- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
If a meteor falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to see it … you can count on there being conspiracy theories for decades to follow. That was the case the last time something like this happened in Siberia. On June 30, 1908, something streaked across the sky above Russia and exploded over a densely wooded area near the Tunguska River — much like the airburst explosion over Chelyabinsk this morning. The explosion in 1908, though, was considerably larger — it leveled trees over an area several miles wide and the shockwave registered as a large earthquake.
Most scientists believe the Tunguska event, as it came to be known, was caused by a fragment of a comet that entered the atmosphere and exploded (people under the object’s path through the atmosphere reported seeing a residual glow for days afterwards — a phenomenon that could be explained by the composition of a comet, which is a mixture of ice and frozen gasses, rather than a rockier asteroid).
Setting Occam’s razor aside, people found more outlandish explanations for the blast — as is already happening in Russia now. This morning’s meteor had barely made it across the sky before at least one Russian was suggesting — nervously, but apparently in jest — that it had been a Chinese missile.
The leader of Russia’s nationalist Liberal Democrat party, meanwhile, immediately accused the United States of being behind the explosion, which he claimed was a weapons test, not a meteorite. (He went further, to speculate that the call Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov didn’t take from Secretary of State John Kerry was about the pending explosion, and not the North Korean nuclear test and Syrian civil war.)
A number of other non-reputable sources are claiming that the airburst was caused not by the natural fragmentation of the meteor (what is known as a "bolide"), but rather by the Russian military successfully intercepting the meteor with a missile. (I’d like to offer my thanks to Russia Today for posting all these crazy things. Don’t listen to what everyone else says about you, RT. Never change.)
Russia, of course, tends toward the superstitious. As Max Fisher at the Washington Post points out, the new-age pseudoscience Mayan apocalypse slated for Dec. 21, 2012 was reported seriously by Russian media and caused a minor panic in the days leading up to the uneventful occasion. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s speculation today about Chelyabinsk being the staging ground for an alien invasion.
If the Tunguska event is any indication, the conspiracy theories will only get more outlandish. Competing theories to explain the Tunguska explosion have ranged from aliens (inevitably), to a volcanic eruption of natural gas, to a microscopic black hole brushing through the same space as Earth. The incident has also figured in the literature of the past century, including in canonical science fiction works by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, as well as literary giant Thomas Pynchon. The conspiracy theories spawned by the meteorite in Chelyabinsk are likely just beginning — hopefully, at least some good books will come of them.