A Comet Grazing the Sun

The problem between Einstein and myself was always the same, and we were equally obstinate: he because the mathematical model coincided with such unimaginable precision with the natural events, nowhere better observable than in the celestial sphere with the planets and their satellites on the prescribed paths; I, because it appeared to me that these exact coincidences between theory and nature had been achieved at the cost of a grievous omission—of electrical charges and fields. Natural catastrophes which I discovered to have taken place were my starting point, but these catastrophes were denied, and my description of the phenomena that accompanied them evoked the accusation that I had committed an outrage against the entire house of science. Yet even independently of what I read in ancient sources, historical or legendary, the picture of the solar system in which electricity and magnetism were absent and denied a role was strange to me. Once I read that the Jewish people produced the geniuses of Marx, Freud, and Einstein—the three men who so greatly influenced the world of today—because by the nineteenth century the Jewish people was mature in intellect, yet foreign to European scientific thought, and entered this domain when no longer novices in the house of learning, therefore more given to criticism, skepticism, and an original grasp of the content. If I saw things differently, it was possibly because I came in conflict with the accepted notions, being myself no longer a fledgling; I did not go through the normal process of studying geology or astronomy as a student in college, accepting everything on faith, subdued by the assertion that science in our days and since some time ago is finally on the right track, after periods of ignorance of the ancients and erroneous ideas of the pre-Newtonian days. I could not help seeing things differently.

I decided to select a case in which electromagnetic interrelations between two bodies in the solar system would be more apparent than elsewhere. Such a case would be in the passage of a comet very close to the sun, actually grazing the solar corona. In my understanding there would be a very pronounced case of electromagnetic interaction. Physical science, or, better, celestial mechanics, forbade such an interpretation—and why? Because as soon as electromagnetism is given right of entry, the entire solar system with planets and satellites would be engulfed in a forbidding sweep of forces and interrelations. If a comet that goes through the corona of the sun experiences some electromagnetic effect, then what about the same comet a little distance from the sun, before it reaches perihelion, or the point of nearest approach, or after it passes it? And if there, too, there should be some electromagnetic effect, then what about still greater distances and the behavior of cometary tails in general? Cometary tails, as already mentioned on earlier pages, keep away from the sun: on approaching the sun the tail moves behind the head of the comet; at the time the comet circles the sun in perihelion, the tail sweeps the sky, almost like a stiff rod; and when the head retreats from perihelion and rushes on its orbit back into space, the tail precedes the head, again kept away from the sun. The behavior of the cometary tails is not in accord with what should have been expected on the basis of gravitational forces; the tails should be attracted to, not repelled by the sun. The problem was also in the minds of astronomers of the nineteenth century. John Herschel wrote:

There is beyond any question some profound secret and mystery of nature concerned in the phenomenon of their tails; the enormous sweep which it [the tail] makes round the sun in perihelion in the manner of a straight and rigid rod, is in defiance of the law of gravitation, nay, even of the recorded laws of motion.1

But when at the beginning of the present century the Russian physicist, P. Lebedew, succeeded in demonstrating that light exerts pressure on the surface it falls upon, in agreement with the postulate of Clerk Maxwell, he wrote: “this result is of importance to astrophysics as furnishing a much simpler explanation of the repulsive force of the sun than the hypothetical ones of electrical charges."2

This pressure, or repulsion, is generally much smaller—in the case of the sun 20,000 times less—than the opposite action of the gravitational attraction; but calculation shows that on particles of dust of a certain small diameter the pressure of light will exert a greater force than will gravitation, and this because gravitation acts according to the mass, and pressure according to the surface, and a small particle has more surface in relation to its mass than does a larger particle. Although celestial mechanicians never really tried to investigate the problem quantitatively, the explanation was taken over into all textbooks. A quantitative analysis would show that the force needed to drive particles away from the sun at the speed observed must be between 200 and 2,000 times more powerful than the gravitational attraction exerted by the sun, instead of being 20,000 times weaker; (both act as the inverse square of distance—light and its pressure act four times weaker on an illuminated surface when the distance from the source of the light is doubled). A comet may have a tail as long as 100 million miles and thus reach all the distance from the sun to the terrestrial orbit, or even 200 million miles and thus reach past the orbit of Mars.

Finally, the cometary tails obviously have on one hand particles larger than dust grains and on the other hand they contain gases, but it is also obvious that light cannot drive these larger particles as it drives molecules of gases, and on this alone the argument capsizes—and leaves the behavior of tails unexplained.

The light of cometary tails is not just the reflected light of the sun; they glow by their own light, a fact established by spectroscopic analysis. It appeared to me that the comets are charged bodies, and possibly their tails and heads carry significantly different charges.

On the other hand the rotating sun, if it is a charged body, must create a magnetic field. Does not the corona when seen at full eclipse, or with the help of an occulation disc (coronograph), have the appearance of magnetic lines of force as they can be traced by the position of iron filings spread over a Compton paper, in the presence of a magnetic field? Then would not a comet going through the corona of the sun be subject to electromagnetic interactions? Further, is not a comet held away from the sun by its magnetic field? But if comets are subject to electromagnetic forces when close to the sun, they may be subject to the same forces when at some distance from the sun, too; and if comets respond to forces besides gravitation, are not the planets also responsive to some—large or small or minute—but some influence emanating from the sun, besides gravitation, namely of electromagnetic nature? The consequences are innumerable: is space empty, or filled with fields and influences? This is a question not unlike the question in theology: Is there or is there not a God? But now I was like a chess player sitting opposite the world champion, I being just an amateur, a beginner, plotting my attack. I moved a pawn—but I placed it in such a position that the champion immediately grasped the implications of my strategy. Let this move stand, and one by one, the bishop, the castle, the queen, and the king himself would all be under attack. The pawn could not be left in its threatening position.

You can take a pawn from the board if you have a piece in position to do this, and if the consequences will not be harmful; Einstein made his move. It was contained in the remarks he made to a letter I wrote him on September 17, though I did not send it until eight weeks later, with Gina Plungian. I included a note for Miss Dukas. Einstein’s handwritten marginal annotations on my letter are here given as footnotes.

November 12, 1954

Dear Miss Dukas:

Enclosed is a copy of my September letter, retyped double-spaced for easier reading. At the end of it stands a question which has far-reaching implications. This is a logical move on my part in our extended discussion, and when Professor feels inclined to answer and his health permits, ask him, please, to dictate whatever he has to say to the problem.

With cordial regards

Immanuel Velikovsky

September 17, 1954

Dear Professor Einstein:

May I renew our discussion? At our last long conversation on July 21, you have acceded that the cause of the global catastrophes of the past could have been extra-terrestrial.1

You have found the behavior of Lexell’s comet almost unbelievable.2

The next step in my strategy is to show that the comets do not revolve as neutral bodies around a neutral sun. I quote from H. Spencer Jones:

"The presence of bright lines in the spectra [of comets] can only be due to a self-luminous body. . . . the electrical phenomena obtained by discharge through a Gessler’s vacuum tube enable the assertion to be made with a high degree of probability that the comet’s self-luminosity is due not to an actual combustion, but to an electrical phenomenon."3

More facts point to a charged state of the comets. The envelope (coma) of a comet contracts with the approach to the sun and expands with recession, though in the heat of the sun the reverse could be expected.4

"There is good evidence that all particles in the comet influence the motion of each other. The configuration of the streamers in the tails . . . strongly indicates a mutual repulsion.” (N. Bobrovnikoff, “Comets” in Astrophysics, ed. Hynek, 1951, p. 328).5

As to the sun: “Certainly the formation of coronals over centers of attraction and sunspots can be caused by the extended electrical fields of these areas of the sun; just so, coronals can be formed by the electrical fields about the end of a moving prominence.” (E. Pettit, “The Sun and Solar Radiation,” ibid., p. 296).6

When prominences on the sun were observed to run one into another, “both prominences participating in the action recoiled violently . . . Strong electrical fields of the same sign might explain the phenomenon.” (Ibid., p. 297).7

As to the spherical shape of the sun, the measurements were carried to one hundredth part of a second of an arc, and no departure from spherical shape was observed ibid., p. 260); the admitted error of observation could not exceed a tenth of a second.8

Should we now assume that a comet moves in perihelion without experiencing an electromagnetic effect between itself and the sun? 9

Cordially yours,

Immanuel Velikovsky

1 [E.: I saw at that time no other possibility for a quick change of climate at any point of the Earth’s crust. But since the mobility of the crust as against the main body is probable, so is an explanation for such phenomena based upon itself much more plausible than the assumption of an extra-terrestrial cause.]

2 [E.: As far as the comet is concerned, you have unjustly claimed that it orbited Jupiter for a certain time; this possibility I disputed. In fact, through disturbance by Jupiter the comet repeatedly experienced a strong change in its course, without being “caught” by Jupiter.]

3 [E: This is very vague and has nothing to do with the actual problem of motion.]

4 [E: This is a quite superficial way of inference. One would have first to show that the phenomenon cannot be explained through an independent movement of the tail, without assumption of specific forces.]

5 [E: A mere assertion.]

6 [E.: Vague assertion.]

7 [E: This is quite possible with formations which consist of (one-sided) charged ions.]

8 [E.: Weak explanation! On this one cannot build. It would be interesting to know what other specialists think of it.]

9 [E.: Yes. Otherwise Kepler’s third law would not be valid.]

The best I could wish was that Einstein would cede me the point; and the next best that he would answer as he did; thus he documented the position of science on the issue in 1954. Four years will pass and it will be admitted that the pressure of light cannot, by a factor of 200 to 2,000, be the cause of the repulsion of the cometary tails3;

the time will come when scientists will think it elementary that a comet crossing the solar corona could not escape electromagnetic effects; but by then it will appear self-understood that this is as it should be; and then I will need to prove that not so long ago different notions prevailed; and how much easier it will be if a man whose authority is unmatched should have written the verdict of science on the very document in which I claimed a divergent view.

Johannes Kepler, mentioned in my letter and in Einstein’s notes, the discoverer of the three laws of planetary motions known by his name, was a man to whom Einstein felt a special sympathy, even affinity.

I was obstinate. I was determined to face the issue squarely on this most obvious case—of a comet going through the corona of the sun. And I had to answer the reference on Einstein’s part to Keplerian laws.

January 11, 1955

[sent January 18]

Dear Professor Einstein:

Am I right or wrong in the following: A comet grazing the sun can experience an el.-magn. effect without violating Kepler’s 3rd law,1 because:

1. A static potential difference between the sun and a body on an orbit would also produce an inverse square relation which can be hidden in the gravitational effect.2

2. The magnetic component of the effect would produce acceleration. And actually an unaccounted for acceleration is observed in comets passing close to the sun; this effect was studied on Comet Encke. (J. Zenneck, ‘Gravitation’ in Encyclop. d. Mathem. Wiss. vol. V, part I, p. 44).

3. Even assuming a comet as a neutral body partly consisting of ionized gases, and a solar protuberance as a collection of ions of one sign on a neutral sun, we would have in a grazing comet a conductor passing through an electrical field.

By the way, Kepler himself regarded the motion of the planets and comets on ellipses as originating wholly in the sun, and for a time thought of magnetic action (electricity was not yet known; but Gilbert’s book on magnetism already appeared in 1600). Kepler wrote:

” [Sol] trahendo et repellendo retinet, retinendo circumducit” (Opera omnia, VI, 345).

Actually Kepler’s idea of a magnetic field reaching from a primary to a satellite can be checked as follows:

If the lunar daily librations in latitude follow the rotation of the polar magnetic field of the earth around the geographical pole, then the magnetic field of the earth reaches sensitively to the moon. Among lunar daily librations are some unaccounted for. According to H.T. Stetson of M.I.T., a magnetic needle slightly follows the sun.

As to Lexell’s comet: It was removed by Jupiter from a parabolic orbit to an ellipse of 5½ (five and a half) year period, and at the next passage it was sent away on a hyperbolic orbit. This I mentioned; you have thought it impossible, even after reading this in Newcomb’s astronomy.3

You have asked me: what do the specialists say about the shape of the sun. I quote Donald Menzel of Harvard Solar Observatory (Our Sun, 1950, p. 39): “but the measures are as likely as not to indicate a polar diameter greater than the equatorial, which we are indeed loath to believe.”

With all good wishes,


Im. Velikovsky

1 [E: No, that would be a miracle. If the forces of the solar system were of an electrical nature then for instance the following would occur: if the sun were charged positively, then the earth would have to be charged negatively, and the moon again positively. The sun would then repel the moon, so that the moon’s motion would deviate considerably from the factual. Kepler’s third law which connects periods of revolution and the radii of orbits of planets revolving around the sun would not be valid because the charge of each of these bodies would be independent of the charge of one another.]

2 [E: It is not enough for the understanding of Kepler’s third law.]

3 [E: No, you have stated that the comet was for a time captured by Jupiter. Only this I declared impossible.]

Einstein also appended the following postscript to my letter:

Nobody denies electromagnetic effects between the heavenly bodies. But these are too small to assert themselves upon the observable motions. With qualitative considerations only, one can achieve nothing against keen quantitative perceptions.

When an astronomer hears such arguments as yours, and he has not enough sense of humor, then he necessarily will be angry or rude.

That the sun cannot have any appreciable electrical charge can be seen from the following elementary consideration. The radiation of the sun generates positive and negative ions in its atmosphere. If the sun was originally (for example) positively charged, it would have repelled the positive ions and hurled them into space. Thereby its positive charge would be reduced. This process will last until the sun will have lost its positive charge. This consideration is likewise valid for negative charge.

The solar radiation produces also enough ions on the surface of the planets and moons for a charge to disappear in a short time.

Finally, if gravity were of an electrical nature, then a body would have to lose its weight as soon as it touches the earth, or is brought into conducting contact with it.


  1. Outlines of Astronomy, p. 406.

  2. Peter Lebedew, “An experimental investigation of the pressure of light,” Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, 1903), pp. 177-178.

  3. Ludwig Biermann and R. Luest, “The Tails of Comets,” Scientific American, October, 1958.