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Posted on June 30, 2004

Soapbox Seminar #1

Honey, I Lost the Crater!

The identity of the Tunguska object inspired a lot of nonsensical speculation for decades, and some highly imaginative suggestions were made, including that it was a mini-black hole or an alien spacecraft. Scientists, however, have always understood that it was a comet or asteroid.

— Tom Gehrels, principal investigator for Operation Spacewatch


Got to confess, I just love that quote. Because Tom’s a hundred percent right: Scientists — real scientists, like he almost says — have always understood that the Tunguska object had to be a comet or an asteroid. Had to be.

They just didn’t know which.

Seems sort of strange, doesn’t it? Dozens of expeditions over the years, more trees destroyed to publish papers about the disaster than in the disaster itself, a new “solution” coming down the pike every other year or so —

You’d think they could work out something simple, like: Was it a comet or a meteorite?

Well, you’ve got to sympathize: Tunguska’s a hard place to get to, even now. And once you get there, there’s nothing big and obvious to look at: no crater, no fragments, nothing that jumps right out at you and hollers “Hey, I’m a [meteorite, comet], dummy!”

Then, too, there’s only maybe three-four months out of the year you can get any useful work done on site, and that’s in the middle of summer, when the whole place is infested with skeeters so big and mean the Russians call them “flying alligators.”

No, Mother Nature hasn’t made it easy for folks to investigate this particular mystery of hers.

But that’s not what’s really keeping scientists from coming up with a definitive answer to the riddle. No, their real problem is — other scientists. Seems like every time some researcher’s ready to declare victory for one theory or another, a researcher for the other side pops up and shoots his idea full of holes.

It’s gotten to where folks who ought to be out looking for new evidence are spending half their time trying to explain away the evidence some other folks’ve already found.

Now, there’s no way I can give you all the back-and-forth on this. Even considering it took almost twenty years to get the first scientific expeditions on site, that still adds up to three quarters of a century of theorizing and counter-theorizing. But maybe I can give you the flavor of it here.

* * *

The easy answer — a meteorite impact — went up in smoke that spring day in 1927 when Leonid A. Kulik finally reached the Epicenter of the Tunguska Event. He was expecting a crater the size of the Grand Canyon, but all he found was a “telegraph-pole forest” — a grove of pine trees stripped bare of bark and branches, standing upright in the middle of a much larger expanse of radial treefall. That, plus a few waterfilled depressions that might have been mini-craters, but turned out to be just plain old sinkholes.

Whatever had caused the Tunguska catastrophe, it had not been a conventional meteorite impact.

Kulik would return to Tunguska three times over the next twelve years, never quite giving up hope — but never finding that elusive crater either. When he died in 1942 in a World War II POW camp, the riddle seemed no closer to solution than when he’d first laid eyes on the Epicenter fifteen years earlier.

Meanwhile, the mystery was beginning to come to the attention of the wider world, more particularly, to the attention of British meteorologist Captain Charles J. P. Cave. Captain Cave had been one of those who back in 1908 had noticed some peculiar pressure readings on their barographs in the early morning hours of June 30th. He’d seen the “auroras” that lit the night skies over Northern Europe throughout the month of July too. So, when in 1929 he learned for the first time about what had gone on in Siberia that same June morning, Cave went and connected up the dots into an arrow pointing at Tunguska.

A year or so later, Francis J.W. Whipple, head astronomer of Kew Observatory in London[1], put it all together: If Cave’s observations of the auroras were all somehow tied in with this Siberian impact, Whipple reasoned, then “the thought arises that the meteor was essentially a small comet and that the tail of the comet was caught by the atmosphere.” Nearly simultaneously, Soviet researcher I. S. Astapovich arrived at the same conclusion. Looked like Q.E.D. for sure.

At the time, Whipple confessed “I do not feel much confidence in this hypothesis.” Turns out he needn’t have waffled so much: His “cometary hypothesis” was going to be one of the two leading contenders for an explanation to the Tunguska Event. As soon as one more missing ingredient was added to the mix.

It wasn’t all that long in coming. The Second World War had started off by imposing a forced moratorium on Tunguska research — and by bringing death to its leading Russian researcher. Now, in its closing days, it delivered a vital clue to the mystery.

Took things to a higher level, you might say.

Anywhere from two to ten miles high.

* * *

Plan Nine from Outer Space. The clue to the devastation at Tunguska was standing there in plain sight amid the man-made devastation left by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Even so, they might have missed it if the Soviet inspection team that toured the ruins in late 1945 hadn’t included a Russian engineer and science fiction writer name of Aleksandr P. Kazantsev. It was Kazantsev who was struck by the uncanny resemblance between the blackened but still-standing trees on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle and the “telegraph pole” forest Kulik had found at the Tunguska Epicenter.

From this chance observation, Kazantsev drew two conclusions: one dead on target, the other, way out in left field.

Take the left field idea first: Kazantsev figured that the destruction at Tunguska, like that at Hiroshima, could’ve resulted from a nuclear explosion. And, since there were no nukes on earth back in 1908, it must have been the explosion of a nuclear-powered spaceship from Mars! The following year he wrote this notion up a story called “Explosion” and got it published in a Soviet magazine. He kept on writing about it, too, always in a fictionalized form (like his 1958 story “A Guest from the Cosmos,” novelized five years later).

Did Kazantsev believe any of this himself? Hard to say. But back in the fifties there were plenty of others ready to, some scientists among them.

What you’ve got to understand is, Soviet science in the Stalinist and immediate post-Stalinist era had this tendency to go off the deep end from time to time. That’s where you got Lysenkoist genetics from, for instance, or the 1955 Philosophical Dictionary’s definition of cybernetics as a “bourgeois pseudo-science.” And, then too, UFOs were a big thing back in the USSR, maybe even with the powers that be. After all, space aliens, being from a more advanced civilization, would have had to’ve been Communists, right?

So it was maybe to be expected when a Moscow junior-college lecturer in astronomy and part-time UFOlogist named Feliks Zigel started writing about Kazantsev’s science fiction as if it were science fact. Or when physics professor Aleksei Zolotov claimed to have detected “abnormal radioactivity” at the Tunguska site in experiments that, strangely enough, nobody else could duplicate.

So much for the out-in-left-field side of what Kazantsev took away from Hiroshima, what about the dead-on-target side? Quite simply, it was this: The peculiar pattern of destruction at Hiroshima — trees and buildings still standing at ground zero while everything lay flattened for miles around — was due to the fact that the atomic explosion there took place, not at ground level, but 1,800 feet in the air.

It was, in other words, an air-burst.

And that was the missing piece, or so it seemed. In 1964-65, Igor Zotkin took that germ of an idea and tested it: Built a scale model of the taiga with matchsticks for pine trees, then flew a firecracker down a wire, all in an attempt to reproduce the Tunguska treefall. The first time out Zotkin only succeeded in blowing his model to bits, but with a little tinkering his aerial mini-explosions were duplicating the distinctive “butterfly” pattern that other researchers had mapped out at the impact site during the fifties.

Seeing the Tunguska Event as an air-burst not only solved the mystery of Kulik’s telegraph-pole forest, it maybe even held out the hope of explaining the absence of a crater. Because, if the Tunguska Object had exploded anywhere from two to ten miles up, you wouldn’t expect it to carve a big gouge out of the earth, now would you?

Still, it should have left some sort of physical evidence on the ground.



copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.


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[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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I. S. Astapowitsch [Astapovich], “Air waves caused by the fall of the meteorite on 30th June, 1908, in Central Siberia,” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society,1934, vol. 60, pp. 493-504.

I. S. Astapovich, “New Investigations of the Fall of the Great Siberian Meteorite of June 30, 1908,” Priroda, 1935, No. 9, pp. 70-72.

Charles J. P. Cave, “A remarkable solar halo,” Nature, July 16, 1908.

Tom Gehrels, “Collisions with Comets and Asteroids,” Scientific American, March 1996, pp. 54-59.

Aleksandr P.Kazantsev, “Vzryv,” Vokrug sveta, 1946, No. 1, pp. 39-46.

Francis J. W. Whipple, “The great Siberian meteor and the waves, seismic and aerial, which it produced,” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 1930, vol.16, No. 236, pp. 287- 304.

Francis J. W. Whipple, “On phenomena related to the great Siberian meteor,” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 1934, vol. 60, pp. 505-513.

Feliks Yu. Zigel’, “Nuclear Explosion over the Taiga: Study of the Tunguska Meteorite,” Znanie-Sila, 1961, No. 12, pp. 24-27.

Feliks Yu. Zigel’, “Unidentified Flying Objects,” Sovetskaya Zhizn’, February 1968, pp. 27-29.

Aleksei V. Zolotov., “The Problem of the Tunguska catastrophe of 1908,” Nauka i tekhnika, Minsk: 1969.

Igor T. Zotkin and M. A. Tsikulin, “Simulation of the explosion of the Tunguska meteorite,” Sovetskaya Fizika, Doklady, 1966, No. 11, pp. 183-186.


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copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.