The Fire Came By
The Riddle of the Great Siberian Explosion
[Tunguska 1908]

by John Baxter
& Thomas Atkins

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
introduction by Isaac Asimov

Doubleday: New York, 1976

165 pages; photographs & maps

June 2008


It is cosmically ironic that the most spectacular natural event in the Twentieth Century occurred in a region so empty that very few were affected, and so isolated that no one else realized until 1921 that there had been a giant explosion on 30 June 1908 in central Siberia. It's also fortunate, of course, that it was near no city. As it was, visual effects were prominent over a vast range across and beyond Russia, though not understood:

According to the London Times of July 4, 1908, "The remarkable ruddy glows which have been seen on many nights lately have attracted much attention, and have been seen over an area extending as far as Berlin." The cause is assigned to "some condition of the atmosphere," such as occurred after Krakatoa, although "no volcanic outburst of abnormal violence has been reported lately." The Times notes that the recent "abnormal" glows appear in the sky only after the fading of twilight: the sky grows partially dark and then brightens again with "deep, lurid color."

On July 5, in a New York Times report from Britain entitled "Like Dawn at Midnight," a correspondent writes:

Following sunsets of exceptional beauty and twilight effects remarkable even in England, the northern sky at midnight became light blue, as if the dawn were breaking, and the clouds were touched with pink in so marked a fashion that police headquarters was rung up by several people who believed that a big fire was raging in the north of London.

In the London suburbs citizens are drawn into the streets to view the frightening cosmic phenomenon. ... shortly after midnight on July 1 the sky was so bright that "it was possible to read large print indoors ... at about 1:30 A.M., the room was quite light as if it had been day; the light in the sky was then more dispersed and was a fainter yellow."

John Baxter and Thomas Atkins in The Fire Came By tell the history of the discovery, analysis, and ongoing speculation concerning the explosion in the forested region of the Stony Tunguska River, well north of the Trans-Siberian Railway (but close enough to be felt there) and northwest of Lake Baikal.

The authors describe this still-remote region, characterize the scientists who explored the huge blasted area, and analyze pros and cons of the rival theories put forth by all manner of interested folks. Baxter and Atkins tell of the key persons, starting with eyewitnesses. Leonid A. Kulik was the first Soviet scientist to investigate the Tunguska blast, with expeditions beginning in 1927. One of the more inspired and enduring theorists was the scientist and science-fiction writer Aleksander Kazantsev. Baxter and Atkins are aware of the mutual impingement of science and science fiction; I was glad to see here a mention of Jack Williamson's novel Seetee Shock, about the challenges of contraterrene matter.

Comparisons with Meteor Crater in Arizona and the Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia help point up the uniqueness of the Tunguska event; and why the process of science (I broadly include astronomical, geophysical, and armchair-entertainment) considering Tunguska still generates such diverse theories.

I stress that The Fire Came By is a history of a scientific process, since although Baxter and Atkins offer and support a particular theory, it is the history of the process that makes their book enjoyable and informative. Theories about the Tunguska Meteor have been legion: meteorite or comet or atomic or contraterrene or black hole; airburst or ground burst or eruption. Pet theories continue to ignite and fragment. (I tend to have wild theories.) We may be tempted to say, Zeus strike all these theorists of insufficient data!

The theories are interesting, occasionally fascinating. But science is a method of approach in thought and action; and the history of such processes as the Tunguska investigation, with all its investigations, experiments, and theories, is the history of science.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

Thanks to VHF.

Beatty, Petersen, & Chaikin's
The New Solar System

Amir Alexander
writes about Tunguska for
The Planetary Society

Willy Ley provides a good analysis of "conventional" impacts in The Meteorite Craters, with cross-sections of craters, analysis of angles, estimates of weights, and so on. Also, in the essay "The Sound of the Meteors" in his collection Another Look at Atlantis, Ley analyzes what we might hear, and when, from a meteoric passage in the atmosphere.

Robert A. Heinlein briefly discusses the antimatter theory of the Tunguska impact in the essay "Paul Dirac, Antimatter, and You" in his collection Expanded Universe.


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