In his book Siberia: The New Frontier (1969), the American author George St George, who spent most of his childhood in Siberia, describes his account of travels there in the mid-1960s. In the book he also makes a brief reference to Tunguska. An excerpt:
Some investigators seem to believe that whatever flashed across the taiga was intelligently directed because they feel only this explains the changing course of its flight. Was it then some sort of interplanetary vehicle in trouble, perhaps intentionally destroyed by its crew? Quite a few serious scientists seem to believe so, including some Soviet ones like Felix Zigel. Every serious UFO investigation organization throughout the world lists the Tunguska explosion in connection with possible interplanetary visitors who presumably have visited and studied our planet.
I remember this matter being discussed in our home in Chita, in Transbaikalia, probably in 1914, by my father and his friend, a doctor who claimed to have visited the site of the Tunguska explosion a few months after it had occurred. The doctor had a detailed diagram showing the zig-zag course of the falling body over some 100 miles (where the tops of trees were sheared off) before the actual explosion. He also said that some unusual glow was observed each night over the epicenter of the explosion for weeks after it had occurred, suggesting some sort of radiation. My father, who was interested in the so-called 'flying saucer' lore even then, was convinced that interplanetary visitors were using some parts of the taiga as their terrestrial base. He drew this conclusion from Evenk legends ... Unfortunately all my father's voluminous notes on the subject were lost in China where he died in a Buddhist monastery in 1928.
St George's account is intriguing because it mentions a visit to the site by his father's doctor friend in 1914. This is one of the few known accounts of a visit by a non-Evenki person before Kulik's first expedition in 1927. You can draw another conclusion from this account: even in the dark days of the Tsarist empire, Russians were as fascinated by UFOs as Americans are today. St George also notes that 'no dangerous radiation has been found there at present, so perhaps Tunguska will in time become a familiar tourist attraction as the Arizona crater is today'. The phrase 'no dangerous radiation' is interesting, as it reflects the preoccupation of many Soviet scientists in the late 1950s and early 60s with the idea that the Tunguska site was awash with radiation. The main proponent of this idea was the geophysicist Aleksei Zolotov.
Zolotov was as enigmatic as the Tunguska event itself. In a 1978 special programme to celebrate the 70 th anniversary of the event, Moscow Radio described him as 'another noted investigator'. However, in its 70th-anniversary report on Tunguska, the journal Nature saw him in a different light: 'His name turns up unfailingly in any discussion of the problem, and his theories, however bizarre to the scientific establishment, do at least get published . his own academic background seems obscure, and according to one physicist who worked for many years on the Tunguska site, Zolotov was originally simply an oil technologist, co-opted on to an expedition for his knowledge of the local terrain!' In the scientific literature of the time he is referred to as a 'prominent geophysicist'. Ten years later, in 1988, by the time he had led twelve Tunguska expeditions, Nature agreed that Zolotov had 'gradually emerged as an authority in his own right'.
One area of Zolotov's authority was his atomic theory of the Tunguska explosion. He garnished Kazantsev's glass of 'exploding spaceship' vodka with a twist of lemon - the explosion was not an accident. In 1975, when he was head of a Soviet scientific team studying the phenomenon, he suggested that the aliens deliberately detonated the spaceship simply to let us know of their existence. The actual area of destruction was 'an amazing demonstration of pinpoint accuracy and humanitarian-ism', he pointed out.
In 1980, the American science writer T.R. LeMair expanded upon Zolotov's 'humanitarianism' idea in his book Stones from the Stars. He claimed that the time of the Tunguska explosion seemed 'too fortuitous for an accident'. If the Siberian missile had met Earth just 4 hours and 47 minutes later, it would have scored a bull's-eye hit on the seat of the tsarist empire; and a tiny change of course would have devastated populated areas of China and India. He suggested that 'the flaming object was being expertly navigated' using Lake Baikal as a reference point: 'The body approached from the south, but when about 140 miles from the explosion point, while over Kezhma, it abruptly changed course to the east. Two hundred and fifty miles later, while above Preobrazhenka, it reversed its heading toward the west. It exploded above the taiga.' A thorough scientific review of eyewitness accounts suggests otherwise: the object did not change its course as it moved across the sky from south-southeast to north-northwest.
Zolotov's major contribution to the Tunguska folklore is not in deciding whether the spaceship exploded by accident or by design, but in the radioactivity it added to the explosion site. He was, in fact, simply cloaking Kazantsev's science fiction ideas in scientific respectability. While the images of 'the fireball and the mushroom cloud' of an atomic bomb made Kazantsev see a spaceship soaring in the Tunguska sky, the images of people dying with atomic bomb radiation convinced him that the 'survivors' of Tunguska were also exposed to Hiroshima-like radiation doses. 'It could be nothing other than radioactivity', explains one of the characters in his science fiction novel Visitor from the Cosmos, when a man, shortly after examining the blast area, dies in excruciating pain as if from an invisible fire.
Like Kazantsev, Zolotov had also won Zigel's support. In Znanyie-Sila magazine in December 1959, Zigel discussed the results of Zolotov's expeditions of the past three years. During these expeditions, among other things, he compared the effects of the ballistic waves caused by the velocity of the Tunguska body in the atmosphere and the blast waves caused by the explosion itself. Zolotov's study of trees - those that had remained standing and on which the traces of the effects of both waves remained - showed that ballistic waves arrived from the west and broke only small branches, whereas the blast from the north broke larger branches. Zigel estimated the velocity of the body in its final stage of flight to be a relatively low 4,300 kilometres per hour; therefore, the explosion was due to the internal energy of the body, not the energy of its motion. He concluded that the blast waves caused most of the devastation.
Zolotov had found trees some 17 kilometres from the blast centre which had been subjected to heat and started to burn. He ruled out a natural forest fire. He said that to start a fire in a living tree, the heat energy must be between 60 and 100 calories per square centimetre. Similarly, to have caused a sensation of burning in eyewitnesses 70 kilometres away in Vanavara, the energy must have been not less than 0.6 calories per square centimetre. He estimated the heat energy of the explosion to be about 3.5 megatons. As the estimates of the total energy of the blast were also within this range, he reasoned, the blast was nuclear.
Evidence soon started appearing to support Zolotov's popular story: mysterious scabs suffered by surviving reindeer (burns from hot ash?), tree rings suggesting enormous growth rate after the blast (normal after wildfires?), high levels of radioactive carbon-14 in the soil and peat collected from the region (not enough to support the idea of a nuclear explosion?), and so on.
Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed us the horrors of radioactivity, some radioactivity happens constantly all around us. Small amounts of radioactive atoms are found in the soil we stand on, the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. This is known as background radiation. Our daily dose of background radiation varies from place to place, but average annual levels typically range from about 1.5 to 3.5 millisieverts (150 to 350 millirems). Eighty per cent of this average comes from natural sources such as indoor radon, food and drink, and rocks and soil. The remaining 20 per cent comes from artificial radiation sources, primarily X-rays. From the study of cancers in survivors of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists have estimated that they were instantaneously exposed to thousands of times the average annual background radiation dose, which continued to increase from long-term fallout.
Most expeditions to Tunguska in the late 1950s and early 60s concentrated on finding the effects of radioactivity on the site. After the 1958 expedition, the Soviet Academy of Sciences decided against any new expedition, but to concentrate on the study of rock and soil samples already collected. This decision led to the formation of the Interdisciplinary Independent Tunguska Expedition (IITE, known as KSE in Russian). The KSE was formed in 1958 in the Siberian city of Tomsk, under the leadership of Gennady Plekhanov, a physician as well as an engineer at the Betatron Laboratory of the Tomsk Medical Institute. KSE was, in fact, formed to discount spaceship theories. The founders even jokingly suggested that 'we must find a nozzle from the spaceship'.
Marek Zbik of the University of South Australia has described the first KSE expedition in the Bulletin of the Polish Academy of Sciences. The expedition, led by Plekhanov, included medical students who collected information to test the hypothesis about post-radiation illness among the Evenki people. 'No trace of such illness was detected', Zbik writes. 'They also planned to collect bones from the corpses of Evenki people who had died after the catastrophe ... It was not easy to find such corpses because the Evenki people kept the burial sites a secret.' However, students were successful in examining the bones of people who had died during the smallpox epidemic of 1915. The results of these limited investi gations did not confirm an increased radioactivity in the bones tested.
Plekhanov also collected 300 soil samples and nearly 100 plants. An analysis of these samples in Tomsk showed that 'in the centre of the catastrophe radioactivity is one and a half to two times higher than 30 or 40 kilometres away from the centre'. Plekhanov refused to speculate on the cause of this radioactivity. In another study, he compared the bright nights seen in parts of Europe and Asia after the Tunguska explosion with those following the high-altitude nuclear tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in 1958. He found that both explosions were followed by similar atmospheric effects. In short, Plekhanov failed to find any 'spaceship nozzle'. He left the KSE in 1963 but remains active in research on Tunguska.
Kirill P. Florenskiy and Vassilii Fesenkov, two of the main proponents of the comet theory in the 1960s, violently opposed Zolotov's nuclear explosion ideas. 'There are no planets with a highly organized life from which such a ship could descend', Fesenkov told The New York Times in 1960. 'This suggestion has now been rejected by most of the Soviet scientific community', the Times added.
Florenskiy devoted most of his time on the 1961-62 expedition to trying to disprove Zolotov. He concluded that the radioactivity at the centre of the blast was within the range of fluctuations of the present background radiation, although he agreed that it was somewhat higher at the centre than it was a few kilometres away. Most of the radioactive atoms were concentrated in the upper layers of soil and peat. He suggested that they had been accumulated from global fallout from atomic and hydrogen bomb tests. On the matter of accelerated tree growth in the devastated area, Florenskiy said that the growth was not due to genetic mutation from radiation but was 'only the normal acceleration of second growth after fires had taken place'.
More recently, in 2001 Academician Nikolai Vasilyev said: 'The results of a search for radioactivity in the region of the Tunguska explosion negate a nuclear hypothesis. It should be noted, however, that a search for traces of radioactivity fallout half a century after a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere is a challenging task, especially taking into account contamination from recent atmospheric nuclear tests.'
The Russian scientists Victor Zhuravlev and A.N. Dmitriev have developed a plasmoid hypothesis for the Tunguska body: a sort of bottle filled with plasma and surrounded by a strong magnetic field. This 100,000-tonne plasmoid was ejected from the Sun. Vitalii Bronshten, the major proponent of the modern comet theory, who died in 2004, was highly critical of this attempt 'to disguise a spaceship as a plasma container'. 'This is a typical ad hoc hypothesis', he said. 'We use this example to demonstrate that all ad hoc hypotheses, a great number of which have been proposed to explain the Tunguska event, are useless.'
Zhuravlev disagrees. Three graphs of magnetic activity found in 1959 at the Irkutsk Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory show a magnetic storm that started soon after the Tunguska event and lasted for about four hours. The magnetograms have nothing in common with those caused by meteorites, but have all the distinctive features of the disturbances of the geomagnetic field that are generated by nuclear bombs. The Tunguska object, says Zhuravlev, was 'a cosmic object the composition and structure of which is unknown to astronomers and physicists'.
The images of a nuclear spaceship exploding above the Tunguska taiga remain vivid in many researchers' minds in the 21st century. One of them is Vladimir V. Rubtsov of the Research Institute on Anomalous Phenomena in the Ukraine. His 'ad hoc hypothesis' is the so-called battle model: in 1908 there was an aerospace battle between two alien spaceships, after which one of them survived and flew back to space. 'Perhaps one day in the future it will be possible to deduce a convincing model of the phenomenon directly from facts accumulated', he writes in a newsletter of the Institute.
Another is Yuri Lavbin of the Tunguska Spatial Phenomenon Foundation in Krasnoyarsk, a group of physicists, geologists and mineralogists who have been organising regular expeditions to the explosion site since 1994. Lavbin believes that the explosion was caused by the collision of an extra-terrestrial spaceship with a comet. In the summer of 2004 Lavbin announced that his team had found two strange black metallic blocks near the site. These 50-kilogram blocks, Lavbin claimed, are the remnants of a spaceship. 'Their material recalls an alloy used to make space rockets, while at the beginning of the 20th century only planes made of plywood existed', he said. The meteorite committee of the Russian Academy of Sciences has dismissed Lavbin's claim, saying that in Siberia where oil geologists regularly work 'you can find a heap of fragments of various machines'.
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