The Mile-High Club —
By Dr. John C. (“Jack”) Adler, as told to Bill DeSmedt
So, when we left off last time, the first Russian expedition had, after a two-decade hiatus, finally reached the site of the 1908 Tunguska Event, only to find the mystery of what might have caused it still unresolved — for there was no crater.
Meanwhile, that selfsame mystery had begun to come to the attention of the wider world. More particularly, to the attention of British meteorologist Captain Charles J. P. Cave [Cave 1908]. Back in 1908, Captain Cave had been one of the folks who’d noticed some peculiar pressure readings on their barographs in the early morning hours of June thirtieth. He’d seen the auroras in the night skies over Northern Europe all throughout the following month too. So, when in 1929 he learned for the first time about what had gone on in Siberia that same June morning, Cave connected up the dots.
… Into an arrow pointing straight at the Tunguska River Basin.
A year or so later, Francis J.W. Whipple, head astronomer of London’s Kew Observatory put it all together [Whipple 1930]. Whipple was an authority on comets, like his namesake Fred L. Whipple at Harvard University, who would come up with the “Dirty Snowball” theory of cometary composition about twenty years later.
Anyway, our Whipple figured that, if Cave’s observations of the auroras and such were somehow tied in with this Siberian impact, then “the thought arises that the meteor was essentially a small comet and that the tail of the comet was caught by the atmosphere.”
A Soviet researcher by the name of I. S. Astapovich came to the same conclusion at about the same time [Astapovich 1934, 1935].
It was looking like Q.E.D. for sure.
At the time, Whipple confessed “I do not feel much confidence in this hypothesis” [Whipple 1934]. Turns out he needn’t have waffled so much: His “cometary hypothesis” was destined to become one of the top two contenders for an explanation to the Tunguska Event. As soon as one more missing ingredient was added to the mix.
That missing piece wasn’t all that long in coming. As I mentioned toward the end of the first blog, the Second World War had started off by imposing a forced moratorium on Tunguska research — and by bringing about the demise of its leading researcher, Leonid Kulik.
Now, in its closing days, the war also delivered a vital clue to the mystery.
Took things to a higher level, you might say.
Anywhere from two to ten miles high.
* * *
The key clue to the devastation at Tunguska was sitting there in plain sight amid the man-made devastation left by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Even so, we all might have missed it if the Soviet inspection team that toured the ruins in late 1945 hadn’t included a Russian engineer and part-time science fiction writer by the name of Aleksandr Pyotrovich Kazantsev.
Kazantsev was struck by the uncanny resemblance between the blackened but still-standing trees on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle (see the above photograph) and that “telegraph pole” forest Kulik had found standing upright at the center of the Tunguska blast zone.
Kazantsev went and drew two conclusions from this chance observation: one dead on target, the other, out in left field — way, way out!
Let’s 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 in a science fiction story called “Explosion” and got it published in a Soviet magazine [Kazantsev 1946].
He kept on writing about it, too, always in a fictionalized form, like his 1958 story “A Guest from the Cosmos.” Did Kazantsev actually believe any of this himself? Hard to say. But back in the fifties there were plenty of others who were ready to, some scientists among them.
What you’ve got to understand is, Soviet science back in the Stalinist era — and for a good while thereafter too — had this tendency to go off the deep end every now and again. That’s how you got Lysenko purging geneticists on grounds that chromosomes were mere metaphysics, for instance, or the 1955 Soviet Philosophical Dictionary defining cybernetics as a “bourgeois pseudoscience.”
And, then too, UFOs were a big thing back in the USSR, maybe even with the powers-that-be. Because, after all, necessarily being from a more advanced civilization, space aliens would’ve had to have been Communists, right?
So it was maybe to be expected that a Moscow junior-college astronomy teacher and part-time UFOlogist named Feliks Zigel started writing about Kazantsev’s science fiction as if it were science fact [Zigel’ 1961, 1968]. Or that physics professor Aleksei Zolotov claimed to have detected “abnormal radioactivity” at the Tunguska site [Zolotov 1969] 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: That peculiar pattern of destruction at Hiroshima — trees and buildings still standing at ground zero while everything lay flattened for miles around it — was due to the fact that the atomic explosion there had taken place, not at ground level, but eighteen hundred feet up in the air.
It was, in other words, an air-burst.
And that was the missing piece, or so it seemed. In the mid-sixties, Igor Zotkin took that germ of an idea and tested it as best he could [Zotkin & Tsikulin 1966]. By comparison with the computer simulation technology we can throw at the problem nowadays, Zotkin’s experiment was dirt-simple, almost embarrassingly so — but it worked. He built a scale model of the taiga using matchsticks for pine trees, strung a wire over it and then flew a lit firecracker down the wire. Kept varying the wire-guided trajectory, in an attempt to reproduce the pattern of the Tunguska treefall. His first time out, all Zotkin succeeded in doing was blowing his model to bits. But, after a little tinkering with the angle of approach, his aerial mini-explosions were duplicating the distinctive “butterfly” pattern that other researchers had mapped out at the blast 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.
[Astapovich 1934] I. S. Astapowitsch, “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.
[Astapovich 1935] S. Astapovich, “New Investigations of the Fall of the Great Siberian Meteorite of June 30, 1908,” Priroda, 1935, №9, pp. 70–72.
[Cave 1908] Charles J. P. Cave, “A remarkable solar halo,” Nature, July 16, 1908.
[Whipple 1930] 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.
[Whipple 1934] 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.
[Kazantsev 1946] Aleksandr P. Kazantsev, “Vzryv [Explosion],” Vokrug sveta [Around the world], 1946, No. 1, pp. 39-46.
[Zigel’ 1961] Feliks Yu. Zigel’, “Nuclear Explosion over the Taiga: Study of the Tunguska Meteorite,” Znanie-Sila [Knowledge is Strength], 1961, No. 12, pp. 24-27.
[Zigel’ 1968] Feliks Yu. Zigel’, “Unidentified Flying Objects,” Sovetskaya Zhizn’ [Soviet Life], February 1968, pp. 27-29.
[Zolotov 1969] Aleksei V. Zolotov., “The Problem of the Tunguska catastrophe of 1908,” Nauka i tekhnika [Science and Technology], Minsk: 1969.
[Zotkin & Tsikulin 1966] Igor T. Zotkin and M. A. Tsikulin, “Simulation of the explosion of the Tunguska meteorite,” Sovetskaya Fizika, Doklady [Soviet Physics: Reports], 1966, No. 11, pp. 183-186.