Strange Doings on Tunguska

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If any people are more gullible about Unidentified Flying Objects than Americans, it’s the Russians. And if any group of professionals is more gullible than Russians about UFOs, it’s the journalists. This truism was confirmed again this month when, around the world, wire services and other press outlets straight-facedly reported a new claim that a UFO had been involved in the great Tunguska catastrophe.

Tunguska? That’s the then-uninhabited region in Siberia where in 1908 a mammoth explosion leveled and charred trees and killed wildlife over an area of 800 square miles. That night in northern Europe and western Russia, the skies glowed with an eerie light and in London, for example, it was light enough outside to read a newspaper. The lone human being in the area, a trapper living near the periphery of the blast, was blown off the porch of his shack, but survived. Had the explosion occurred over London, say, or New York, the casualties would have been counted in the hundreds of thousands.

Most scientists today believe that the Tunguska event was caused by an asteroid or a comet that heated so rapidly upon plunging into the atmosphere that it blew up some five miles above the surface with an explosive force of 10 to 15 megatons. But that conclusion is far too rational for Russians like scientist Yuri Lavbin, who heads the Tunguska Space Phenomenon public state fund. It was Lavbin who in July announced that he would lead an expedition to Siberia and stated, “We intend to find proof that not a meteorite but an extraterrestrial spaceship crashed with the Earth.”

Some might suggest that Lavbin was predisposed to making a remarkable discovery. And that is precisely what happened. A Russian scientific team headed by Lavbin scoured the Tunguska site early in August and breathlessly announced that it had found the remnants of an extraterrestrial spacecraft, in the form of a large metallic block. After sending a 50 kilogram chunk of the block to a laboratory for testing, Lavbin chose not to await the results. “I can make an official announcement that we were saved by some forces of a superior civilization,” he proclaimed. “They exploded this enormous meteorite headed toward us with tremendous speed. Now this great object that caused the meteorite to explode is found at last.”

His announcement was greeted by loud raspberries from reputable scientists. Interviewed by Space.com, British researcher Benny Peiser, who runs the CCNet website, a scholarly forum devoted largely to asteroid impacts and other potential natural threats, called the Russian report “a rather stupid hoax.” He was equally critical of the press: “It’s a rather sad comment on the current state of anything-goes attitudes among some science correspondents that such blatant rubbish is being reported."

All this came as no surprise to science writer James Oberg. In his 1982 book, “UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries,” he had traced the origins of the Russian Tunguska UFO obsession to a science fiction writer named Kazantsev, who wrote a story attributing the mighty blast to an exploding nuclear power plant of a spaceship from Mars. Other Russians took the bait. Astronomy lecturer Feliks Zigel, who was also a flying saucer enthusiast, became a spokesman for the “spaceship” theory of Tunguska, and a scientist named Aleksey Zolotov, began claiming, almost annually but without proof, that he had found radioactivity at the blast site.

Oberg predicted that the Tunguska spacecraft story, in various forms, would endure and that gullible members of the press would continue to be hoodwinked by Russian UFOlogists. More than two decades later, his prediction stands unchallenged.