Ball Lightning

Ball Lightning

The most bizarre of all electrical effects is ball lightning. People have reported seeing ball lightning, a rare phenomenon that resembles a glowing sphere of electricity, for hundreds of years. The phenomenon lasts only a short time, perhaps ten seconds, before either fading away or violently dissipating with a small explosion. Ball lightning is the name given to the mobile luminous spheres which have been observed during thunderstorms. Visual sightings are often accompanied by sound, odor, and permanent material damage.

Many scientists still deny its existence, but there are so many eyewitness accounts of the phenomenon that it's difficult to deny its reality.

Surveys estimate that between 1 in 30 and 1 in 150 people believe that they have seen ball lightning. Ball lightning is a rare effect in which a glowing, drifting bubble of light, typically some 8" in diameter, appears.

Despite some fairly consistent characteristics, ball lightning has thus far defied scientific explanation, but it's not for a lack of theories.

Graham K. Hubler, a physicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. stated:

There's certainly no consensus. I don't think that anyone knows what it is, Most scientists feel that the proper model hasn't been found yet. If two out of a hundred people ever even see it in their lifetime then it's pretty rare because you see thunderstorms all the time, said Hubler. Just a thunderstorm will not produce it, there's some other conditions that makes it happen.

Hubler himself had a ball lightning experience:

His close encounter happened at age 16, while he was riding out a thunderstorm in an open sided park pavilion. He describes seeing a glowing, tennis ball size formation hovering nearby. It drifted along a few feet above the ground, but when it came inside the pavilion, it dropped down to the ground and skittered along the floor. It made lots of gyrations or oscillations and a hissing sound like boiling water. When it went out the other side of the pavilion, it climbed back up several feet off the ground.

Hubler stated the ball behaved as if it had a charge and was following electric field lines along the Earth. It's extraordinary, you're so startled that you remember it for the rest of your life. I remember telling people what I had seen, and they thought I was crazy, so I stopped talking about it, I didn't know what I'd seen until ten years later when I attended a seminar in graduate school.

While some skeptics remain, there is significant observational evidence for ball lightning's existence.

There are around 10,000 written accounts of observations covering many countries with similar properties recurring in many observations, said John Abrahamson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

All this points to a phenomenon which is repeatable and justifies a single label.

Thousands of eyewitnesses have described seeing a floating, glowing ball similar to a tennis ball or even a beach ball. Ball lightning is sometimes sighted near metal fences and other objects likes wires. This displays their affinity towards metallic objects. The sightings generally accompany thunderstorms, but it's unclear what other similarities ball lightning might share with its conventional relative. Ball lightning floats near the ground, sometimes bounces off the ground or other objects, and does not obey the whims of wind or the laws of gravity.

An average ball lightning glows with the power of a 100 watt bulb. Some have been reported to melt through glass windows and burn through screens. The record suggests that ball lightning is not inherently deadly, but there are reports of people being killed by contact, most notably the pioneering electricity researcher Georg Richmann, who died in 1753. Richmann is believed to have been electrocuted by ball lightning as he conducted a lightning rod experiment in St. Petersburg, Russia. His assistance was knocked unconscious.

Scientists have claimed that plasma may be behind the phenomenon. Plasma is the fourth state of matter besides, liquid, solid and gas. It is hot, electrically charged and fluid like. While it exists in abundance in the universe inside stars it is usually not found on Earth except at the heart of a nuclear explosion. How it might exist as a free floating bubble under normal conditions is unknown.

An alternative theory promotes the notion that small particles held together in a ball by electrical charges emit chemical energy through oxidation. This theory suggests that when lightning strikes a surface, a vapor is formed. The vapor condenses into particles that mix with oxygen in the air and then slowly burn with the release of chemical energy.

The whole picture is electrical energy, in a huge amount really, and a small part of that energy gets converted to chemical energy and stored in particles, said Abrahamson, who supports this theory.

Laboratory work is currently seeking to reproduce ball lightning under this model and several others. Meanwhile, the Naval Research Lab's Graham Hubler hopes that technology will leave less room for the real thing to hide. There is such a proliferation of video cameras these days that people must have captured pictures of ball lightning, and it would be an immense help to see some of those videos and study them, he said.

Here's a real, physical phenomenon that's out there in nature, and we don't have the foggiest idea what it is, that's interesting, he added. I hope in my lifetime we find out what it is. It's possible that there's some very new physics in it and that could be very profound.

An artificial version of ball lightning has been reported on submarines that use huge batteries to operate their engines. Improper connection of the battery causes an electrical discharge that sometimes reportedly spawns glowing, hot balls. Professor James Tuck, of Los Alamos Laboratories, heard about this and attempted to duplicate with effect using a submarine battery stored on campus. Most of his tests produced nothing resembling ball lightning, but in a final experiment before the lab was disassembled Tuck introduced a low concentration of methane around the area of the discharge. The result was an unexpectedly large explosion and the end of the experiments. Later, film from movie cameras operating during that last test showed something Tuck hadn't seen at the time, a 4" round glowing ball.

It's these personal encounters with ball lighting that have given it its mysterious reputation. Many eyewitnesses describe its movement or behavior as seemingly intelligent, as if it knows where it wants to go. When it enters houses, it often enters through doorways or windows and travels down hallways. But people tend to personify such peculiar events and it's ludicrous to think that the balls of light have any intelligence, but the narratives are no less intriguing.

The phenomenon of ball lightning can be described as the appearance of mysterious glowing balls accompanied by thunderstorms. There are many interesting theories which explain this atmospheric electrical phenomenon. The atmospheric maser theory is one of them. Atmospheric Maser Theory:

This theory is widely used to explain the phenomenon of ball lightning. However, the theory has not been properly proven yet. As per this theory, ball lightning is formed as a result of the laser effect. Charged molecules of water present in the clouds are subject to electrical activity. Water molecules in the clouds transition to an excited state when they come into contact with electricity. The result of this interaction is that a stimulated emission of radiation takes place. It causes light to amplify for a short period of time. This amplified light is nothing but ball lightning.

Ball Lightning Facts. There are many different theories which explain what ball lightning is. People across the globe have made different observations about this phenomenon. Some interesting facts about ball lightning and details about the observations made by people are given here.

  • According to the surveys conducted to ascertain the existence of ball lightning, 1 out of 30 people claim to have seen ball lightning.
  • Ball lightning is a phenomenon of rare occurrence. Therefore, skeptics often raise doubts about its existence. However, one should note that there are as many as 10,000 written accounts of observations of ball lightning. People from many countries have made their observations about this phenomenon. Also, the properties of ball lightning as described in these accounts have great similarities.
  • One thing about ball lightning which repeatedly occurs in various eyewitness accounts is that it is a glowing and floating ball shaped structure. The diameter of this floating ball ranges from a fraction of an inch to 4'.
  • The power contained in ball lightning is said to be 100 watts. Generally, ball lightning lasts for 10 seconds. However, it may also be as short as 1 second, and at times, extend to an entire minute. In the end, the fireball may explode or just fade away.
  • In most cases, ball lightning appears along with lightning discharges that extend from the clouds to the ground surface.
  • Ball lightning is sometimes sighted near metal fences and other objects likes wires. This displays their affinity towards metallic objects.
  • As per Pyotr Kapitsa, a physicist and Nobel laureate from Russia, the ball in ball lightning acts as a resonant microwave cavity. The glow of ball lightning is driven by microwave radiation. The radiation originates from lightning clouds, and flows along paths of ionized air.
  • Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's records provide some useful and interesting insights on the ball lightning phenomenon. Ball lightning, as per Brewer's description, appears like slow moving balls. These balls either move along the length of the ground surface or just drop on the ground. He also reported that these glowing balls would sometimes explode or split into smaller ones.
  • The phenomenon of ball lightning, owing to its popularity, has found place in adventure novels. French playwright and novelist Jules Verne, in his novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth, has mentioned a ball of fire. The ball is seen during a storm, it descends on the protagonist's raft from the sky.
  • According to Graham Hubler, development in the technology of cameras should help lead us to the truth about ball lightning. With increased use of video cameras by people across the globe, it won't be long before the truth about ball lightning will be uncovered, sooner than later.

    Here are some fascinating accounts with ball lighting, including many strange reports, both vintage and recent:

    In December 1726 a number of British newspapers printed an extract of a letter from John Howell of the sloop Catherine and Mary: One particularly large example was reported on the authority of Dr. Gregory in 1749: This incident occurred in Bavaria in 1921: In 1936, a reader related this story to the editor of the London Daily Mail: A Coast Guard officer reported this enormous ball lighting sighting in 1977, which because of its size, others might declare as a UFO encounter: In January 1984, ball lightning measuring about 4" in diameter entered a Russian passenger aircraft and, according to the Russian news release: Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, reported witnessing what he called a fiery ball while in the company of his grandfather, Tsar Alexander II: Glenn R. Frazier relates at incident at his grandfather's cottage in upstate Pennsylvania: Bill Melfi was on vacation on a small farm in Tennessee when he had this experience: Here are several more reports from various locations: Kim LeVeque of Ann Arbor, Michigan tells this incredible story:

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