Hanns Hörbiger was an Austrian engineer. Over a century ago (in 1894), he designed a valve which improved steel production and is still used today for things like high-pressure chemistry. He was involved in the construction of the Budapest Metro system (the third oldest electrified underground railroad in the world), completed in 1896.
But Hörbiger is much more famous for a dream he had, and the pseudo-scientific theory it led to.
One night in 1894, he was looking at the moon, and wondered whether its bright, rough surface was because it was covered in ice. Shortly afterwards, he had a dream in which he was floating in space, and he saw a swinging pendulum which grew longer and longer until it snapped.
He woke up and realized that everything scientists thought they knew about the universe was wrong. In his book Glazial-Kosmogonie (Glacial cosmogony), published in 1912, he wrote:
I knew that Newton had been wrong and that the sun’s gravitational pull ceases to exist at three times the distance of Neptune.
Hörbiger spent the next few years working on his theory, named Welteislehre or World Ice Theory. He claimed that a small, waterlogged star fell into a much bigger star, causing an explosion. The water was flung out into space, and froze into ice in the cold, darkness of the universe. This ring of stars became the Milky Way, and he used the same theory to explain the origins of the planets, other solar systems, the global ether and the moon.
Understandably, his theory was rejected by almost all academics. It contradicted all known laws of physics. When Hörbiger was challenged about his equations which didn’t add up, he replied, “Calculation can only lead you astray.”
When challenged with photographs showing the Milky Way was much larger than he claimed, Hörbiger said that the pictures had been faked by “reactionary” astronomers.
After World War I, seeing that the scientific establishment rejected his theory, Hörbiger started writing books for the general public. He hoped that if enough people without scientific knowledge accepted his theory, they would convince the academics to also accept it. His ideas were popularized through German-language movies, books, radio shows and even comic books.
Hörbiger died in 1931. But his plan worked, and soon there were many adherents of Welteislehre. They formed groups and published newspapers. There were companies that would only hire other adherents of the theory. Followers would attend scientific lectures and shout down the speakers.
The more physicists pointed out that the theory made no sense, the more its followers rejected them, claiming their science had been tainted by their mainstream studies and the cronyism of academia. Facts were ignored in favor of feelings, evidence was rejected as part of a conspiracy, and experts were accused of being part of a cover-up.
One of those who became a fan of the World Ice Theory was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a British-born German philosopher, most famous for writing the racial theories of the Nazi party, in his Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (Foundations of the Nineteenth Century). He wrote of the coming war between the Aryan nation on one side, and the Jews, Asians and people of color on the other. He saw Hörbiger’s theory as a way of, “Once and for all getting rid of the heavy burden of inherited and indoctrinated Jewish conceptions.”
He also wrote that, “One of the most fatal errors of our time is that which impels us to give too great weight to the so-called ‘results’ of science.”
The rejection of “Jewish science” in favor of World Ice theory was also accepted by Adolph Hitler. “There is a Nordic and National Socialist Science which is opposed to Judaeo-Liberal Science,” he said. Hitler planned to build a museum in Linz dedicated to Hörbiger once the war was over.
Welteislehre became the official scientific doctrine of the Third Reich. The ice and snow became part of the Aryan mythology, and followers would say things like, “Our Nordic ancestors grew strong in ice and snow; belief in the Cosmic Ice is consequently the natural heritage of Nordic Man.” The struggle between ice and fire was seen as the battle between Nazi Übermensch and the inferior Untermensch.
While there were many explanations of why the Nazis didn’t create an atomic bomb before the Americans (including the fact that there were virtually no Jewish scientists left in Germany), the rejection of physics and belief in an ice universe may have been a contributing factor.
We often talk about the importance of remembering history so that we don’t repeat it, yet how many people today remember Hörbiger’s World Ice Theory, which was primarily based on the rejection of science and reason?
In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, Moses exhorts the people (Deuteronomy 7:18-25) to remember their experiences in Egypt and not be seduced away by the false idols they will find when they enter Israel.
Surely remember that which the Lord, your God did to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt; the great miracles that your eyes saw, and the signs and wonders and the mighty hand and outstretched arm that brought you out… Their graven idols you shall burn in fire, do not desire the silver or gold upon them and take it for yourself lest it ensnare you, for it is an abomination to the Lord, your God.
And again in the next chapter (Deuteronomy 8: 2-4,11-19), Moses tells them to remember how God protected the Israelites as they travelled through the desert for 40 years.
You shall remember the entire journey that the Lord, your God led you in the desert for these forty years… Your garments did not wear out as you wore them, and your feet did not swell up these forty years… Be careful, lest you forget the Lord, your God, and fail to observe His commandments, statues and laws that I command you this day.
Lest you eat and are satisfied and build good houses and dwell in them… and you say in your hearts, ‘My strength and the might of my hand made all this wealth for me… For if you forget the Lord, your God, and go after foreign gods, and serve them and bow down to them, I testify against you this day that you will surely be destroyed.
In the first chapter of Laws of Idolatry, Maimonides stresses that the true service of God must be through thinking and searching for truth.
He describes the history of idol worship. Maimondes says that originally people prayed to stars and spheres as an indirect way of praying to God. He quotes Jeremiah (10:7-8) who declares that worshipping false gods is “foolish and senseless.” And then eventually false prophets arose who would tell people to act in ways “he had conceived in his heart,” claiming it was a prophetic vision.
This continued until Abraham came along. “He began to explore with his mind even while he was young, and to think day and night… His heart explored and understood until he reached the path of truth and understood the way of righteousness through his correct understanding and knowledge.”
For Maimonides, the quest for truth is the antidote to idolatry. Knowledge of the world is the way to attain the path of righteousness.
Moses spoke to the Israelites before they entered the Land of Israel, warning them against false beliefs. But the message is timeless and never more relevant than today. We are surrounded by people urging us to follow our feelings or accept ideas that have no basis in reality. They reject science and facts as “project fear” or a conspiracy of the “mainstream media.” They invent stories and lies to avoid reality and reason.
Maimonides tells us that the only way to God is to seek the path of truth and reason. And history has shown us what can happen when nations abandon the actual facts for theories based on dreams, beliefs and alternative facts.
As with so many of the blogs I write, I first heard this idea from the amazing Mark Chrisler and his wonderful podcast The Constant: A History of Getting Things Wrong.