The dirt on ball lightning


Believe it or not, ball lightning was common in one neighborhood we lived in as a kid. It would form during dry thunderstorms above a tree down the street. The balls would float down, changing color, then make a loud POP. Dozens of balls each storm. It happened often enough we learned to recognize the sound and would rush to the front door to watch.

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^the only important thing to know about ball lightning

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Falling from the sky would kind of preclude the theory suggested in the related article.

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My reading suggests that not all ball lightning is the same. The descriptions vary quite a bit. In my case, we lived in the desert, so it’s possible there was dust in the air as some necessary component. But I’m more inclined to think they only discovered one of several mechanisms for ball lightning to form.

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I agree. I’ve seen it form while looking off a mountain “overlook”. A thunderstorm had just passed and it appears about a half mile directly in front of us, which put it a couple thousand feet off the ground. It hovered for about 5 seconds and then shot straight up into the clouds and boom. I’ve also seen it appear above trees in my neighborhood, but it was only once and I was riding in the car at the time so I can’t say where it went or how it acted.

I am so jealous.


So the glowing orb isn’t lightning, itself, but, rather, a ball of hot gas. In a way, it’s similar to how neon lights work — producing bright, colorful light by running an electric charge through a tube of gas.

Maggie, we need to place your brief comments here in historical context:

There is a very long tradition at this point of science journalists choosing to use the phrase “hot gas” instead of the more appropriate term, plasma. Much of this tradition originates at the culture inherent to the Astrophysical Journal, but with the advent of the Internet, it has spread to online institutions like the Bad Astronomy & Universe Today forum (now Cosmo Quest) and bloggers like Phil Plait.

You will want to imagine that calling plasma a “hot gas” is a politically-neutral decision, as it is the same phrase which you see your scientist contacts using. But, the fact is that there is unavoidably a worldview that is implicit in that language: By calling a plasma a hot gas, you are suggesting to your readers that we need not consult plasma physicists in our efforts to define what this stuff is.

This simple, seemingly harmless, semantic decision ultimately creates an incredible amount of confusion for scientists and the public, because – as happens with most complex problems in science – the way in which the problem is framed has an inordinate influence upon the causes which are subsequently inferred for observations. In other words, this simple semantic choice to use the phrase “hot gas” instead of plasma already largely suggests the conclusions which people will arrive at, before anybody even starts taking or interpreting the data.

Here is the problem: Plasmas have been studied by plasma physicists for more than a half century in the laboratory at this point. And one of the most important observations which has followed from these observations is that they frequently disobey the elegant equations which are presented in the Astrophysical Journal.

Now, if you ask astrophysicists about IEEE – the place where plasma physicists talk about plasmas – they might know OF the journal’s existence, but they will likely tell you that they don’t actually read that journal. And so, what you have is a situation where specialists are basically fighting – from two competing worldviews – over the definition of this stuff.

Only one of them will turn out to be right, as what you will observe if/when you study the controversy as an investigative reporter would, is that the two models which are being presented are incredibly distinct. It remains to be seen which one wins this battle, but for many of us, the decision by the astrophysicists – and this apparently includes the people you are talking to, I’m inferring from your language – to largely ignore IEEE is basically a red flag that they are not fully tuned into whether or not their “hot gas” models are actually accurate to laboratory observations of plasmas.

And these problems don’t stop there. All of cosmology actually hinges on this debate over how to model cosmic plasmas. And this decision amongst astrophysicists to refuse to read IEEE’s Transactions on Plasma Science has enormous consequences for mankind’s understanding of the universe itself – for IEEE does not just publish papers on laboratory plasmas, but they also publish papers on how the universe works, based upon this competing view for how to model plasmas.

Now, my prediction is that people will one day look back on what is happening with this word plasma with great ethnographic interest. And now you have suddenly popped into this story – I’m guessing with probably a marginal understanding of the underlying politics. This subject is one day, and then forever more, going to turn into a red hot controversy. Some of us who have followed the controversy to date – which has already raged for half a century – already know this because they follow both the claims of the astrophysicists and the plasma physicists. When the subject is approached in that manner, it becomes transparent what the astrophysicists know and what they do not know, due to this decision to ignore the journal where people study and talk about laboratory plasmas. We can plainly see that astrophysicists continue to cling to equations which were disproven decades ago. And not only that, but they are also refusing to acknowledge the observation of plasma physics processes within their WMAP data – as discovered by radio astronomer, Gerrit Verschuur. The unfortunate consequence of choosing to ignore entire domains of knowledge is that you don’t actually get to know what you do not know. Then, they tell us what they think, without explaining what they ignored to get to those conclusions.

Science is a very powerful idea, in theory – at least until humans get their hands upon it.

True, but I’m not sure calling this plasma is correct either. It a way it makes initial sense to say an electrostatic charge formed and created basically a ball of plasma, but science has yet to explain how ball lightening can maintain it’s spherical shape for an extended period of time. From what is presented here it maybe be that the initial charge was indeed plasma, which then superheated the “dirt” in the air and gave rise to the actual longevity of the ball. Even for the energy density of lightening I would find it hard to believe that you’d create plasma from the heavier elements (like dust/dirt/silicon) in the air.

Interesting. I came to the comments to ask this - if people throught a specific place could be more predisposed to them. In SC there is/was something called the Summerville Light. By all accounts an eerie colored ball lightning, but my parents said it would move in the strangest, most unlightening like way - which helped feed the fire if it being “something else”. So I was glad to see that called out as well.

Dirt can’t be a requirement for all ball lightning; I’ve seen it form over a ship’s railing while we were out at sea. No dirt for many, many miles.

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