Possible resolution to the 9 dead Russian hikers mystery

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

In 1959, nine Russian hikers died in an extremely unlikely set of circumstances. I shan’t rehash everything here, so do read the linked post. But I happened to be hanging out with my friend Greg last weekend and he imparted to me an interesting theory he had about what caused the deaths of the Russian hikers. It seems plausible to me, much more plausible than anything I came up with (and certainly better than the laughable alien theories).

Russia entered the nuclear era with a bang, not a whimper. They saw nuclear technology as the next revolution in generating electricity. As such, they strove to use it everywhere, even when the safety concerns would seemingly override the value of using nuclear (but that’s Communist Russia for you). In particular, Russia employed a great number of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs). The particular model they used was about one meter by one meter by two meters, small enough to fit in pretty much any building. It generated energy not by conducting full-scale atomic fission like in a nuclear reactor but by harnessing the heat given off by the radioactive decay of Strontium 90. It’s the same technology we use to power our spacecraft which journey far away from the Sun (beyond the usefulness limit of solar panels).

The U.S.S.R. employed up to a thousand RTGs that we know of, many in remote lighthouses and navigation beacons. They are slowly being phased out with solar cells and battery packs today, but that technology wasn’t around in the 50s. All they had were the RTGs. And while the radioisotope source in the RTGs is theoretically well-encapsulated inside of a double layer stainless steel, aluminum, and lead casing, it’s easily possible for anyone with tools to gain access to the inside, inadvertently exposing themselves to a deadly dose of radiation.

With all of the background on RTGs taken care of, we return to the case of the nine dead Russian hikers. It is Greg’s theory that they stumbled across an RTG (which is not at all impossible given how widely they were used). The RTG was broken open, either by the hikers themselves, some outside actor, or a simple manufacturing defect. It was giving off heat and the hikers took it back to their tent to keep warm with, possibly mistaking it for some kind of heater. When they realized the true nature of it, probably after experiencing the onset of radiation sickness, they departed their tent in a hurry, stopping not even to put on their clothing.

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The unexplained bizarre deaths of 9 Russian hikers in 1959

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I just stumbled across the fascinating tale of the Dyatlov Pass Accident. The case is full of bizarre findings. Nine hikers set out into the wilderness and were never seen alive again. Theit bodies were found in groups a good distance from their camp, all in little more than underwear, as if they had to flee their tent in a hurry. Their tent was ripped open from the inside, like they didn’t even have time to use the tent’s door. Five of the hikers showed no signs of trauma and likely died from hypothermia — two of which were found around a temporary fire that they made while in their underwear. None of them seemed to dare to return to the tent. The other four hikers died of internal injuries but showed no external wounds, one from a fractured skull, and two from fractured chests, as if they had been crippled by extreme pressure.

Here are some more facts of the case (from the Wikipedia article):

  • Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
  • There were no indications of other people nearby apart from the nine travellers on Kholat Syakhl, nor anyone in the surrounding areas.
  • The tent had been ripped from within.
  • The victims had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
  • Traces from the camp showed that all group members (including those who were found injured) left the camp of their own accord, by foot. This implies that those with injuries were injured after they left the camp.
  • The fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by another human being.
  • Forensic radiation tests had shown high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims. These test results were not taken into account for the final verdict.

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A microwave accident goes absurd

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Life is frequently bizarre. Everyone has had some absurd, surreal, dadaist experiences, and now, thanks to blogopower, we can share these experiences with the world rather than leaving them to fade away into null memory.

My housing situation during my senior year at university was full of surprising occurrences. I lived with three foreigners, one each from China, West Africa, and Mexico, in a run-down house not far off campus. Hey, at least it was cheap. The African had just come over from Africa at the start of that year, and back in his country, men never cook; they always have women to do that for them. Well, not here. He was a terrible cook.

He had never had to learn before, and even after repeated months of trying, in which time you’d think he would have picked something up, he always just keep on messing up. He only even made one thing, some dish that was popular in his country, but half the time he burned it. He even had no patience for it. He’d leave it on the stove for a long time, not checking on it, even long after all the water had boiled away and it started burning. One time he even fell asleep with his food burning on the stove until I, at the opposite end of the house, caught a whiff of it and came in to get it off.

So one day I’m sitting in my room studying and I smell burning. Great, I think to myself. He must’ve tried cooking something again and wandered off. So I let out a resigned sigh and got up to see what was going on, and maybe take a pot of burning food off the stove if necessary.

I run smack into my Mexican housemate gingerly extracting a Tupperware container of burnt socks from the microwave. They were charred in a few places and giving off voluminous amounts of smoke.

I paused for a few seconds while my brain tried to catch up with what I was seeing. After a few seconds, he haltingly started explaining about how he had read an article on the Internet about microwaving sponges to disinfect them. Somehow he made the leap to disinfecting his socks, and tried that instead.

That scientific article about disinfecting sponges by microwaving them was widely reported in the news media. Of course, as the media so often does, they dumbed down the coverage terribly, even summarizing it into a ten second news-bite. Many of them didn’t bother explaining that the sponge had to be soaked in water before microwaving it or otherwise it would burn. Scores of people across the country burned sponges in their microwave in the wake of those news reports. Some even caught their houses on fire.

But as far as I know, my housemate was the only one who burnt his socks.

I could’ve killed someone

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Two nights ago, a woman was struck and killed on Route 193 near the University of Maryland campus. I was driving home from the Weird Al Yankovic concert at the time and I basically followed a blaring fire truck and ambulance to the scene of the accident (which is on my way home). I got there only a few minutes after police had arrived and started shutting down the scene. Not a minute after I got there a cop came along and told us few cars that were stuck behind the emergency vehicles to turn around. So I ended up having to take the long way home.

The scary part, though, is that I could’ve killed that woman. She was standing in the middle of the freaking highway, which is not lighted on that particular stretch. Had the concert ended just ten minutes earlier, who knows, she might be splattered on my car rather than the other driver’s. The driver isn’t being charged with anything, which makes sense, but still, it has to feel pretty crappy to know that you killed someone. I’m really glad it wasn’t me who ran her over.