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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Where alien abduction stories come from

Monday, December 10th, 2007

My mouth tastes funny. Looking closely in the mirror, tilting my head down, opening my mouth wide, and reflecting the light from my Maglite flashlight into my mouth in the mirror, I can see the stitch at the back of my mouth where my wisdom tooth used to be just a week and two days ago. There’s a little hole between my cheek and the gum that is growing in to replace the lost tooth. I didn’t even know that the oral surgeon was putting a stitch in (he didn’t tell me!), so when I first took a look, I was had quite a shock. It looked like something was growing in my mouth, or exposed veins or nerves were hanging out. Luckily, it was just the stitches. My mouth still tastes funny though. I have the tiniest ever-present taste of blood.

I remember reading awhile back that most supposed alien abductions and probings are unconsciously modeled off of far more down-to-earth experiences at the dentist. After last Friday’s experience of getting two wisdom teeth removed, I would have to concur. It almost felt like an alien abduction. Give me a few years to let the experience sink in, and then a minor psychotic episode at some point, and I could easily see describing a “fresh” alien abduction that was really nothing more than subconscious dental memories.

The nitrous oxide laughing gas has a lot to do with it. It changed my perception of the world. I was still experiencing every moment, but everything seemed far away. I didn’t care what was happening. The procedure itself was very quick. I saw the oral surgeon going into my mouth with some tools, and before I even realized it, the bottom tooth was done. The local anesthetic worked wonders. I heard the cracking of tooth as they splintered and extracted the root, but it didn’t faze me. The only thing I felt was the hard pressing down that I can only assume was the insertion of the stitch.

All the while, the oral surgeon was talking with the assistant about obscure clerical matters. Something or other was coming in next week, and oh by the way, someone had rescheduled. I felt completely detached from reality. They ignored my presence, carrying on their own little conversations, while simultaneously extracting two teeth from my mouth. That was the weirdest part about it. That’s what most resembles the alien abduction story: the feeling that you are being worked on by beings who don’t care about your presence, and go on chatting about their business like nothing is unusual about the situation, even though the situation is extremely unusual to you. It’s humbling and dehumanizing. I was nothing more than a mouth that needed some work done.

The top tooth came out more easily (no splintering sounds this time), and did not require a stitch. I remember after the extractions, but before the nitrous oxide had a chance to wear off, how curious I was about what had just happened to me. I was surprised it was over so quickly. I had expected lots of tugging and wiggling to get the teeth free, but it turns out, it only requires a single motion with their special tool. Afterwards, I turned around and looked at the surgical table in amazement, still feeling very much detached, picking up one of the bloodied teeth and staring at it in amazement. I also checked out the special tool he had used to remove the teeth, a tool I hadn’t even caught a glimpse of when it was being used. It looked kind of like a cross between pliers, scissors, and a hole punch. Given that description, you can imagine how it is used.

I hadn’t gone into the oral surgeon’s office feeling afraid, but the assistant (nurse?) who was prepping me before the surgeon came in kept on asking if I was alright. I guess she deals with a lot of people who come in terrified, but her persistent worry for me actually made me feel slightly worried. If nothing else, I was worried about why she expected people to be more worried. But after all was said and done, it wasn’t that bad. The pain was not nearly as bad as I had heard from others. They prescribed me Vicodin, but Advil more than sufficed. The surgery didn’t really bother me. I’ve seen more intense things on Discovery Health and educational anatomy autopsy videos linked from Pharyngula (thanks, PZ).

But it was that feeling of being out of myself, of being nothing more than a passive participant in what was a very personal matter to me, that echoed so much the accounts people typically give of alien abductions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe any of that hogwash, but now I know where it’s coming from. I always wondered why so many people reported, so consistently, the same descriptions of alien encounters. Now I think I know. There is a grain of truth to it after all, but the real source of it is human, not alien, in nature.

First measured spectra of exoplanets

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Disclaimer: The following post may contain astronomical awesomeness.

Scientists have announced the first spectra ever taken of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system). Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, the astronomers measured the spectra of two Hot Jupiters. This is truly a ground-breaking moment in observational astronomy. Spectral data can tell us so much about other worlds. For instance, these spectra showed a lack of water vapor and an abundance of silicate grains (sand/dust) in the planetary atmospheres, two observations that were totally not expected. The reason for taking spectra is that these planets are way too far away to be able to resolve an image in a telescope, but as long as you get a pinprick of light in your telescope, you can measure the different wavelengths of radiation using a spectrograph. Different atoms and molecules all have characteristic spectra, so the composition of the atmosphere of a planet can be deduced by measuring its spectra.

The coolest thing about taking spectra of planets is that it will reveal the presence of Earth-like life. Alien observers hundreds of light-years away could train their colossal telescopes on the Earth and take a spectrographic measurement which would immediately reveal the over-abundance of free oxygen in our atmosphere. Free oxygen cannot be naturally occurring; if left alone, it will quickly oxidate rocks on the surface and be bound up in molecules. The abundance of free oxygen means that there must be some process maintaining the disequilibrium and continually freeing up more oxygen. The only such process we know of that could work on large scales is photosynthetic life.

So these spectra of the Hot Jupiters are very interesting, but they haven’t revealed the presence of life (not that we would expect recognizable life in such environments). However, the groundwork has been laid, and hopefully the next generation of infrared space telescopes (including the James Web Space Telescope) will be able to take spectra of Earth-sized rocky worlds. A positive hit for life on one of those spectra would be the greatest astronomical discovery ever.

Update: Phil Plait has much more information on this awesome new discovery.