vindicated (more or less)
were sitting quietly on the roof, contemplating the night sky and sipping
cider, when a big shooting star burned out in the sky above us.
Velikovsky?" Joadja asked.
mean the Ukranian embezzler I ran to ground back in '83", I replied.
you flippant marsupial, I mean Immanuel Velikovsky, the writer."
yes, the nutty scholar and catastrophist, published Worlds in Collision
sometime about 1950."
you'll remember", Joadja continued, "That he had this theory
that many of the unexplained phenomena of history, the biblical-type
fire-and-brimstone, flaming-swords-in-the-heavens things had their causes
in massive extra-terrestrial forces. He reckoned that in the second
millenium BC, the planet Venus got out of orbit and wandered around
the inner solar system, and Mars did the same thing in the first millenium.
They passed close to the Earth and caused all sorts of catastropies
that the people of the time had no hope of understanding."
those things were usually associated with plagues and famines and wars,
republican referendums, and the death of kings", I added, thinking
of the Book of Revelations and wishing to sound erudite.
well, in a funny way he was seaching for a rational scientific explanation
of these events, but his theory about the cause was so whacky no scientist
could accept it. His book gave catastrophism a bad name and it got relegated
to the back of the second-hand bookshops with the back issues of Quadrant
and old astrology tomes".
anyway, there's a rational core to the whole thing, according to this
new book I'm reading by some dendrochronologist called Mike Baillie"*.
-- you refer to the science of tree-ring dating?" I asked.
The tree-ring boffins are getting pretty sophisticated nowadays. They're
using ancient living trees and very old preserved timbers from all over
the world and now they've got a sequence of absolute dates going back
thousands of years. The point about which is that their dates are real
calandar dates arrived at independently of the very subjective historical
records. The tree-rings don't lie. You can see big environmental catastrophies
in tree-rings. A run of, say, five very bad seasons, shows up, all over
the world, in a characteristic pattern, like a fingerprint".
I love a good scientific detective story. So where did Velikovsky go
wrong?" I asked.
couldn't conceive of a small asteroid or big comet -- something even
as big as a few kilometres in diameter -- doing much damage to the Earth,
so he opted for something much bigger. Now, however, all scientists
accept that a chunk of rock, or ice, that big would wipe out most life
on earth and in the past, of course, it did.
the Great Cretaceous Extinction, when the dinosaurs and most other life
forms were wiped out by the comet 65 million years ago.
if you scale back Velikovsky's loony notion of wandering planets to
something rational -- a near miss from a few middle-sized chunks of
interplanetary junk or the occasional hit from a small comet -- like
the Tunguska Event in 1908 -- you do get a plausible explanation for
all those seemingly mythical events. Direct hits by planetary junk cause
big dust-clouds -- natural nuclear winters -- which block out the sun
and bring crop-failure and famine and death. And in some cases these
coincide strongly with the historically recorded, or estimated, dates
of what we once thought were unexplainable events or mythical gibberish.
the remarkable thing is that very similar descriptions of catastrophic
celestial events crop up in the ancient records or myths of the Chinese,
Celts, Egyptians and the Aztecs".
step: a scientific explanation of John Howard's thought processes?"
beyond science, at least in this generation", Jo replied.
to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters with Comets, Mike Baillie, B.
T. Batsford, London, 1999.