Sagan and Velikovsky
[ Issue 18 ]

Sagan and Velikivsky hold a lot of interest for Emily Bronto

Bikwil celebrates Sagan and Velikovsky

Sagan and Velikovsky

Part three of From Virgil to Velikovsky (the first in our new "connection essays" known as Stepping Stones) Tony Rogers calls Sagan and Velikovsky.  If you haven't yet done so, you might well begin with Part One.

A slow drifting pilgrimage into the Milky Way and beyond

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From Virgil to Velikovsky
[ Stepping Stones No. 1 ]
— Tony Rogers


(This is the third and final part of an essay which to date has been looking at the intriguing connections between five well-known people —
Virgil, Edmund Hillary, Jan Morris, Wendy Carlos and Glenn Gould.)

Before we depart for outer space, here are a couple of Glenn Gould quotes for you to ponder on:

Orlando Gibbons is my favourite composer. Always has been.

I have always felt that Mozart should have died sooner rather than later.

Outer space?

In 1977 NASA launched two spacecraft called Voyager. Their joint mission was first to explore our outer solar system and then in 1986 to leave its realm to pursue a slow drifting pilgrimage into the Milky Way and beyond towards the vast unknown of other galaxies. Because many scientists believe that life may exist elsewhere in the universe, it was decided that each Voyager would carry a communication from the people of Earth to potentially intelligent extraterrestrial beings.

In the year following the Voyager launch, astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) published a book with the marvellously evocative title Murmurs of Earth which describes the genesis, form and content of that hopeful message. Sagan is the sixth person we are visiting.

Sagan had been involved with similar communications sent on Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 (1971-2) and the Laser Geodynamic Satellite (1974), and when the Voyager missions were being planned in late 1976 he was asked to direct the effort to design an appropriate message for these two vehicles. After months of discussions with many people he and his team decided on a long-playing phonograph disk made of copper, to be played at 16 2/3 revolutions per minute and to be attached to each craft complete with cartridge and stylus and pictorial instructions for playback.

Here is a summary of the contents list of the Voyager message:

118 pictures, encoded as sound

the first two bars of the Cavatina from the String Quartet No. 13 in Bb by Beethoven

greetings from the President of the United States (Jimmy Carter)

Congressional list

greetings from the Secretary General of the United Nations (Kurt Waldheim)

greetings in 54 languages (spoken, in the main, by native speakers; included are ancient Sumerian and Hittite, Latin, Vietnamese, Burmese, Punjabi, Welsh, Nguni, Wu)

UN greetings

whale greetings (humpbacks)

the sounds of earth (including those of a 1971 Australian earthquake, wind, rain, surf, crickets, frogs, footsteps, heartbeats, laughter, a kiss, a pulsar)

music (three quarters of the whole record — almost 90 minutes).

Let's concentrate on the music, since that's where Glenn Gould at last comes in — or is going out, if you get my cosmic drift.

As you might expect, there were many opinions, passionately expressed, as to what to include and exclude, and some western composers inevitably had to lose out, such as Debussy, Haydn, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

Who won? Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky.

It is J.S. Bach who is represented most often — three times, one item performed by Gould, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No. 1 (track 17). One reply to the question of what music humanity should send to other civilisations in space was expressed as follows, by biologist Lewis Thomas: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach . . . but that would be boasting.”

Non-European music occupies half the music section of the record, and includes a Javanese court gamelan, Senegalese percussion, a Zairean pygmy girls' initiation song, two Australian Aboriginal songs, Japanese shakuhachi music, Azerbaijan bagpipes and a Peruvian wedding song.

Occasionally a piece was easy to choose, but hard to locate, such as the thrilling Indian raga performance, Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar's Jaat Kahan Ho, (track 25), which had been fervently recommended by Robert E. Brown of the Center for World Music in Berkeley. It was out of print, and unavailable in record stores. After many frantic phone calls a copy in good condition was finally tracked down in an appliance store run by an Indian family in New York, in a carton under a card table.

“Popular” music is represented, too. Included are a Mexican mariachi band, Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode, Blind Willie Johnson performing Dark Was the Night and Louis Armstrong and the Hot Seven’s Melancholy Blues. (The latter was voted in against strong competition from a Miles Davis version of Summertime.)

Should the Voyager message ever reach intelligent life out there, this is statistically unlikely to happen for another ten billion years. Yet even with those remote odds the effort is an inspiring symbol of optimism and longing from Earth — the human soul of science. As Sagan puts it,

No one sends such a message on such a journey without a positive passion for the future. For all the possible vagaries of the message, any recipient could be sure that we were a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at a least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.

Carl Sagan adored science with all his being, and if there was one thing he mistrusted more than anti-science it was pseudo-science. Hence his essay attacking the work of our final celebrity, Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979).

Velikovsky's academic qualifications were those of a G.P. and psychoanalyst. While in the United States in 1939 researching a book on Sigmund Freud's own dreams, together with a comparative study of the lives of Oedipus, Akhnaton and Moses (all three figures had been important in Freud's thinking), a notion occurred to him that would keep him in America for the rest of his life and bring him international notoriety.

The idea was this.

Suppose it was a great natural cataclysm at the time of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt which caused the plagues, the parting of the waters, the hurricane and the eruption of Mt. Sinai?

It would help, naturally, if an Egyptian record of a similar catastrophe existed. Fortunately for Velikovsky the confirmation he sought turned up in an obscure papyrus in which the Egyptian sage Ipuwer lamented the collapse of the social order during some natural calamity. Because of certain references in it, it was apparent that Ipuwer was bewailing the downfall of Egypt's Middle Kingdom. Velikovsky concluded that this document is a parallel to the Book of Exodus and describes the same catastrophe. But what event exactly?

First, however, Velikovsky had to solve a chronology problem. Conventionally the end of the Middle Kingdom has been assigned to about 1750 B.C., which is 500 years earlier than the Hebrew timetable. Velikovsky, already enthused with the synchronism idea, was soon able to find a reason for the inconsistency. According to him, certain dynasties appear twice in accepted schemes of Egyptian Middle Kingdom history, which he was happy to reconstruct for us. He called this research Ages in Chaos.

And that natural calamity?

Once he had found descriptions of similar events in the literature of ancient Mexico and had decided that the Biblical catastrophes were actually worldwide in scale, Velikovsky devoted the next ten years to tracing parallel stories of natural upheaval in many cultures.

For him a global cataclysm became the only explanation — and not just a global cataclysm, but one of cosmic origin. This investigation matured into his Worlds in Collision.

After rejection of both this book and Ages in Chaos by many publishers, Macmillan (US) finally chose to publish Worlds in Collision in 1950.

What has become known as the Velikovsky Affair had begun.

Even in manuscript form Worlds in Collision attracted controversy, mainly in the popular press, and upon its publication scientists and academics attempted to sabotage the book, its author and, if all else failed, its publisher.

As things transpired, by threatening to boycott Macmillan's educational division, Velikovsky's opponents so intimidated the firm that within a year the rights to his books were transferred to Doubleday, who did not publish textbooks.

Doubleday went ahead with all Velikovsky’s later works, despite the antagonism of the science community. Ages in Chaos appeared in 1952, followed by such titles as Earth in Upheaval (1955) and Oedipus and Akhnaton (1960).

Lack of space prohibits me from cataloguing all the claims made by Velikovsky that so incensed the scientific establishment, but how about these to be going on with?

originally the orbits of our solar system's planets intersected, and collisions between the major planets occurred, causing the birth of comets

around the time of Moses such a comet, thrown out from Jupiter, nearly collided with Earth

this gave rise to a huge gravitational shift, great tides and electric discharges

the manna which fed the Israelites came from carbohydrates in the comet's tail

the comet collided with Mars, lost its tail, and was transformed into the planet Venus.

Such ideas were an insult to secure theories of astronomy, geology and biology (not to mention science heroes like Newton and Darwin), but at first criticism was ineffective in providing a thorough, convincing refutation. Carl Sagan's thoughtful denunciation came in 1974 in his Venus and Dr. Velikovsky, a chapter in his book Broca’s Brain.

Of course, to his disciples such an attack was typical of the conspiracy to discredit Velikovsky's contribution to human knowledge. (Another co-conspirator is supposed to be evolutionary biologist Stephen. J. Gould.) After all, say Velikovskians, haven't many of the master’s predictions come true — like the temperature of Venus?

The disputation rumbles on.

I first read Worlds in Collision about 35 years ago and loved it, hooked by the wealth of anthropology, mythology, philology and downright ingenious imagination. In any event it is far more satisfying a read, for all its flagrant faults, than that other egregious volume of pseudo-scientific speculations — Erich von Däniken's 1968 Chariots of the Gods.

So there you have it. Your virtual visits to various venturesome visionaries and virtuosi are done, and you are home safely again. As far-ranging as it has been, however, this selective excursion through space and time has denied me the opportunity to answer several absorbing questions.

Interested readers are invited to explore the following engaging queries for themselves:

did Virgil ever suffer from inordinate shyness or disabling indigestion?

as the years pass, is Mt. Everest growing or shrinking?

how long has Jan Morris been able to speak Welsh?

what was Wendy Carlos doing in West Pennant Hills, Sydney, in October 1976?

what, if anything, did Glenn Gould have in common with composer John Cage?

which was the photo NASA banned from the Voyager record?

which establishment scientist had a copy of Worlds in Collision open on his desk when he died?

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