploring questions far beyond Velikovsky alone, questions about the way the demarcation of science from “non-science” has been negotiated historically.
Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) was born into a Jewish family in the thriving provincial city of Vitebsk, located today in Belarus but then within the Russian Empire. He emigrated in the early 1920s from Bolshevik Russia to Berlin, and subsequently to Tel Aviv in British Mandate Palestine. Although he was trained as a physician, his main occupation in Tel Aviv was administering the family’s real-estate holdings until he decamped to Vienna in the early 1930s to study psychoanalysis with Wilhelm Stekel. In 1939, enraged by Sigmund Freud’s final work, Moses and Monotheism, he moved with his wife and two daughters to New York to research a definitive refutation. The war broke out, Velikovsky remained in New York poring over dusty tomes, and his life took a sharp turn.
He became convinced that the stories of miracles in the Bible were in fact natural disasters, mythologized remnants of a cosmic catastrophe in which a comet nearly destroyed Earth. Traces from legends of the ancient Near East, Mesoamerica, China, Scandinavia, and India all pointed (according to Velikovsky) to the destructive comet’s origin within Jupiter, its electromagnetic and gravitational interaction with Earth, and its subsequent stabilization as Venus. (There was a reprise a few centuries later with a displaced Mars.) He published this account as Worlds in Collision (1950), sparking an extremely hostile reception by scientists, who threatened to boycott his publisher, and catapulting Velikovsky to notoriety. His reputation as a heretic against the establishment revived in the 1960s and 1970s among the American counterculture, while he continued to argue for his scientific and historical theories from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, just around the corner from where I am writing these lines. He died in 1979, and the movement around him, and his status as a household name, withered astonishingly rapidly.
A good story, isn’t it? I thought so too, so I wrote a book about it: The Pseudoscience Wars, Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. The book draws heavily from the papers in Firestone Library, which were opened to the public in 2005. These are rich archives, comprising over 20 meters of material organized into 162 boxes. Here you will find manuscripts of unpublished works, clippings from articles used in Velikovsky’s research, and a veritable mountain of correspondence (including exchanges with both Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud). The documents are mostly in English, but you’ll also find a good deal in German, a bit less in French and Russian, and some in Hebrew. It’s the most comprehensive archive about Velikovsky’s life and career, consisting of the personal files he used to prosecute his case for legitimacy.
There are other collections about him, which mostly consist of proper subsets of this archive, and which I did not use in my own research. There is an online archive where selected material has been posted (focused heavily on Velikovsky’s own writings), an archive donated by Lewis Greenberg at Florida Atlantic University (concentrating on the 1970s), and an interesting online Velikovsky Encyclopedia. One could also look at the Henry Bauer Papers, which contains materials Bauer gathered in writing his own account of the controversy. (Bauer was also very interested in the Loch Ness Monster — and wrote a book chronicling the evidence and detailing his reasons for believing in its existence — and his personal archive also contains those notes and materials.)
The scale of documentation about Velikovsky makes for an amazing opportunity. Fringe scientific thought is a constant phenomenon, yet it is one that historians of science typically have largely ignored since the 1970s, once the initial enthusiasm generated by the development of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) — centrally focused on concerns about the legitimacy of knowledge — began to fade. Attention to “boundary-work” in the field today often concentrates on internal boundaries among domains of science, and not the boundary between science and regions beyond. Some of this neglect is surely due to distaste — this is not “real science,” whatever people might mean by that — but another has to do with sources. Individuals on the fringe write a great deal, but many of their publications are not acquired by research libraries, and with a few exceptions (such as J. B. Rhine’s work on extra-sensory perception and George McCready Price’s flood geology) their correspondence and manuscripts are not preserved by archives or by their families.
So how can we put to use those documents that were preserved? I’d like to conclude by pointing to three possible directions for future investigation using Velikovsky’s papers, although these three are far from comprehensive:
- Fringe theories travel in packs. Advocates of fringe theories typically assiduously defend their borders against rival theories that resemble them strongly, but — when it is not a case of direct competition — defenders of one fringe theory often advocate several. (There are many possible reasons for this: psychological proclivities, specific epistemological attitudes toward credible evidence, a shared sense of marginalization, etc. I discuss some of these aspects in The Pseudoscience Wars.) One can be a Velikovskian and simultaneously believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not assassinate President John F. Kennedy, that parapsychological powers exist, and so forth. In the Velikovsky Papers, much of the correspondence describes theories about UFOs, alternative cosmologies, heterodox schools of psychoanalysis, and much more. Most of these theories leave no other archival traces, which makes these papers an invaluable historical resource.
- Debunking as a genre. Velikovsky and his supporters were especially attuned to his critics. Though historians of science are not, as a rule, debunkers, that does not mean we should ignore it. This activity has been avidly undertaken by many scientists, some of whom have left papers about their activities. (In the case of Velikovsky, this is true of Carl Sagan, Harlow Shapley, and Donald Menzel.) Yet these collections are very incomplete without taking their targets’ point of view. Given the frequency and popularity of debunking as an activity by scientists, we can productively explore the Velikovsky papers to map out the characteristics of this genre.
- You can’t have a movement without fans. Velikovsky’s papers are home to boxes upon boxes of mail from his readers and admirers, much of which is cataloged merely by month and year. This material is informative in its own right, but might also make for an interesting digital project which tracked over time how Worlds in Collision was read, where it was read, and who was doing the reading.
Those are just a few ideas, and I hope they give some indication of the richness of this historical material and inspire people to think far beyond what I’ve sketched here. The issue of how scientists, politicians, philosophers, and the lay public differentiate between credible knowledge and “nonsense” is a perpetual concern, one which animates debates over science education, state funding, and (in the case of anthropogenic climate change) global politics. “Fringe science” is a topic that many might relegate to the margins, but that process of marginalization is an exciting vein for historians to mine. Happy researching!
Image: Immanuel Velikovsky Papers, Box 145, Folder 2