The year

In 1908 Russia was a country caught in political unrest and social upheaval. The investigation of an earthquake or a meteorite in remote Siberia was the last priority of the Russian authorities in the then capital St Petersburg.

The First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution were to occupy the country's attention for many years. The impact site was in Russia's most remote and rugged region and no effort was made to launch a scientific expedition there. And then the 'tongue of flame' that engulfed the beautiful Siberian taiga was forgotten.

As the bright night skies disappeared from Europe, scientists' and newspapers' attention also moved from this strange phenomenon to other scientific and technological marvels of the year. The year's rich harvest includes Hermann Minkowski's definition of time as the 'fourth dimension'; Ernest Rutherford's detection of a single atom (Rutherford also won the 1908 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in radioactivity); Herman Anschutz-Kampfe's invention of the gyroscope, a compass without a magnetic needle; Ikeda Kikunae's discovery of the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG); Sullivan Thomas's invention of tea bags; the discovery of the first large deposit of petroleum in Persia (now Iran), marking the beginning of the Middle East oil boom; 'Count von Zeppelin and His Triumphant Airship' (the headline of a major feature article in The New York Times of 5 July 1908); and, of course, the introduction of Ford's assembly line that rolled out the Model T, the first mass-produced car (which came with Henry Ford's famous promise: 'Any color - so long as it's black.'

The year also had plenty to offer to those who liked their science a little bit spicy. There were stories of captains spooked by 'magnetic clouds' descending on their ships. The provincial American newspapers, as they still are, were full of reports of 'alien ships' racing at fantastic speeds. (The term 'flying saucer' was coined in June 1947, when an American pilot named Kenneth Arnold saw nine bright discs in the sky near Mount Rainier in Washington. He said the objects were moving like 'a saucer skipping across the water'.) All this paled into insignificance when the passengers on a steamship in the Gulf of Mexico described in detail the tale of a '200-feet long sea serpent' rising from the sea, which they had seen with their own eyes.

In the history of natural catastrophes, 1908 is remembered for two reasons: the Messina earthquake and the official introduction of Morse code SOS (... — ...) for the international signal of extreme distress. The most violent earthquake recorded in Europe's history killed 150,000 people in southern Italy and Sicily. The epicentre was Messina, Sicily's second biggest town. Had Messina been hit by the Tunguska fireball, the devastation would have been unimaginable. What if the fireball had hit a large city like St Petersburg or London? The sound of the SOS would still be echoing in humanity's ears.

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