You’ll recall that back in May I wrote about the weird claim that at his death Einstein left open upon his desk Helena Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine. I debunked that claim and traced it back as far as it could go, to one of Blavatsky’s relatives two decades after the fact, but today I’ve discovered a new wrinkle that I think helps explain something more about this strange idea.
Alternative researcher Laird Scranton published a book on The Velikovsky Heresies last year, and in it he claims to prove that midcentury pseudoscientist Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), author of Worlds in Collision (1950), was right about Venus being a comet. That’s neither here nor there, but I just came across this book today, and look what I found on the back cover:
By updating this unresolved controversy with new scientific evidence, Scranton helps us to understand how it was that Worlds in Collision was the one book found open on Albert Einstein’s desk at the time of his death.
Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s just like the apocryphal claim about Blavatsky’s book! Tracing back this claim to its ultimate source is a bit challenging, though. The 2009 edition of Worlds in Collision, edited by his two daughters, Shulamit V. Kogan and Ruth V. Sharon, states the following about Velikovsky:
After moving to Princeton in the fifties he had a close and friendly relationship with Albert Einstein, discussing his theories with him. After Einstein’s death Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision was found open on his desk.
Now where did this little idea come from? It apparently stems from Velikovsky’s own work. In Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky claimed that Jupiter was a “dark star” rather than the commonly-accepted view of the 1950s that it was a frozen ball of ice. According to a later account Velikovsky wrote, he asked scientists to investigate whether Jupiter emitted “radio noises” (radio signals) like the sun and the stars do, and he sent a letter to Albert Einstein in June 1954 repeating the claim and telling Einstein “should you wish” to have the claim tested, it would be easy to do.
On April 6, 1955, scientists B. F. Burke and K. L. Franklin announced that Jupiter emitted just such “radio noise,” and Velikovsky said that he discussed the news with Einstein on April 8. The scientist died on April 18. Velikovsky later claimed, in the unpublished (and apparently undated) “Before the Day Breaks,” that Einstein said to Velikovsky at their final meeting on April 8, “I have again read Worlds in Collision. It is a book of immeasurable importance…” How you take this depends on the credence you place in Velikovsky’s memory years or decades after the fact.
Let me stipulate right now that Einstein and Velikovsky were friends for many decades, and there is no doubt that Einstein did read Worlds in Collision. The only question is whether that volume was open on his desk on April 18, 1955.
The contemporary accounts contradict Velikovsky’s claim somewhat. Einstein’s letter to Velikovsky of the preceding month implies that Velikovsky’s memory is a bit off. In the letter of March 17, 1955, Einstein wrote to Velikovsky:
Den ersten Band der Memoiren zu “Worlds in Collision” habe ich bereits aufmerksam gelesen und mit einigen leicht zu radeirenden Randbemerkungen versehen.
This places things in a new context. Einstein did not rush to reread Worlds in Collision because of Jupiter—indeed, how could he in the less than 48 hours between the scientific announcement on April 6 and their meeting on April 8, especially since he had written to Velikovsky a few weeks earlier about the crush of papers and manuscripts he had been trying to get through?—but rather he was continuing his usual practice of offering feedback on Velikovsky’s work. (He offered feedback to many people whose ideas were even less credible, as was his wont.) The memoirs in question were eventually published as Stargazers and Gravediggers in 1983. But even if we accept Velikovsky’s later claim at face value, it still implies Einstein finished rereading the older book a week before dying.
Many photographs were taken of Einstein’s desk in the hours after his death, and as you can see from this Life magazine photograph, neither Worlds in Collision nor The Secret Doctrine was open on his desk. In fact, the next item on his to-read pile was the Literary Guide from a rationalist society.
Velikovsky’s own daughter, Ruth Sharon, wrote in her 1995 biography of her father that Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas, objected to the claim that Worlds in Collision sat on Einstein’s desk in his final hours.
So how did Velikovsky’s unpublished dicta become the claim that Einstein had Velikovsky’s book on his desk at the time of his death? The answer appears to be that Reader’s Digest made it so. In a December 1975 article summarizing approvingly Velikovsky’s theories, called “When the Sky Rained Fire” by Emmy-winning journalist Fred Warshofsky, we find the claim, wildly distorted from what Velikovsky and Einstein had actually said:
Ten months later, early in 1955, astronomers at the Carnegie Institution were shocked to hear strong radio signals pouring in from Jupiter. When Einstein heard the news, he emphatically declared that he would use his influence to have Velikovsky’s theory put to experimental test. Nine days later he died—a copy of Worlds in Collision open on his desk.
The article was collected verbatim in Warshofsky’s Doomsday: The Science of Catastrophe the following year. I’m not familiar with all of Warshofsky’s work, but I know that he has been criticized in the past for sloppy scholarship and misinterpreting his sources, particularly in his misuse of scientific findings to support Flood geology.
I am not able to trace the claim back any farther than Warshovsky, and all later versions I can find that name a source name his Reader’s Digest article.
Note, though, that in this case Warshofsky is contradicted by Velikovsky himself, who never reported that Einstein would “use his influence”—in fact, the urging went the other way, with Velikovsky suggesting to Einstein that he should have Velikovsky’s claims tested. Neither was emphatic about it at all. Warshofsky does not name his source for the colorful detail about Worlds in Collision on Einstein’s desk, but it seems to derive in part from Einstein’s letter talking about reading the draft of Velikovsky’s memoir in March 1955, which Warshofsky probably confused for the original book because he was not aware that the memoir was a different, unpublished (at that point) title that for the moment shared the most of the same name as its predecessor. Thus, Warshofsky would have falsely concluded that Velikovsky proposed an idea, Einstein rushed to re-read Worlds in Collision, and then radio signals from Jupiter drove Einstein to more contemplation of the 1950 book.
However, since the claim that Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine “always” sat on Einstein’s desk was published at least as early as 1971, Warshofsky may also have simply mixed up his pseudoscience books and falsely reported that Velikovsky and not Blavatsky was the great scientist’s final reading. This is not entirely clear since the actual claim that Secret Doctrine was still there at Einstein’s death seems to date only from 1983, leaving open the possibility that Warshofsky’s claim came first or that the two mutually pollinated one another in building a modern myth.
Despite these facts, both claims—that Worlds in Collision sat on Einstein’s desk and that Einstein praised the book at his final meeting with Velikovsky—appear at face value in Michael D. Gordin’s much-praised book about the Velikovsky controversy, The Pseudoscience Wars (2012), which makes me question what else the author took at face value.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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