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Academic Freedom, Free Speech, and Harlow Shapley

Academic freedom is much more restrictive than free speech, as one is concerned with free enquiry within a scientifically-established body of thought, while the other is concerned with the liberty of any individual to express his personal thoughts. One of the more notorious episodes of a scientist confusing academic freedom with free speech is the attempt of Harlow Shapley, a director of Harvard College Observatory, to halt publication of Immanuel Velikovsky's book Worlds in Collision.1

Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky was a psychiatrist, a Russian emigrant, who believed that many ancient legends from around the world were inspired by actual cosmic events. His theory was that in ancient times, Venus had a much different orbit than today that brought it close to Earth. Two encounters between Venus and Earth were responsible for the plagues in Egypt described by the biblical book of Exodus and the standing still of the Sun described in the biblical book of Joshua. These events were also responsible for various legends of catastrophe from Asia and America. Venus interacted with Mars on several occasions, inspiring passages in Homer's Iliad describing the confrontation between the Greek gods Ares and Athena. After these encounters, Venus settled down into its current orbit, while Mars continued to interact with Earth. This later history lead to the association of Venus with the Latin god of Love and Mars with the Latin god of war. Eventually Mars entered into its current orbit.

This book is an example of someone latching onto an idea and trying to make the universe conform to it. To create the wild orbits among the planets required by these events, Velikovsky asserted that electromagnetic forces came into play. But this physics does not work, because electric charge is very mobile in space, so that planets never acquire electric fields strong enough to cause orbital changes through mutual electric attraction or repulsion. There is no physical mechanism that can change Venus's orbit from the most eccentric in the Solar System to the most circular in only fifteen hundred years. Astrophysicists and astronomers therefore rejected Velikovsky's theory out of hand, and within the strictures of academic freedom, they were right to do so.

The bigger controversy in 1950, however, revolved around the objection by the astronomical community to the publication of the book by the Macmillan Company. The controversy was sparked by an eight-page lead article that described Velikovsky's ideas entitled “The Day the Sun Stood Still” in the January 1950 issue of Harper's Magazine by Eric Larrabee, one of the editors of Harper's. This article gave a glowing account of Velikovsky's book. Perhaps most stunning in this article is the quote from Gorden Atwater, the curator of the Hayden planetarium in New York, that

the theories presented by Dr. Velikovsky are unique and should be presented to the world of science in order that the underpinnings of modern science be re-examined.2

A number of astronomers were upset that these ideas were being presented to the public as respectable theories. Atwater was asked to resign his position at the Hayden planetarium. Numerous letters objecting to the article appear in the March 1950 issue of Harper's Magazine, along with a note by Velikovsky asking that no one judge his book based on the magazine article alone. One astronomer from Harvard wrote

Now Harper's has shown us what science might have been had it followed the lead of men like Dr. Velikovsky. It would have been builded not upon the quicksand of measurement but upon the rock of comparative methodology; constructed not with the rusty spoon, mathematics, but with the machine tool, Biblical exegesis; it would have reached not the starry sky of ordinary experience but to the heaven of untrammeled speculation. Instead of atomic energy it would have given us a simple way of turning lead into gold.3

Harlow Shapley took the most aggressive course and lead an effort by the astronomical community to suppress the publication of Velikovsky's ideas, either as a book or as magazine articles. And as surely as the law of gravity, the results were the opposite of what Shapley intended.

Harlow Shapley was one of the prominent men of astronomy. He started his career studying eclipsing binary star systems with Henry Norris Russell at Princeton University; he then moved to the study of the spatial distribution of globular clusters, which led to the identification of the galactic center and a measurement of the size of the Galaxy. In 1920, he became the director of the Harvard College Observatory, a position he held until 1952.

Shapley was controversial, for he had a history of left-wing activism from the thirties through the fifties. During the Spanish civil war, he attempted to meet President Roosevelt to encourage U.S. support of the Spanish loyalist faction. Because of the groups he was affiliated with, he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1946. In 1948 he supported the third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace, and as the Cold War waxed, he promoted a peaceful relationship with the Soviet Union. An organization that he chaired organized in 1949 the “The Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace,” also known as the “Waldorf conference,” which brought together prominent figures in the West and government officials from the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries. For these various activities Shapley was strongly criticized by the conservative wing of the American polity, particularly for his association with groups containing American communists. Shapley replied in March 1950 to these criticisms in this way:

I have joined a number of citizen movements to protest against violation of civil liberties and human rights. I shall continue to do so, and if it happens that extreme radicals or extreme reactionaries also support these actions, I shall not back out in a cowardly fashion.4

After the publication of the Larrabee article in Harper's, Shapley wrote to the Macmillan Company to point out that Velivosky's book was scientifically unsound and that Macmillan should not publish the book if it wanted to preserve its scientific credibility. He wrote additional letters to the editor of The Compass magazine complaining about the republication of the Larrabee article. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, one of his colleagues at Harvard, wrote an article in The Reporter that rebutted the Larrabee article.

What Shapley was in fact doing was applying the strictures of academic freedom to the larger society. So in writing the Macmillan Company in January of 1950, Shapley emphasized the need to peer review books such as Velikovsky's:

I have heard a rumor from a source that should be reliable that possibly Macmillan Company will not proceed to the publication of Dr. Velikovsky's “Worlds in Collision.” This rumor is the first item with regard to the Velikovsky business that makes for sanity. What books you publish is of course no affair of mine; and certainly I would depend on your expert judgment rather than on my own feelings in the matter. But I thought it might be well to record with you that a few scientists with whom I have talked about this matter (and this includes the President of Harvard University and all of the members of the Harvard Observatory staff) are not a little astonished that the great Macmillan Company, famous for its scientific publications, would venture into the Black Arts without rather careful refereeing of the manuscript. 5

Because the physics within Worlds in Collision is seriously flawed, the book cannot withstand objective scrutiny within the astronomical community. If it were a question of publication as a textbook or as an article within the scientific literature, the editors at Macmillan would be obligated to reject the manuscript. But Worlds in Collision is not a book for the astronomical profession, and Macmillan was not persuaded by Shapley's letters to stop it publication. The book was published in the spring of 1950, and it immediately went to the top of the nonfiction best seller list.

Pressure, lead by Shapley, continued on Macmillan from the scientific community. In May of 1950, and despite the book's popularity, Macmillan ceased publication. The book was transferred to Doubleday, and from that point on, this and other books by Velikovsky were published by Doubleday. Shapley's actions were seen by the public and by many magazine and book editors as attacks on free speech. The editor of The Compass, replying in a letter to Shapley about the republishing of the Larrabee article, pointed out that Shapley himself had relied on the protection of free speech in his political activism.

If Shapley had simply limited his actions to pointing out the problem with the book to Macmillan, there would have been no problem. As he had stated in his letter, Macmillan was free to publish whatever it wanted, and if their reputation suffered as a consequence, that was their responsibility. The problem occurred when Shapley and the larger astronomy community went beyond informing Macmillan to pressuring Macmillan. The astronomical community, in applying the strictures of academic freedom to the larger society, was directly suppressing Velikovsky's freedom of speech.

The controversy over Velikovsky's work was very public, and it no doubt helped Worlds in Collision acquire a large readership. I suspect immediately after this many writers hoped to be “banned by Harvard.” The episode taught the astronomical community a lesson about criticizing unscientific ideas, so that today the astronomical community generally ignores such books. There are several notable exceptions, such as the Bad Astronomy web site of Phil Plait, but these scientists approach the problem by explaining why an unscientific idea is incorrect; they do not display the condescension displayed by the scientists replying to Velikovsky.

Jim Brainerd

1 Velikovsky, Immanuel. Worlds in Collision. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1950.

2 Larrabee, Eric. “The Day the Sun Stood Still.” In Harper's Magazine, January 1950.

3 Lazer, David. “Letters.” In Harper's Magazine, January 1950.

4 Shapley, Harlow. Letter to Herbert Wilson. March 28, 1950. As given by Wang, Jessica, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

5 Shapley, Harlow. Letter to the Macmillan Company. January 18, 1950. I have not verified the reliability of the web site from which the quote is taken, so take the quotation with that caveat.

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