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Skeptical: Erich von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods?": Science or Charlatanism?

Robert Sheaffer

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: 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?"

(First published in the "NICAP UFO Investigator", October/November, 1974.)

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.


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

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