In an interview, Verma told me about the theories regarding the Siberian explosion of 1908 (including a wacky one featuring a volcanic eruption and extraterrestrials), his thoughts on what actually happened (sorry, no aliens involved) and the reason why this all matters to us today.
Q: What exactly happened on that day in 1908 in Siberia?
A: An explosion flattened a Siberian forest bigger than metropolitan New York, stripping tens of millions of ancient trees of leaves and branches, leaving them bare like poles and scattering them like matchsticks. A dark mushroom cloud of dust rose to a height of 50 miles over the area, and a black rain of debris and dirt followed.
The explosion lasted only a few seconds, but it was so powerful that it could be compared only with an atomic bomb – 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
The explosion was even registered by an earthquake measuring station 2,485 miles away in St. Petersburg. Earthquake tremors were also recorded by more distant stations around the world. But at that time no one knew the cause of these tremors.
Q: How far did this happen from inhabited areas?
A: The explosion site was then so remote that it was not even accessible to local inhabitants, the Tungus people. The nearest witnesses to the explosion were at Vanavara, a small trading station some 40 miles from the explosion site.
Several miles north of Vanavara, dozens of nomads and herdsmen were thrown into the air and bruised. An elderly man hit a tree and broke his arm. Another elderly man died of fright. Thousands of reindeer belonging to four separate herds were killed as the pines and cedars around them blazed.
Q: How have theories about what happened evolved over time?
A: In 1908, Russia was a country caught in political unrest and social upheaval. Nothing was [studied] until 1927 when a Soviet scientist, Leonid Kulik, visited the explosion site. After three expeditions to the site, Kulik came to the conclusion that the Tunguska event was caused by a meteorite.