[1] Not to be confused with Harvard’s Fred L. Whipple, leading authority on comets and coiner (in 1950) of the “Dirty Snowball” theory of cometary composition. [Return to text.]

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Question: The Lake Cheko “Crater” — Hoax or Fraud?

Well, folks, the Tunguska Event is back in the news again this year — this time with the “discovery” of a crater — and so many of you (okay, seven of you) have written me to ask if this sounds the death-knell for the Vurdalak Conjecture, that I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t try to reply.

But first, a brief reminder: the Tunguska Event is the name given to an enormous explosion, variously reckoned at between two and forty megatons, that leveled more than a thousand square miles of near-uninhabited Siberian forest back in June 1908. There’ s lots more about it in my Soapbox Seminars and in Bill DeSmedt’s novel Singularity (now available as a free podcast at Podiobooks), but for our purposes, the key thing to bear in mind is this: From that day in June 1908 down to this some ninety-nine years later, nobody has succeeded in coming up with an unassailable explanation for the Event — despite what you may have read over the summer, or even this week.

Well, It’s Groundhog Day — Again(?)

There’s one less enduring mystery in the world tonight, folks. To hear those crack researchers at the University of Bologna, Italy tell it, they’ve gone and solved the riddle of the Tunguska Event — again(?).

Remember that old New Jersey definition of an honest politician as a guy who, once bought, stays bought? Tunguska’s like the backwards of that: Just because it’s been solved, doesn’t mean it’s going to stay solved. The last time Bologna U solved this particular mystery was back in 2001 (BBC News Online, “Mystery Space Blast ‘Solved,’” 30 October 2001). That time, Luigi Foschini and his team decided that the impactor must have fragmented in the atmosphere so totally that it vaporized altogether “with only the shock wave reaching the ground.”

But no, wait, that can’t be right. Because now Luca Gasparini, Giuseppe Longo, and their team, writing in the journal Terra Nova, are telling us they’ve up and found the crater! (Kinda hard to square with total vaporization, ain’t it?)

(That Terra Nova article isn’t all that easy to find, incidentally. Best way I’ve found is to go to Blackwell Publishing Ltd’s Synergy page, and enter “tunguska” and “crater” or similar keywords into the Quick Search field. The Bologna article will be the first one on the resulting list, and you can download a pdf from there.)

Anyway, I’m guessing the end of June 2007 was a slow news week, because lots of folks jumped on this bandwagon, back when it first started rolling. Here’s a sampling:

BBC Online/Science
AOL News

(BTW, you know you’re in trouble when AOL.com — the “all Paris Hilton, all the time” newsfeed — picks up your story and runs with it.)

The fuss mostly settled down after that. Till this past week, that is, when the National Geographic's ace reporter somehow got wind of it and stirred it all up again here. — Talk about being a day late and a dollar short!

Be all that as it may, let’s put this latest solution under the microscope and try to figure out whether our friends from Bologna are or are not full of, uh, bologna.

So, What’s Being Claimed?

Just this: that Lake Cheko, a small body of water situated about five miles northwest of the epicenter of the explosion, is in fact a crater formed at the time of the Event. In the years following the blast, it filled with water from a nearby stream, giving it the lake-like appearance it’s had ever since.

If true, this would indeed be — as the Space.com article puts it — the long-sought “smoking gun” for the Tunguska-as-meteor-impact theory. But is it true?

Read down a little further in the Terra Nova article or any of the news reports and you find that this new solution is based upon:

(a) the generally round shape of the lake,
(b) some computer studies that indicate a conical shape to the lake bottom, and
(c) the Bologna team’s seismograph readings of “an unusual feature about 10 m[eters] down which could either be compacted lake sediments or a buried fragment of space rock.”

"When we looked at the bottom of the lake, we measured seismic waves reflecting off of something,” as Giuseppe Longo, a physicist at the University of Bologna in Italy and co-author of the study, told Space.com “Nobody has found this before. We can only explain that and the shape of the lake as a low-velocity impact crater.”

Okay, so the lake is really, really round (actually, it’s elliptical, but what’s an extra focal point 'mongst friends?), and its bottom is conical, and there’s something down there. I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds like an ironclad case to me — not!

As Professor Longo admitted to BBC Online. “We have no positive proof this is an impact crater, but we were able to exclude some other hypotheses, and this led us to our conclusion.”

So, let me see if I get this ... you’ve got no proof your theory’s true, but you couldn’t think of anything that might be truer, so you conclude it is true. That about sum it up?

Whenever I encounter reasoning like that, I’m reminded of Carl Sagan’s hilarious standup routine from the Cosmos Venus episode. In it, Carl pokes fun at the early Venusologists by summing up their logic like this:

“We can’t see the surface of Venus at all; the planet’s completely covered in cloud. Clouds mean rain, so lots of moisture, then. It’s probably hot, humid, swampy — maybe there’s even dinosaurs.”

Carl then sums it up: “Observation: Can’t see a thing. Conclusion: Dinosaurs!

So, the real question is: are our friends from Bologna spotting brontosauri in amongst the cumulo-nimbi? Or, to put a finer point on it: is that a smoking gun in Professor Longo’s pocket, or is he just happy to see us?

Well, he’s clearly happy to see us. The hundredth anniversary of the Event is now less than a year away — and “Longo’s team plans to return to Lake Cheko next summer,” as we read in AOL News — so the clock is ticking. These centennial expeditions don’t fund themselves, you know. A little publicity never hurts when it comes to filling those travel-allowance coffers.

On that score, there’s the little matter of the timing of the announcement. All the in situ research for the “Crater Cheko” solution was done by the University of Bologna team back in 1999. Why did they sit on it for eight years? Especially given that the Foschini team published its results from the same 1999 expedition within two years of returning home? Could it be that the concept had been consigned to a desk drawer, and was only pulled out and dusted off when it came time to pass the hat?.

So, the question the National Geographic has got to be asking itself this week is: Is this breaking news, or just the kickoff to a second round of funding?

Straining Credulity?

If the National Geographic article contains anything new, it’s Gasparini’s rejoinder to the findings by an earlier (1961) Russian expedition that Lake Cheko had been in existence well before (read: five to ten millennia before) the Tunguska Event.

I'm talking about a report written back in the sixties by K. P. Florensky, titled “Preliminary results from the 1961 combined Tunguska meteorite expedition” (Meteoritica, vol XXIII, 1963). In it, he says:

Silt specimens from Lake Cheko and the lake in the bend of the River in the west morass were collected for subsequent stratigraphic study (P.N. Paley et al.) with a grab dredge and a swamp drill designed by N.I. P’yavchenko. The various samplings from the bottom of Lake Cheko (P’yavchenko, Kozlovskaya) revealed extensive development of silt up to 7 meters deep, indicating an ancient origin for the lake (tentatively estimated at 5,000 to 10,000 years), thus completely contradicting the hypothesis of the formation of the lake as a result of the Tunguska meteorite fall.

Interestingly, Team Bologna’s Terra Nova article does cite Florensky’s report (twice, on pages 1 and 4), yet never thinks to mention that same report’s principal finding with regard to Lake Cheko: those millennia-old silt deposits lining the bottom of what is supposed to be a pristine, brand-spankin’-new, impact-gouged crater-lake. Instead, they try to create, from page one on, the impression that the 1961 expedition was all about “the study of tree patterns in the devastated taiga and the search for micro-particles of the cosmic body.” Tellingly, the word “silt” does not even occur in the Terra Nova article.

But now, talking to National Geographic's Maria Cristina Valsecchi, Gasparini does something of an about-face, trying his darnedest to patch that silted-up hole (or should we say crater) in his theory. He’s now claiming that “... only the topmost, one-meter-deep [three-foot-deep] layer of debris actually came from the inflowing river,” and that the “deeper sediments are deposits that predate 1908; they were the target over which the impact took place.”

But for that to work, the Tunguska Event — which unleashed a blast reckoned at from between two to forty megatons — would have had to leave those silt deposits found by the 1961 expedition undisturbed. Push them down to the bottom of the new-formed "crater," of course, but otherwise stir them up hardly at all. How does that work? Simple (to Gasparini, at least) — the impact must have been, in his words, a “soft crash.”

Silt deposits are not the only thing about Lake Cheko that needs explaining, or explaining away. A bevy of scientists — including NASA’s David Morrison, Gareth Collins at Imperial College, London, and Benny Peiser, from Liverpool’s John Moores University — have all joined in to pick other holes in the solution, ranging from a too-shallow angle of entry, to the absence of a “lip” of ejecta around the rim of the supposed crater. As for that “slow crash,” well, to these peers, the very slow impact speed required to make any of this work is not a feature of the Bologna “solution” — it’s just another bug.

It’s actually interesting that most of the published articles contain more than their usual fair-and-balanced quota of such critical commentary on the Crater Cheko concept. It’s almost as though the newsfeeds are determined not to be caught napping by the Bologna solution-mongers this time. But no matter how many counterarguments are lofted, the bottom line is still this: With enough finetuning — soft crashes, etc. — even the most implausible scenario can be made to work, or seem to.

No, let’s face it: if you really wanted to disprove the Gasparini-Longo hypothesis, what you’d have to do is one thing and one thing only — simply show (as Gasparini now claims the 1961 expedition’s silt deposits did not) that Lake Cheko was there before June 30, 1908.

Because if that body of water truly predated the Tunguska Event, then it can’t be a waterlogged crater caused by that Event. Q.E.D.

The Other Smoking Gun

Figuring out whether or not Cheko was there before the impact sure sounds easy enough. I mean, it’s a whole lake, right? Over five hundred meters long and maybe fifty deep. Kind of hard to miss, you’d think.

On the other hand, it’s located in the Stony Tunguska River Basin — three hundred thousand square miles of impenetrable wilderness, inhabited in 1908 by fewer than thirty thousand souls. That’s ten square miles of trackless desolation for every man, woman, and child. Maybe not so hard to miss, then.

At the same time, Gasparini and Longo are quick to point out that Lake Cheko does not appear on any maps before 1929. To which I’d have to answer: “Maps? What maps?” The Stony Tunguska watershed was hardly a hotbed of cartographic activity in the first decades of the twentieth century, and this tiny, nondescript geographic feature is a veritable needle in a haystack. And that’s setting aside the fact that the native Evenki shamans barred entry to the impact zone for twenty years after the Event, believing it was accursed.

No, if there’s any evidence, one way or the other, for the pre-existence of Lake Cheko, it’d have to be in eyewitness accounts.

And here’s where we strike pay dirt (or perhaps, in keeping with the subject matter, I should say lake bottom?).

Because, as luck would have it, a catalogue of Tunguska eyewitness accounts not only exists, but, through the good offices of Andrea Ol’khovatov, has been made available on the Internet right here. The catalogue, entitled “Testimony of the Eyewitnesses to the Tunguska Impact,” was compiled back in 1981 for the All-Union (now All-Russian) Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (VINITI) by the grand old man of Soviet/Russian Tunguska studies, Academician Nikolai Vladimirovich Vasil’ev himself. It gathers together into one document both contemporary newspaper reports and the testimony of all the witnesses to the Event recorded by a variety of researchers from 1921 through the 1970s. The sole drawback is that, to date, the bulk of its materials are available only in Russian (though Bill DeSmedt’s translated a few of the more interesting bits for the “Vurdalak Conjecture” website here).

Back to business: does this document have anything at all to say about Lake Cheko? More particularly, about whether it was there before the impact or not?

Well, not according to Team Bologna. On page one of their Terra Nova article, we read:

In fact, the presence of the lake was not reported in maps drafted before 1928 and is not mentioned by eyewitness testimonies (Vasilyev et al., 1981).

That bears repeating: “the presence of the lake ... is not mentioned by eyewitness testimonies,” where the eyewitness testimonies they’re talking about come from the very catalogue I cited a couple paragraphs back.

The only problem is: three eyewitness accounts collected in that catalogue do talk about Lake Cheko, and talk about it as a well-known landmark on the trail between Vanavara Trading Post and the village of Strelka — long before the Tunguska Event! Let’s take a closer look:

We’ll start with what seems to be the earliest recorded account making any sort of mention of a lake: the report of Ilya Potapovich Popov (more commonly referred to by his Evenki name Lyuchetkan), taken in 1924 by geologist S. V. Obruchev (VINITI, p. 23/14). There we find Lyuchetkan saying [italics added], “In that place where the stone fell, there is a pit, and from it some creeks [running] into the Chambu. There is a lake nearby, but it existed before the fall of the meteorite.

Lyuchetkan seems to be about as close to an unimpeachable witness as we’re likely to find in these annals: He lived close to the impact site (his brother, who lived even closer, had his hut blown high into the sky “like a bird” from the blast, and became so fear-stricken by the whole experience that he was unable to speak for several years thereafter). As a herder and hunter, Lyuchetkan could be expected to know the surrounding area as well as anyone. And his veracity is independently attested by one N. N. Kartashov, who stated to geologist A. N. Sobolev that “it is impossible not to believe Ilya Potapovich’s story” (VINITI, page 13/8).

So here we have a by-all-accounts reliable source for the contention that the existence of a lake antedated the Tunguska Event. This testimony raises two questions, however: (1) is the lake Lyuchetkan talks about our lake — Lake Cheko? and (2) why was he so adamant about it being there before the Event, in the first place?

To take the second question first, it seems likely that Lyuchetkan was being so insistent on the prior presence of a lake because he was trying to lay to rest other stories then making the rounds (which his interviewer may in fact have asked him about). It is the case that, at several points in the VINITI catalogue, unattributed rumors are cited that a lake had formed after the impact, rumors which are then discounted by the very same source reporting them (see VINITI, pages 30/18, 34/21, 161/93).

But was the lake Lyuchetkan spoke of the one we’re looking for? There are two other accounts in the catalogue that strongly suggest it was.

The first, by Lavrentii Vasil’yevich Dzhenkoul, was collected in 1960. Dzhenkoul was only four years old at the time of the 1908 blast, but he recounted the stories passed down to him by his father and uncle (VINITI, page 95/56 [italics mine]):

In that place the seven rich Dzhenkoul brothers in those days pastured a reindeer herd of 600-700 head. The brothers were rich. On that day, Father went to meet the reindeer on the Ilimpo [river] (in the north). The herd was pastured between the Kimchu river and the Polnoty (Churgim) river. On the upper reaches of the Polnoty river there was a storehouse. There was a second storehouse at the mouth of the Cheko. There, where the first storehouse was (on the Polnoty-Churgim), everything was burnt up. Of that storehouse there remained only ashes. The storehouse at the mouth of the Cheko was thrown over (carried away) by a whirlwind. At the headwaters of the Khushmo [river] their herd was burned, the reindeer were burnt up, only ashes remained. At the mouth of the Cheko, the reindeer lay curled up, but they didn’t burn (they had been stunned and they died).

Three mentions of the “mouth” of the Cheko (i.e., the point at which the lake flows out into a stream — cf. M. G. Zaitsev's reference to a ‘Lake Mouth,’ VINITI, page 258/146) makes it pretty definite that the younger Dzhenkoul had not misremembered that aspect of his hand-me-down tale. And the context makes clear that the second storehouse must have been located at the mouth of the Cheko before the Event, since the blast itself swept the structure away. Which, in turn, means the Cheko itself was there too.

Finally, we have the testimony of Vasilii Nikolaevich Dmitriev taken in 1960 by G. B. Kolobkova (VINITI, page 104/61):

The road from Strelka to Vanavara ran via Lake Cheko, From Ilimpei you could go to Strelka. There was no trading post here at that time, but the road went through. Further on toward Vanavara, the road ran via Lake Cheko.

It’s just an incidental mention, also at second-hand, but the repetition rules out a mistake in transmission, and the context strongly implies that Lake Cheko was a well-known waypoint among the hunters and trappers who traveled that forest road prior to the Event. (After the Event, such landmarks would have been of no use, since the area had become, to all intents and purposes, closed to traffic by the supposed “curse.”)

So it turns out that the document which (according to Team Bologna) contains no eyewitness mentions of Lake Cheko, in fact contains six of them — five by name, and one transparently obvious allusion.

So, what could be the explanation for this rather startling, um, oversight? Could it be that Team Bologna somehow missed all these passages?

Do-It-Yourself Hoax Detector

It’s hard to see how, since it’s child’s play to discover them. You don’t even need to speak any Russian. In fact, you can try it for yourself right now. Here’s how:

  • simply go here and click on the “tungwitn.doc” link to download the Word document;

  • open the downloaded document and set your font to Cyrillic;

  • now search on the letters Ch-E-K-O (the “Ch” is the only one that doesn’t look like its Latin-alphabet equivalent — it resembles a lower-case “h” flipped upside down and backwards).

So, could it be that Team Bologna were simply pinning their hopes on the inherent sloth and shallowness of the asleep-at-the-switch, “all Paris Hilton, all the time” news media, trusting that no one would assign an investigative reporter to catch them out? If so, then to date — and despite Sky & Telescope's brave promises to “dig a little deeper ... and share more as we learn it” — those hopes have yet to be disappointed.

My own suspicion is that if you looked up chutzpah in an Italian-English dictionary, there’d be a picture of Professors Gasparini and Longo next to the definition.

Much Ado About ...

Well, if you can read all that and still think Team Bologna’s latest “solution’s” going to fly, I’ve got some lovely beachfront property in Arizona I’d like to sell you. Nonetheless, even the least prepossessing concepts can offer lessons for the learning, and so it is here.

For one thing, I find it fascinating how quickly the total-vaporization Tunguska airburst hypothesis has been backburnered now that the meteoritists smell crater. Could it be that, in their heart of hearts, they were never really all that comfortable with total volatilization of an object the size of a football field?

Another is: we seem to have reached the point where we’ve begun repeating ourselves — proposing solutions that have been tried before and found wanting.

The meteorite/cometary impact theorists have had a virtual stranglehold on Tunguska studies ever since Kulik’s first expeditions back in the 1920s, with nothing much to show for it after all those years. Maybe someday we’ll look back on the tunnel vision afflicting the past eighty years of Tunguska research as yet another case of the sociology of science run amok and down a blind alley, as Lee Smolin argues with regard to string theory in his recent The Trouble with Physics.

A wise man once pointed out that the surest sign of madness is when you keep on doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Maybe it’s time to end the madness and crack open the door to some alternative explanations again.

Yours truly,
Jack Adler

copyright (c) 2005 by amber productions, inc.

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