Two Good Ol’ Boys …

Got a special treat cued up for you today, folks: the inside story of how what we’re calling the Jackson-Ryan Hypothesis came to be — as told (in part) by the men themselves: Albert A. Jackson IV and Michael P. Ryan Jr.!

* * *

It was summer of 1973, sixty-five years to the day, give or take, from the Tunguska Event itself, that two young American physicists from my old alma mater the University of Texas at Austin sent the British science journal Nature what had to be one of the crazier ideas ever submitted to that august publication (which is saying a bunch!).

Because Al Jackson and Mike Ryan came right out and asked the question—

“Was the Tungus Event due to a Black Hole?”

Meaning what? Meaning that it was a black hole that went and hit the earth back in 1908? But how could that be? How could the earth have survived that kind of a collision? Wouldn’t our favorite planet have been torn to pieces and swallowed up whole?

Nah — you’re thinking of the big black holes, two or three times the mass of the sun on up. Jackson and Ryan had something a whole lot smaller in mind.

Seems that, a couple years earlier, in 1971, Stephen Hawking had come out with the notion that real little black holes — massing “only” a trillion tons or so — could have been created in the Big Bang (we’ll see how later).

— So now, we’ve got one of these “primordial black hole” thingees plowing into the earth?

Kind of makes you wonder who thinks this stuff up, doesn’t it? Well, meet A. A. Jackson IV, Ph.D. — Al, to his friends. Al comes from a long line of Dallas Jacksons. The family goes way back in these parts, so far back that the place where the late billionaire H. L. Hunt built his mansion was named, you guessed it, Jackson Point.

Al’s an astrophysicist by trade. He taught all over the place before returning home to Texas. There he’s working for NASA, training space-shuttle pilots and helping come up with the Nemesis or “dark star” theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs. He also once snuck me into the Johnson Space Center, where I docked the Space Shuttle with the International Space Station (in simulation, of course).

Anyway, apart from his occasional clandestine activities, Al’s credits include a being a Fellow of the Lunar and Planetary Institute. And he’s written some pretty good science fiction in his time, too.

In fact, that’s what his critics say he was doing that day in the spring of 1973 when he went to his friend and fellow grad student Mike Ryan with a crazy idea.

Here, let’s let Al tell you in his own words — Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr. Albert A. Jackson, the Fourth:

I’ll give you a little bit of history as to how this all came about: When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas from 1970 to 1975 working on my PhD in physics it turns out that Mike was a post-doc and we used to talk together quite a bit. Well, we talked about many things, and I remember that what had happened was that I had read a paper by Stephen Hawking about the production of what are called primordial black holes and the possibility that substellar-sized black holes could be made in the birth of the universe.

For some reason, which I cannot exactly recall, I got to thinking about — well, so, these small black holes would be traversing the universe, the galaxy, and what if one of them encountered the earth?

So I told this to Mike. And actually the reason I remembered the Tunguska Event is a curious thing …

In other words, Al wasn’t thinking about just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill encounter between a black hole and the earth. He was already thinking specifically about the Tunguska Event. But why? — What brought Tunguska to mind?

To figure that one out, you’d have to go back thirteen years earlier, to the 1960 World Science Fiction Convention, where Al, just a college freshman at the time, ran into a living legend: science popularizer Willy Ley.

It had been Willy’s Conquest of Space book that had gotten Al interested in science in the first place. And now, here’s Al, sitting on the banquet-room floor, hanging out with one of his boyhood heroes, in the middle of the WorldCon Masquerade and Willy’s talking about an article he’s working on for Galaxy science fiction magazine. An article about someplace way off in Siberia — a place Al had never even heard of.

I was nineteen years old and at the World Science Fiction Convention in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and I happened to be sitting on the ballroom floor during the Costume Ball and Willy Ley happened to be there — for you that don’t know, one of the most famous science writers of all time — and he told me this story: he said that he was going to write an article about the Tunguska Event that he had been following for several years. And it turns out that some Soviet engineer had written this science-fiction story in the late forties about the Tunguska Event being produced by an alien spaceship that blew its reactor trying to land on the earth.

That Soviet engineer was, of course, Aleksandr Kazantsev — author of “Explosion” and  “A Guest from the Cosmos”— who we met briefly in our first soapbox seminar. Willy then told Al about where Kazantsev’s science fiction story had gone from there:

In roughly the late fifties, two Soviet journalists who were drunk that night had known about this story and they wrote an article that what had really happened was that an alien civilization thought that they would send us a message by dropping a nuclear weapon at the Tunguska site.

To hear Willy Ley tell it, the whole Tunguska-as-Crashed-Spaceship thing had become as big in Soviet UFO circles as Roswell was becoming here.

Needless to say, that all made an impression on the nineteen-year-old. Al never forgot Willy’s Tunguska tales, and some thirteen years later they were to blossom into a scientific paper — for better or worse.


All quotes from Al Jackson are courtesy of Albert A. Jackson, IV, as recorded at the Johnson Space Center Amateur Astronomical Society meeting and Singularity launch party, November 2004.