A tale of Tunguska

The Tunguska Event of 1908: a comet (or something similar) smacks into darkest Siberia, disintegrating before hitting the ground. The power of a thousand Hiroshimas levels a million trees, turning them to matchsticks either lit or unlit. In the middle of the radial shape of falling trees, a few surprised reindeer are vaporized.

People a hundred miles away wonder at the flash, the roar, the sudden wind; those closer cower as a roar like nothing else spooks their animals, blows their homes over, and chars any exposed bit of skin. Ears bleeding, legs shaking, eyes stinging, they rise to their feet and —

Well, according to one G. K. Kulesh, head of the Kirensk Meteorological Station at the time,

the peasants of the village [of Korelina] were so stunned by the crashes that they sent a deputation to town to the local archpriest to ask if the end of the world was beginning, [and] how they were preparing for it in Kirensk.

I have no knowledge of the archbishop’s answer.

Now, I have a memory to share about the Tunguska thing — no, I’m not that old — as sometime (I think) in the late Eighties I, very young, came across a book about it; overall a nice book, but it evolved into wild speculation of what it might have been like to be a troupe of poor aliens, their starship careening into the Earth’s atmosphere, until — boom!

The significance of this memory? Well, at the time the mere fact it was set down in a book — a book! — made it almost true, though it was presented as speculation.

My reaction to Däniken was similar: sure, he was hyperbolic, but it was a book — how could it not be true? Surely no-one could get a book published if it wasn’t true.

Well, I was very young, and I grew out of that. It hurt. It would be nice, so very nice, if you could trust everything printed down, but nice doesn’t make true. And — so I’ve noticed — doubting everything is a very good way of adjusting your philosophies: while credulity just makes you stick to where you are; skepticism forces you to roam for something better.

And — as examples like the Skeptoid podcast prove — it’s possible to appreciate a good tale while recognizing that, uh, that’s not how things really are. There’s one part of prettiness in the wild tale, and a second, equal or more, in finding out how it came to be told and how things really are. For an example, see Dunning’s dissection of the Dyathlov Pass mystery: that’s just beautiful, as is his word on Roswell.

Oh, one more thing — since I like weird tales, this phrase in the Wikipedia article just seemed to scream for a bit of fantastic fiction: “If there were any early expeditions to the site, the records were likely to have been lost during the subsequent chaotic years — World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Russian Civil War.” Not that you would have to involve UFOs — I see plenty enough potential in scientists tangling with crazed Siberian reindeer-cultists, corrupt isolationist noblemen and scars in the earth… and just maybe an archbishop that has decided that yes, this is it; pack your bags and hold onto your hats, the end has come.

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