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Open letter to science editors
KRONOS Vol II, No. 2
THE FIRE CAME BY:
The Riddle of the Great Siberian Explosion
by John Baxter and Thomas Atkins
(Doubleday & Co., N. Y., 1976
165 pp., 39 illus., $7.95)
FREDERIC B. JUENEMAN
Shortly after quarter past seven, on Tuesday, June 30, 1908, as the Earth turned its
Asiatic face to the morning sun, a bolide streaked into our atmosphere. Seconds later it
exploded over the Siberian taiga, near the headwaters of the Podkamennaya (stony) Tunguska
river, in one of the most spectacular displays in modern history.
The fiery "chariot," carving a thick dusty path in its wake, came in from the southeast
at a low angle, and was viewed by passengers on the Trans-Siberian railroad as well as local
inhabitants. The flash of the explosion was seen in Kirensk 400 kilometers away, and the
shock wave was heavily felt in Vanavara 60 km from the blast area. (Impact was estimated at
oh 17m 11S Universal Time.) Halfway around the world sensitive seismographs recorded an
event, and barometric recorders took note of an atmospheric wave which passed twice around
our planet, while unsophisticated electromagnetic devices sensed an unusual electric
Not until 19 years later did the world-at-large begin to know or piece together the
bizarre events which occurred in the remote Siberian taiga. Headed by Leonid A. Kulik, of the
Soviet Academy, a small expedition laboriously made its way to the site of the explosion in the
Kimchu-Khushmo tributary basin (60° 55' N, 101° 57' E). And they found the tops of trees
snapped off nearly 60 km from ground-zero, while as they approached the epicenter they saw
fallen trees radially uprooted away from the blast area. Directly underneath, a stark, leafless
forest greeted their eyes, as those trees still left standing told of a firestorm which man himself
wouldn't create for almost another two decades.
But no fragments of this bolide were ever found.
Because the nights were so bright for nearly two months after the Tunguska fall that
one could read a newspaper unaided at midnight, it was conjectured that a comet had collided
with the Earth, and that its tail had preceded the nucleus in dissipating in our atmosphere.
Since the coefficient of transparency of the atmosphere had measurably decreased after the
fall, similar to the effects after the Rakata eruption on Krakatoa in 1883, it was estimated that
several million tons of cosmic pollution had been dumped into our air-mass.
Yet, as more expeditions converged on the Siberian wastes, where fearful Tungus
tribes said, "The fire came by," fewer and fewer answers were forthcoming and more
questions were generated. It became as a strange puzzle, enshrouded in mystery, and wrapped
in an enigma. The comet hypothesis became less tenable on mechanistic grounds, which also
ruled out a train of meteorites, as the path of the object, as described by observers in villages
and communities along its course, delineated an erratic trajectory. Finally, in 1961 and 1963
two fully instrumented Soviet Academy expeditions found something else: background
radioactivity was substantially higher than normal, there was evidence of heat-flash damage
everywhere, and secondary radiation shadows were found 200 km from the epicenter of the
blast – virtually identical to those observed at Hiroshima.
Apparently an unmistakeable thermonuclear explosion had taken place in 1908.
When news of this broke on a bemused world, a rash of speculations attempted to
explain the anomalous phenomenon. Usually conservative scientists searched into the more
arcane frontiers of theoretical physics for evidence of antimatter, which annihilates
energetically any normal matter with which it comes in contact. They discussed black holes, or
collapsars, coming in contact with Earth, which can distort the very fabric of space, while
inexorably pulling any nearby substance within itself, screaming its agony throughout the
spectrum of radiation.
Science fiction writers suggested that intelligent beings tried to communicate by laser,
or that a nuclear mishap took place on a super-technology spacecraft.
Baxter and Atkins, against a background of contemporary knowledge, trace the history
of investigation of the Tunguska fireball, showing the 3000 square kilometers of leveled forest,
the eyewitness descriptions of the searing heat-wave and series of explosions, followed by the
rising, boiling cloud of incandescence, and the subsequent black rains. We are shown the line
of reasoning by ballistics experts, who explain the radical difference between the expected
shape of the devastated area from the supersonic path of the object as compared to the
damaged taiga caused by the shock-wave of the detonation. We are gradually led, almost
unsuspectingly, to the conclusion that the most incredible explanation for the Tunguska event
is, through the weight of evidence, the most credible of all.
At the end of this fascinating tour, in a final recounting of the fateful event, we are
told: "A towering primordial fire, hotter than the interior of a star, splits the sky in two and
sears the landscape below for more than 30 miles.
"Then the great fire is gone, leaving behind only a massive column of black clouds that
will remain for days in the atmosphere and a scarred, shattered taiga that will forever hide its
But for whatever secrets are hidden in the Siberian Steppes, we are not left free from
conjecture, for in the penultimate conclusion we are asked momentarily to consider that we
have been visited. But with a sobering measure of skepticism, one might equally consider that
nature has shown us another phenomenom which has not begun to be characterised. Indeed, it
appears that we have not begun to exhaust the storehouse of nature's phenomenal riches.
Yet, we have to occasionally, almost compulsively, indulge ourselves in such
speculations, for even as no man is an island unto himself mankind cannot be all alone in such
a vast universe.