Our man in Tunguska

Fast forward to 30 June 1958. The face that peers out from the 40-kopeck stamp released today by the USSR is that of a worried, bespectacled, grey-bearded man wearing a fur hat. The stamp commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Tunguska fireball and the scientist who devoted the last two decades of his life to solving the riddle of the mysterious Siberian meteorite. He was the first scientist to visit the Tunguska site.

From 1927, when he led the first expedition to Tunguska, to his death in 1942 in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, Leonid Alekseyevich Kulik, a mineralogist and an authority on meteorites, believed that the Tunguska fireball was a giant meteorite. His four expeditions to the site from 1927 to 1939 (the planned fifth expedition was postponed because of the outbreak of the Second World War) failed to find any remains of the meteorite, which he firmly believed had been lying hidden somewhere in the explosion site.

'Where was the meteorite crater with its raised rim that should have been created at the moment of impact?' The question haunted Kulik. The worried face in the photograph on the 1958 stamp seems to ask the question:

Figure 3: Leonid Alekseyevich Kulik, the first Tunguska researcher. (Photo: Soviet Academy of Sciences.)

if it were not a giant meteorite, then what caused the great Siberian explosion? The mystery still eludes scientists. There are many theories, but no definitive answer. But first the man who made Tunguska famous.

Figure 4: The Soviet Union stamp honouring Kulik on the fiftieth anniversary of the Tunguska event in 1958.

The eldest son of a doctor, Kulik was born on 31 August 1883 in Tartu, Estonia. After graduating from high school with a gold medal, he studied at the St Petersburg Forestry Institute. In 1904 he was expelled for Bolshevik revolutionary activities, and spent the following year teaching mathematics and physics to adults in a night school. In 1906 he was imprisoned for a short time. After leaving prison, Kulik studied physics and mathematics at Kazan University. He married Lydia Ivanova in 1907, and his first daughter Helen was born in 1910 and his second daughter Irina in 1925.

In 1910 Kulik was again imprisoned for a short time and remained under police surveillance for two years. In 1912 he went to the Ural mountains where he worked as a forestry officer. There he met Vladimir I. Vernadsky, a highly respected geochemist and mineralogist, who was leading a group of geologists searching for mineral deposits. This chance meeting was the start of the metamorphosis of a revolutionary and an amateur poet into a pioneering scientist.

Vernadsky was so impressed with young Kulik's quick grasp of mineralogy that he predicted that this 'lover of minerals and nature' would one day become a major scientific researcher. Vernadsky arranged to have Kulik transferred from the forestry department to his own expedition, and eventually to the prestigious Mineralogical Museum of the Academy of Sciences at St Petersburg.

The start of the First Word War in 1914 put a stop to Kulik's rapid rise as a mineralogist. He was drafted into the Russian Army and fought in East Prussia. After the war he studied at the military academy and then continued working for the army as a scientist. During the October Revolution, Kulik moved to Tomsk, Siberia's major city, where he joined the Red Army and also taught mineralogy at Tomsk University.

After his discharge from the Red Army in 1920, Kulik returned to his museum post in St Petersburg. With the single-minded intensity that had characterised his life as a revolutionary, army officer and teacher, Kulik now applied himself to the study of meteorites and within a short period established himself as an authority on this relatively new branch of science. Also working at the museum at the time was Evgeniy L. Krinov, a highly respected mineralogist and an authority on meteorites. Krinov, who is best known for his authoritative book Giant Meteorites (published in English in 1966), called

Kulik 'a vibrant, cultured man around whom young people flocked'. Krinov also admired Kulik 'as an outspoken individual who was not afraid to voice his opinion when he was convinced he was right'. An admirable trait in any scientist.

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