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To this day, no one knows for sure.

At first, most scientists assumed that a giant meteorite had crashed that summer morning in the trackless wastes of Central Siberia. That hypothesis stood unchallenged for the nearly two decades that separated the Event itself from the first on-site investigation of it — two decades during which scientific inquiry had languished in Russia, preempted by war, revolution, and socio-economic upheaval. The few expeditions that did set forth in the intervening years were forced to turn back when their Evenki guides refused to enter the blast zone, now declared taboo.

Finally, in 1927, a team of researchers headed by mineralogist Leonid Kulik reached the site of the impact, where the surrounding hills cupped the pestilential sloughs of the Great Swamp to form a landscape Kulik dubbed “The Cauldron.” The Epicenter itself was easy enough to identify: All around the Cauldron, across an area half the size of the state of Rhode Island, the ancient forests of the taiga had been scorched and flattened by the blast. Hundreds of thousands of trees had been toppled like matchsticks in all directions, forming a radial “throw-down” pattern in the shape of a gigantic target, with the impact site at the bulls-eye.

But, in reaching ground zero at last, Kulik had dealt a death blow to the meteorite hypothesis he himself championed. For there was no crater.

With a yield estimated in the tens of megatons — thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped decades later on Hiroshima — the explosion should have gouged a hole in the earth’s crust to dwarf the mile-wide, 500-foot-deep Great Barringer Crater in Arizona. Instead, what Kulik found at the very center of the blast pattern was a peat marsh contorted into a nightmare landscape. “The solid ground,” he wrote, “heaved outward from the spot in giant waves, like waves in water,” as if stressed by some unimaginable force.

With on-site observations all but ruling out the meteorite-impact hypothesis, the Tunguska Event became fair game for ever more bizarre conjectures: The collision of the earth with fragments of a comet? A solar plasmoid ejected by the sun? The crash of a nuclear-powered alien spaceship? A chunk of infalling antimatter?

But perhaps most outlandish of all was the explanation concocted some six and a half decades after the event, by two young astrophysicists at the University of Texas in Austin. Writing in the September 14, 1973 issue of Nature, Albert A. Jackson, IV and Michael P. Ryan, Jr. had the audacity to theorize that what had struck the earth in June 1908 was a remnant of the Big Bang. That the bizarre circumstances of the impact all pointed to a cause that could only have been engendered in the unimaginable heat and pressure attending the birth of the universe itself.

— That the Tunguska Event was nothing less than a collision between the earth and a submicroscopic black hole.


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