Notes from the Curator's Office:
Close Encounter with Ball Lightning
I write a lot about people who have encounters
with anomalous things. These means searching for information
on the internet, multiple trips to multiple libraries, digging
up old newspapers and contacting people by email or phone. Rarely
do I just stumble across someone in my everyday life that has
had an anomalous incident, so I was surprised when somebody
I work with told me they encountered a rare electrical phenomenon
called ball lightning.
Reports of ball lightning have been around for
hundreds of years. In 1638 an exceptionally powerful thunderstorm
struck the town of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, in England.
Church services were going on when an eight-foot wide ball of
fire smashed into the stone building doing heavy damage. The
ball divided into two, one part exited by destroying a window
and the other disappeared somewhere in the church. Records say
that four people died and approximately 60 more were injured.
A disaster of huge proportions in this tiny community that was
blamed on Satanic forces.
On the evening of October 8th, 1919 a "ball of
fire as large as a washtub floating low in the air" hit the
side of a building in Salina, Kansas, tearing away bricks and
destroying a window. I then exploded into smaller globes about
the size of baseballs. According to a newspaper account "Some
of these balls followed trolley and electric-light wires in
a snaky sort of manner and some simply floated off though the
air…" The paper also added an electric switch box across the
street was torn open and the transformer inside destroy leading
to a blackout for half of the town.
Not all incidents involving ball lightning have
ended so violently. In 1960 Louise Matthews was lying on her
living room couch in her South Philadelphia home when a huge
glowing red ball entered the room though a window, though both
the sash and the blinds were closed. It then floated by the
living room and dining room making a sizzling sound. It apparently
then exited the building through a dining room window. No damage
to either the windows or the buildings was reported, though
Ms. Matthews did report at the time a feeling of tingling at
the back of her neck and later found that all the hairs in that
area had fallen out.
Knowing some of these stories I was very excited
to learn that one of the police Sergeants at the college where
I work, and occasionally teach, had a personal encounter with
ball lightning. They agreed to tell me their story as long as
I kept their name confidential. The Sergeant's concern for privacy
is probably not unjustified. Until recently reports of ball
lightning were associated with mostly hoaxsters, liars and crackpots.
Only in the last few years have people begun to see reports
of ball lightning as examples of a real scientific phenomenon.
Sergeant Smith's (not his real name) story starts
in the July of 2007 when he was the third person flying along
with the pilot and co-pilot on a KC-135 tanker out of McGuire
AFB in New Jersey. Sergeant Smith in addition being a member
of the police department was, and is, a Master Sergeant in the
reserves. They had spent that day in a training flight dodging
around thunderstorms in the area. The jet was at about 2,000
feet and the time was 2PM. The crew was just about time to call
it quits for the day when the incident started.
"As we were coming down to make a landing we were
struck by lightning," he said. "I heard a loud bang, saw a flash
and then saw this globe. It came off of the instrument panel.
Kind of rotating into a ball." The sergeant described the globe
as being about the size of a basketball glowing yellow with
bluish and pink tones. According to his account it rolled off
the instrument panel, fell to the floor and when skittering
down the back of the plane, a distance of eighty feet or so,
till it disappeared. Smith noted that it seem to grow smaller
as it moved to the back of the aircraft, but he couldn't be
sure if this was an effect of the distance or if the globe's
energy was being dissipated into the floor of the aircraft somehow.
The Sergeant indicated that the entire incident
lasted between seven or eight seconds. Beyond the initial bang
of the lightning strike he doesn't remember a sound associated
with the glowing ball or getting the tingly feeling one sometimes
gets around heavy static electric charges.
Smith reported that for a moment the whole crew
froze in surprise, and then the pilots started to go through
the procedures necessary after a lightning strike. The plane
landed in a few minutes without further incident and no apparent
When Smith was asked he initial reaction to the
incident he said he was thinking, "Wow. What just happened?
Although Sergeant Smith wasn't aware of what he
was seeing at the time, he had heard of crews who had experienced
In fact, one of the most publicized incidents
involving ball lightning took place in a Russian passenger liner
in 1984. The crew saw a glowing ball of light four inches in
diameter in front of the plane. It disappeared with a bang,
and then reappeared in a few seconds in the passenger cabin.
The ball then drifted though the passenger cabin to the rear
of the plane where it divided into two crescents. The crescents
then merged again and disappeared from the aircraft. When the
plane was examined later a hole was found in the front of the
fuselage and another at the tail.
One of the reasons that scientist's have been
so skeptical about the existence of ball lightning over the
years is that while on the surface the reports seem very similar,
variations in the reported behavior make it very hard to come
up with a scientific explanation for the cause. Sometimes the
balls last for seconds, sometimes for minutes. Sometimes the
globes quietly disappear; sometimes they explode with a bang.
"These may seem like trivial distinctions," notes science writer
Gordon Stein, "but they cause theorists no end of difficulties.
Explanations that will work for a ball one second's duration,
for example, cannot account for a 10-second ball."
Some critics have suggested that the phenomenon
is only an illusion - an after image - created in the eyes of
the observers by the brightness of the bolt of regular lightning.
I asked Sergeant Smith about this, but he replied that this
was not what happened in this case. "We weren't seeing spots
in our eyes," he said firmly.
Others have argued that ball lightning is simply
a misidentification of St. Elmo's fire. St. Elmo's fire is a
well, known phenomenon that appears in during thunderstorms
in which luminous plasma forms around grounded objects like
flag poles, ship masts and church steeples. It's bright blue
or violet, but doesn't form balls or roll across a surfaces.
Sergeant Smith was familiar with this effect and had observed
it in the past. What he saw, he testified was definitely not
Saint Elmo's fire.
Recently two Brazilian scientists, Antonio Pavão
and Gerson Paiva of the Federal University of Pernambuco have
reported some success in creating something that seems to look
and act ball lightning. They think that regular lightning strikes
vaporize the silica in the soil, turning it into silicon vapor.
As it cools, the silicon condenses into a floating aerosol,
which is pulled into a sphere by its charge. The glowing is
due to the heat of silicon recombining with oxygen.
Experiments in their laboratory involved shocking
silicon wafers with electricity, which vaporizes them and creates
oxidation in the vapors. The result is small glowing balls which
skitter around a surface. I obtained a video of these experiments
and showed them to Sergeant Smith who said the movement was
very similar to what he saw in the aircraft.
Where would silicon be on an aircraft panel? Well,
the electronics certainly contain silicon as it is a primarily
component in most computer chips. However, it is hard to believe
much of this could be vaporized without affecting the operation
of the plane. More likely, if this indeed was the cause, some
of the gaskets and material that are rubber-like on the panel,
actually contain silicon, and perhaps some of this evaporated
to cause the effect.
So is the mystery of ball lightning solved? Maybe
not. The oxidizing silicon vapor might explain these incidents
like Sergeant Smith's but does it explain some of the more violent
incidents some times reported? Is there more than one explanation
for this effect?
In any case when queried about how he felt about
his encounter the Sergeant replied, "It was an awesome experience.
I wasn't freaked out about it or anything."
I can't say that I'd be so calm after reading
about what happened at the church at Widecombe-in-the-Moor in
Krystek 2010. All Rights Reserved.