Ball Lightning – Nature’s mystery

The November 1931 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine had this gem of an article on ball lightning (and as always, thanks to the Modern Mechanix blog for posting the scans and text).

Science has solved most of nature’s mysteries, but that uncommon phenomenon known as ball lightning still awaits an explanation to which all scientists can agree. In this article a well-known meteorological expert cites many strange cases of the capers of this electrical freak and presents the several more logical explanations of what ball lightning really is.

Whoa! Let’s stop here. I don’t believe for a second that science has solved most of nature’s mysteries. If that were true, we wouldn’t be building ever larger colliders and detectors to measure more of the smallest particles in the universe. That said, let’s get back to this mystery of nature.

EARLY one morning last April, while a thunderstorm was in progress, a Reading Railroad train was standing in the station at Atlantic City. The rear coach contained six passengers; five men and a woman. A loud report was heard, the car shook violently, and the occupants were terrified to see a ball of fire, about the size of a baseball, enter the open rear door of the coach. After a fraction of a minute the ball disappeared without leaving any traces of its visit.

ball_lightning_clip.jpgMany more or less similar observations are recorded every year in the newspapers and the scientific journals. The phenomenon is classified as “ball lightning,” and so many circumstantial descriptions of it have been published that its characteristics are well known to science, though it has never been satisfactorily explained. A few years ago a German, Dr. Walther Brand, published a book containing a careful analysis of 215 cases, selected, as particularly trustworthy, from a much greater number of published reports. In this country Dr. W. J. Humphreys, of the Weather Bureau, has been collecting reports of ball lightning for several years, and he has lately broadcast an appeal through the newspapers” for additional reports.

Ball lightning occurs during thunderstorms and takes the form of a roundish luminous mass, often red but sometimes of other colors, which may first appear emerging from the base of a cloud, or may form in midair, or, again, may suddenly appear resting on . some terrestrial object. In many cases it enters buildings by way of a window, door, chimney or other opening, large or small. A hissing, humming or fluttering sound often accompanies it. The ball may fall or float through the air, or it may roll along the ground or other surface. In some cases it remains stationary for a time. It remains visible for periods varying from a small fraction of a second to several minutes, and it may disappear silently, or with a light crack, or with a violent explosion. Frequently, but not always, the appearance of the ball is preceded by an ordinary lightning flash.

So we’ve established this is freaky stuff. But what *DO* we know about ball lightning?

Dr. Humphreys, the leading American authority on lightning, believes that many reported cases of ball displays are due to an optical illusion. He says:

“A common form of apparent ball lightning is that in which a brilliant ‘ball’ is said to have hit a certain spot and then bounded away at greater or less speed over the ground, finally going off with a ‘bang.’ The explanation is as follows. Where the lightning hits* there is often a brilliant flash—much more brilliant than the streak itself. This is the ‘ball.’ It dazzles the eye and produces an image that persists for some seconds, nearly always to one side of the center of vision, because one would seldom be looking at the exact spot struck at the moment this happened. Hence, in turning the eye to look directly at the bright glare, the latter itself also turns, being a persistent image on the retina, and no longer an objective phenomenon. But the movement of the eye is irregular, and so the ‘ball’ goes bounding along. In a little while the thunder reaches and more or less startles the observer. That is when the supposed ball ‘explodes.’ ”

Ahhhhh, that’s it. It’s not even there. These freaks are imagining it, or making the whole event up. I feel better now.

And if you want to learn more about ball lightning, might I suggest some research over on Wikipedia? Of course, the funny thing here is that 70+ years later, we still haven’t figured this stuff out. Well, there is a scientist in New Zealand who was thought to have figured it, but that was in 2002, and still nothing confirmed about his ideas.

[tags]Ball Lightning, Modern Mechanix, Nature’s mysteries[/tags]