Saturday, February 1, 2020

Examining the Tunguska Event via newspaper headlines

In late June 1908, the so-called Tunguska Event was a tremendous explosion in central Russia that flattened tens of millions of trees and devastated the landscape for more than 800 square miles. The best explanation offered by modern science is that an incoming meteor, about 130 feet wide, exploded a few miles above the region (instead of making impact with Earth). The extreme remoteness of the region meant that the estimated number of human casualties was low. But that remoteness also meant that scientists were unable to examine the affected area until the late 1920s, after the country had become the Soviet Union.

Because the Soviets had the most opportunities to study the area, one of the best English-language non-fiction books about the explosion is by a former Soviet scientist, Vladimir Rubtsov. It's a 2008 book titled The Tunguska Mystery, and it's the one I'd recommend, as a layperson, if you want to learn a little more about Tunguska.

Beyond that, I thought it would be interesting to dive into and clip some headlines and passages related to how Western media wrote about Tunguska after it become more common knowledge in the 1920s and beyond.

This first one, from the December 14, 1928, edition of the Battle Creek (Michigan) Enquirer, concerns Leonid Kulik's attempts to reach the Tunguska site.

Up next is a clipping from the January 11, 1929, Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

And then skipping ahead to our local paper, The Gazette and Daily of York, Pennsylvania, on April 6, 1939.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the topic of Tunguska was revived to infuse even more terror into the Cold War. Some headlines:

  • Astronomers Fear Falling Meteor Could Be Trigger for Missile War (Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1958)
  • Universe Believed Bombarded By Masses MIghtier Than H-Bombs (Alamogordo Daily News, November 22, 1959)
  • Suggests Meteor Explosion Might Trigger Nuclear War (Des Moines Tribune, October 12, 1960)
  • Meteor Might Spark Atom War — As Reds Well Know (Sunday Mail Gazette, Charleston, West Virginia, October 23, 1960)

And then things got weirder, as per this wire story in the September 4, 1963, edition of The Times in Shreveport, Louisiana.

And there was this headline in the August 28, 1968, edition of the New Castle (Pennsylvania) News: "Comet, cosmic dust cloud, anti-matter, or spaceship? Russian scientists speculate on the causes of the Tungussky phenomenon." Methinks they had been watching a little too much Star Trek.

A 1976 book by John Baxter, The Fire Came By: The Riddle Of The Great Siberian Explosion, upped the ante on spaceships, black holes and other trippy theories that surely made Erich von Däniken proud. A June 1976 headline about Baxter's book in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette states: "Spaceship Linked to 1908 Mystery."

So many shenanigans. And then Ghostbusters hit theaters in 1984 with its obscure throwaway line to Tunguska being an "interdimensional cross rip," whatever that is. In his note at the front of The Tunguska Mystery, Rubtsov thankfully takes a much more level-headed approach to the topic:
"Theories that attempt to explain what happened at Tunguska in 1908 must use all the facts established by hundreds of investigators (scientists and their assistants) on numerous expeditions since the 1920s. Some theories have come close to doing so, although none has fully satisfied the available data, much of which have only been recorded in Russian. Readers will soon see that this subject is much more complex than was once thought, and that the interdisciplinary approach seems to offer the only way of knowing what actually hit Earth with such force in 1908."


  1. I remember reading "The Fire Came By" back in the 80's when I was fascinated will all things paranormal and space-related. It bothered me that Dan Aykroyd referred to it as the Tunguska blast of 1909 rather than 1908. Hey, I was (am) a nerd.

  2. having an interest in such things, Dan Aykroyd would have known the correct year, but his speech needed a cadence, and "1909" with its assonance, provides a more-pleasing and assertive final sound than the open-mouthed "1908." In other words, he was making use of literary license.

    1. I love your reasoning for this, Anonymous. I think you're right, that it does make the line hit harder. One area in which Ghostbusters is rarely topped is in the top-notch comic delivery of lines.

    2. Akroyd wouldnt sacrifice accuracy for a more pleasing sound.

  3. ... whereas, my failing to capitalize "having" is strictly a mistake.