Erich von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods?":
SCIENCE OR CHARLATANISM?
by Robert Sheaffer (Box 10441, San Jose, CA 95130)
(First published in the "NICAP UFO Investigator",
October/November, 1974. Reprint rights granted to local
Skeptics' groups.)
Was God an ancient astronaut? Do centuries-old legends of gods
and heroes tell of space travelers who came to earth from distant
parts of the Cosmos? Are some of the ruins of antiquity remnants
of great airfields. the favored landing sites of extraterrestrial
craft?
"Yes!," writes Erich Von Daniken in his runaway bestselling book,
"Chariots of the Gods?" This phenomenally successful book is now
in its forty-fourth printing, with over four million copies
currently in print. Von Daniken's sequels to this book, "Gods
from Outer Space" and "The Gold of The Gods" are also selling
well, as are flocks of imitations.
The popularity of such a sensational theory should not be
surprising. Immanuel Velikovsky created a similar stir almost
twenty-five years ago with the publication of his "Worlds in
Collision", suggesting that the present state of the solar system
can be explained by a series of spectacular cataclysms among the
planets. It has been over twenty-seven years since "flying
saucers" burst into the public's awareness, and UFOs still
continue to generate excitement and controversy. Sensational
hypotheses such as these generate such levels of interest that
they tend to become self-sustaining, quite apart from the
question of whether they are true.
Established science has always shied away from such remarkable
claims. "It took courage to write this book. and it will take
courage to read it", says Von Daniken. "Even if a reactionary
army tries to dam up this new intellectual flood, a new world
must be conquered in the teeth of all the unteachable in the name
of truth and reality." (Presumably the reader here is expected to
shout, "Right on!") Does science avoid Von Daniken because it is
afraid to face up to the truth? Let's examine some of his many
claims, to see if they are serious scientific theories, or mere
humbug.
On page 9, Von Daniken serves up a "basic rocket equation,"
derived by one Professor Ackeret, purporting to show how time
slows down for space travelers who zip along at velocities near
the speed of light. This is an important consequence of
Einstein's theory of relativity. Yet a quick glance at this
"rocket equation" shows that it isn't an equation at all! Every
equation is a mathematical statement of the equality of two
quantities: this equals that. But his "equation" contains no
equal sign, and hence it cannot be a real equation; it must be
intended as window dressing, since it serves no legitimate
mathematical purpose. Yet that is not the only absurdity in this
non-equation. A term in the denominator is multiplied by a very
strange constant: ONE! Did Professor Ackeret think that
multiplication by one was a necessary step in his calculations?
Von Daniken himself must have known better, as even
schoolchildren learn that any number times one equals itself!
There are, of course, many legitimate equations which deal with
this aspect of the relativity of time. Why then has Von Daniken
selected such an obvious humbug to support his "scientific "
claims?
What is the history of our earth-moon system? ". . . a satellite
was captured by the earth. As it was pulled toward the earth it
slowed down the speed of the earth's revolutions. It finally
disintegrated and was replaced by the moon." (p. 19)
Proof of this theory, he writes, can be found in the symbols on
the Great Idol in the Old Temple at Tiahuanaco, one of his
favorite archeological Wonders. Supposedly this message, dating
back 27,000 years, tells of how this satellite emeritus made 425
revolutions around the earth a year, which was then only 288
days.
If the earth formerly circled the sun every 288 days, Kepler's
third law implies that the earth must have been at that time much
closer to the sun, almost where Venus is now. Are we expected to
believe that during the great Ice Ages the earth was some twenty
million miles closer to the sun than it is today? On the other
hand, if the year remained unchanged but each day is shorter, we
are faced with another difficulty: since the year is now
365 days, the earth's rotation is faster than in 25,000 B.C.,
not slower as Von Daniken claims. How could a satellite
slowly spiraling earthward pull both earth and satellite
farther away from the sun? Where are the fragments of this
disintegrated moon, and where did our current moon come from?
Von Daniken gives no answers.
On ancient Egyptian astronomy: " ... why a Sirius calendar? .
. . If Sirius appeared on the horizon at dawn at the same
time as the Nile flood, it was pure coincidence ... this very
interest in Sirius seems rather peculiar because seen from
Memphis, Sirius can be observed only in the early dawn just above
the horizon when the Nile floods begin." (p.64-65)Reader, beware
- we're dealing with one who knows the art of deception! Sirius,
he neglects to mention, is the brightest star in the sky. His
claim that Sirius was hardly visible at all to the Egyptians is
simply false. Sirius, in fact, is visible from anywhere on earth
except the extreme North Polar region, and observers in Egypt see
that star higher in the sky than we do here in the northern
United States, where it dominates the sky on crisp winter
evenings.
There is no dark mystery behind the development of the Sirius-
based calendar in Egypt. The priests there noticed a simple
regularity: each year, when that brilliant star first became
visible in the morning sky, the Nile flood began. Does this not
prove that the Egyptians had contact with a race of space
travelers?
On the mysteries of the great Pyramid of Cheops: "is it
coincidence that the area of the base of the pyramid divided
by twice its height gives the celebrated figure Pi =
3.14159?" (p. 77)
Here our slippery trickster has made a claim which is easy
enough to understand, but its refutation requires a higher
level of mathematical sophistication, which is all the better
for letting the deception go unnoticed! Without going
into too much detail, let us observe that the famous number
Pi is what is called a "dimensionless constant": it is a
pure number, with which no units of measure are
associated. However, the ratio of an area to height is not
dimensionless, hence such a ratio cannot yield Pi. By
choosing our units carefully, we can obtain the number
3.14159, but the ratio will not really be Pi, which is
independent of any units of measure. If we measure the same
pyramid, Von Daniken style, in inches, feet, and yards, we
will obtain three different ratios. Choose your own units,
and the ratio can be made to equal any number at all! Von
Daniken writes that the pyramid of Cheops "has inspired
hundreds of crazy and untenable theories". Not satisfied with
this collection, he has given us one more.
More evidence of the ancient Visitors: "The Mayas were
intelligent; they had a highly developed culture. They left
behind not only a fabulous calendar but also incredible
calculations. They knew the Venusian year of 584 days. . . "
(p.55)
This statement is true-almost. He conveniently forgets to tell us
that this 584 day period is not the true Venusian year, which is
225 days. Instead it is the apparent Venusian cycle as seen by an
earth-based observer, which is precisely what we should expect
the ancient Mayas to record by simply counting days, without any
extraterrestrial insight. On the other hand, if they had recorded
the true Venusian year of 225 days, which implies a knowledge of
the Copernican (sun-centered) system of astronomy, that would
have been a bit more remarkable.
In these few short pages I have scarcely begun a list of the
inaccuracies and half-truths to be found in Chariots of the
Gods?. But a thousand-page refutation of a hundred-page book
would hardly make good reading. Sensationalist theories have
always attracted more readers than refutations of the same.
Enough of Von Daniken's claims have, however, been examined to
reveal his method of operations: to dazzle the reader with a
skillful blend of half-truths (as well as quarter and eighth-
truths, too). Looking into his past, (Ref: New York Times Book
Review), we should not be too surprised to find that his rather
broad criterion of truthfulness has, at times, brought him into
conflict with the law. A court in his native Switzerland found
Von Daniken guilty of embezzlement, forgery, and fraud,
sentencing him to three and a half years in prison. While
operating a Swiss hotel it seems he fraudulently obtained money
by misrepresenting his financial assets, this experience in
deception later proving invaluable in his literary career. It was
during this stay as a guest of the Swiss government that he wrote
his second book, Gods from Outer Space, now also a best seller.
Once a liar, however, does not infallibly prove him always a
liar. However much this charlatanism may hurt one's credibility,
it never destroys it completely. (The followers of famous
psychics are never shaken when their leader is caught cheating:
they only cheat on bad days!) Von Daniken's theories of Ancient
UFO contactees are indeed no more implausible than their latter-
day counterparts. In fact, we have in support of these theories
one bona fide, highly reliable eyewitness who saw these creatures
disembark who can now describe it: none other than Erich Von
Daniken himself! In an exclusive interview with the National
Enquirer, Von Daniken tells of his experiences in Point Aleph, "a
sort of fourth dimension'" where time doesn't exist. He revealed
how he can now leave his body at will, transcending all concepts
of space and time. "I know that astronauts visited the earth in
ancient times", he confides, because "I was there when the
astronauts arrived. And I know they'll be back." Unfortunately
for us, he can't say exactly when, since "time doesn't exist in
Point Aleph."
"I even know what will happen after death". We're all ears. "l
will become part of this huge never-to-be-destroyed ball of
energy that keeps and remembers every last tiny thing that has
ever happened on this planet. Everybody will join me there
eventually and at least they'll know then that I was right". Save
a place for me right in the middle of that big old ball, Erich,
because I'm going to be one of the hardest to convince.
REFERENCES:
Chariots of the Gods? is currently published by Bantam Books, New
York. Page numbers refer to Bantam edition.
Erich Von Daniken's Genesis, New York Sunday Times Book Review.
March 31 , 1974
National Enquirer, March 17, 1974
--
Robert Sheaffer - Scepticus Maximus - sheaffer@netcom.com
Past Chairman, The Bay Area Skeptics - for whom I speak only when authorized!
"The facts can only take you so far in this case.",
- Oliver Stone, discussing "JFK" on CBS-TV's "48 Hours", Feb. 5, 1992