Ball lightning

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A 19th century engraving depicting of ball lightning
Style over substance

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Not to be confused with the plasma globeWikipedia's W.svg, which looks like lightning and is spherical.

Ball lightning is a controversial atmospheric phenomenon where lightning appears, not as streaks in the sky, but as floating spheres, often appearing to be remarkably stable. Ball lightning has been a standard response to explain many UFO sightings — indeed, reporting them as UFOs rather than meteorological phenomena may have contributed to the fact that they are rarely studied.

Observations of ball lightning are rare, and thus are difficult to study to find out what the hell is really going on. Only recently has it been accepted as real by meteorologists; as such it has become a kind of poster boy for pseudoscientists, who declare that acceptance of ball lightning means that the rest of their ideas automatically have some merit.

A scientific grey area[edit]

Ball lightning occupied a grey area of science for many years, and perhaps still does. The first systematic study of such incidents was made in 1838 by French scientist Dominique Arago, who listed 20 different reports of ball lightning.[1] The scientific community has still not reached a consensus on this issue; in 1999, 161 years after Arago's work, British scientist Mark Stenhoff declared that "My position is… perhaps that of an agnostic"[2] with regards to ball lightning despite twenty years of research on the phenomenon.

Despite this slow pace, reports have come from such reliable witnesses as pilots[3] and professors.[4] Multiple witness events have also occurred. The problem for science has been the short-lived and highly variable nature of the phenomenon, making it hard to study. However, some tentative explanations have been proposed, and the idea that ball lightning is caused by lightning hitting silicon in the ground has gained some acceptance.[5]

Recently, different groups of scientists have reported they were able to create ball-lightning-like plasma clouds in experiments. Eli Jerby and Vladimir Dikhtyar from Tel Aviv University in Israel used a magnetron from a 600-watt domestic microwave oven to generate a plasma ball of about 3 centimeters across from a hot drop of molten substrate made from glass, germanium, silicon, alumina or other ceramics.[6] Gerd Fussmann, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and Berlin’s Humboldt University, summoned a blazing plasma ball measuring about 20 centimeters across, by high voltage discharge in a droplet of water.[7][8][9] Further development of those artificial forms of ball lightning might give a deeper insight in the natural phenomenon. For now, however, the nature of the atmospheric phenomenon remains uncertain. Nevertheless, theories that state ball lightning originates from ghostly light (will-o'-the-wisp) still persist.

Cranks[edit]

Kirill Chukanov, who claims to have some background in work on cold fusion, has indicated that ball lightning is likely to be the solution to the problem of free energy, and his work has been likened to that of Andrea Rossi. It is, to put it mildly, unclear how ball lightning is supposed to provide free energy, but at least Chukanov can rest assured that he is on the right path, since the Canadian government has apparently launched an "official conspiracy" against him.[10] Independent confirmation for Chukanov's efforts seems to consist to a large extent of the testimony Sterling D. Allan (a reporter for freeenergynews.com and perennial presidential candidate for the Providential Party), who alleged that a "visual intuitive" in his extended family had seen the "skeletal structure" of Chukanov's ball lightning.[11]

References[edit]