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Ball lightning

    Ball lightning is an atmospheric phenomenon, the physical nature of which is still controversial. The term refers to reports of a luminous, usually spherical object, which varies from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. It is sometimes associated with thunderstorms, but unlike lightning flashes, which last only a small fraction of a second, ball lightning reportedly lasts many seconds. Laboratory experiments have produced effects that are visually-similar to reports of ball lightning, but it is presently unknown whether these are actually related to the naturally occurring version.

Scientific data on natural ball lightning is scarce due to its infrequency and unpredictability. Its existence is based on reported sightings from the public, and have therefore produced somewhat inconsistent findings. Due to inconsistencies and the lack of any reliable data, the true nature of ball lightning is still unknown. Until recently, ball lightning was sometimes regarded as nothing more than a myth, fantasy, or hoax.[1] Reports of the phenomenon were dismissed due to lack of physical evidence, and were often regarded the same way as UFO sightings. Recently however, the overwhelming number of sightings has caused a renewed interest in studying the possible existence and nature of the phenomenon.

Natural ball lightning appears infrequently and unpredictably, and is therefore rarely photographed. However there do exist several photos and even videos of what people claim to be ball lightning.

Possibly the most well-known occurrence of ball lightning in history reportedly killed 18th-century electricity researcher Georg Richmann when it struck him in the head.


Historical accounts

A 1960 paper reported that 5% of the US population reported having witnessed ball lightning.[2][3] Another study analyzed reports of 10,000 cases.[2][4]

The Great Thunderstorm

One of the earliest and most destructive occurrences was reported during The Great Thunderstorm at a church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, in England, on October 21 1638. Four people died and approximately 60 injured, when during a severe storm, an 8' ball of fire struck and entered the church, nearly destroying it. Large stones from the church walls were hurled to the ground. The ball of fire smashed the pews and many windows, and filled the church with a foul sulfurous odor and dark, thick smoke.

The ball of fire reportedly split in two, one exiting through a window by smashing it open, the other disappearing somewhere inside the church. The explanation at the time, because of the fire and sulfur smell, was that the ball of fire was "the devil" or the "flames of hell". Later, some blamed the entire incident on two people who had been playing cards in the pew during the sermon, whom they say must have invoked God's wrath. [5]

Georg Richmann

A report from 1753 depicts ball lightning as being lethal, when Professor Georg Richmann of Saint Petersburg, Russia created a kite flying apparatus similar to the one built by Benjamin Franklin a year earlier. He was attending a meeting of the Academy of Sciences when he heard thunder, and ran home with his engraver to capture the event for posterity. While the experiment was underway, ball lightning appeared, collided with Richmann's forehead and killed him.

The ball left a red spot on Richmann's forehead, his shoes were blown open, and parts of his clothes singed. His engraver was knocked unconscious. The doorframe of the room was split, and the door itself torn from its hinges.[6][7]

Tsar Nicholas II

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: "Once my parents were away," recounted the Tsar, "and I was at the all-night vigil with my grandfather in the small church in Alexandria. During the service there was a powerful thunderstorm, streaks of lightning flashed one after the other, and it seemed as if the peals of thunder would shake even the church and the whole world to its foundations. Suddenly it became quite dark, a blast of wind from the open door blew out the flame of the candles which were lit in front of the iconostasis, there was a long clap of thunder, louder than before, and I suddenly saw a fiery ball flying from the window straight towards the head of the Emperor. The ball (it was of lightning) whirled around the floor, then passed the chandelier and flew out through the door into the park. My heart froze, I glanced at my grandfather - his face was completely calm. He crossed himself just as calmly as he had when the fiery ball had flown near us, and I felt that it was unseemly and not courageous to be frightened as I was....After the ball had passed through the whole church, and suddenly gone out through the door, I again looked at my grandfather. A faint smile was on his face, and he nodded his head at me. My panic disappeared, and from that time I had no more fear of storms." [2]

Aleister Crowley

British occultist Aleister Crowley also reported witnessing what he referred to as "globular electricity" during a thunderstorm on Lake Pasquaney in New Hampshire in 1916. As related in his Confessions, he was sheltered in a small cottage when he "noticed, with what I can only describe as calm amazement, that a dazzling globe of electric fire, apparently between six and twelve inches in diameter, was stationary about six inches below and to the right of my right knee. As I looked at it, it exploded with a sharp report quite impossible to confuse with the continuous turmoil of the lightning, thunder and hail, or that of the lashed water and smashed wood which was creating a pandemonium outside the cottage. I felt a very slight shock in the middle of my right hand, which was closer to the globe than any other part of my body.[8]

Other accounts

On 30 April 1877, a ball of lightning entered the Golden Temple at Amritsar, India, and exited through a side door. This event was observed by a number of people, and the incident is inscribed on the front wall of Darshani Deodhi.[3]

Pilots in World War II described an unusual phenomenon for which ball lightning has been suggested as an explanation. The pilots saw small balls of light "escorting" bombers, flying alongside their wingtips. Pilots of the time referred to the phenomenon as "foo fighters" (a possible adaptation of the french term "faux (false) fighters" or "feu (fire) fighters"),[4] initially believing that the lights were from enemy planes. However, there are other theories as to the identity of the foo fighters, notably the possible existence of German bi-frequency radar or guidance or weapon beams, similar to Tesla's interference generator experiments.

Submariners in WWII gave the most frequent and consistent accounts of small ball lightning in the confined submarine atmosphere. There are repeated accounts of inadvertent production of floating explosive balls when the battery banks were switched in/out, especially if mis-switched or when the highly inductive electrical motors were mis-connected or disconnected. An attempt later to duplicate those balls with a surplus submarine battery resulted in several failures and an explosion. [5]

On August 6 1994 a ball of lightning went through a closed window in Uppsala, Sweden, leaving a circular hole with a diameter of 5 centimeters. The incident was witnessed by residents in the area, and was recorded by a lightning strike tracking system on the Division for Electricity and Lightning Research at Uppsala University.[9][10]

Inconsistent characteristics

Depending on the report, ball lightning can move upwards as well as downwards, sideways, or in odd trajectories such as rocking from side to side like a falling leaf. It can move with or against the wind, or simply hover, more or less stationary in the air. Sometimes it is described as being attracted to houses, cars, persons, or other objects, [11] but sometimes the balls are reportedly repelled or are unaffected by objects. Some accounts claim the balls have passed freely through solid masses, such as wood or metal, without any effect to the ball or material, while other accounts report damage to the material, such as melting or burning. Some reports suggest an attraction to, or even an origination from electric power lines. [12]

Ball lightning has been reported in many different colors, sometimes even transparent or translucent. It is sometimes said to contain radial filaments or sparks while others are evenly lit, and some have flames protruding from the ball surface. Its shape has been described as spherical, oval, tear-drop, or rod-like.

It has sometimes been reported during thunderstorms, sometimes issuing from a lightning flash, while sometimes it appears during calm weather with no storms in the vicinity.

The balls have been reported to disperse in many different ways, such as suddenly vanishing, gradually dissipating, absorption into an object, "pop"ing, exploding loudly, or even exploding with force, which is sometimes reported as damaging. Some accounts say the balls are lethal, killing on contact, while other accounts claim that they are harmless.

Laboratory experiments

Scientists have long attempted to produce ball lightning in laboratory experiments. While some experiments have produced effects that are visually similar to reports of natural ball lightning, it has not yet been determined whether there is actually any correlation.

Nikola Tesla reportedly was able to artificially produce ~1.5" balls, but he was really interested in higher voltages and powers, and remote transmission of power, so the balls he made were just a curiosity.[13]

There is a scientific group that holds a regular symposium on ball lightning, called the "International Symposium on Ball Lightning" or ISBL: 1999, 2001, 2004 & 2006. The next symposium will take place in Kalingrad in 2008. A related group uses the generic name "Unconventional Plasmas".[14]


Water discharge experiments

Some scientific groups, including the Max Planck Institute, have reportedly produced a ball lightning-type effect by discharging a high-voltage capacitor in a tank of water. [15][16]

Home microwave oven experiments

Many modern experiments involve using a microwave oven to produce small rising glowing balls, often referred to as "plasma balls". It has not been proven that these balls actually consist of plasma, though.

Generally, the experiments are conducted by placing a lit or recently extinguished match or other small object in an ordinary microwave oven. The burnt portion of the object flares up into a large ball of fire, while the plasma balls can be seen floating around the ceiling of the oven chamber. The balls can damage the oven, denting the chamber wall or ceiling, as well as leaving burn marks. Some experiments describe covering the lit object with an inverted glass jar, which contains both the flame and the balls so they won't damage the chamber walls. Some experimenters have posted instructions, photos, and videos of these experiments.[17][18][19]

Silicon experiments

Some more recent experiments in 2007 involve shocking silicon wafers with electricity, which vaporizes the silicon and induces oxidation in the vapors. The visual effect can be described as small glowing, sparkling orbs that roll around a surface. Two Brazilian scientists, Antonio Pavão and Gerson Paiva of the Federal University of Pernambuco[20] have reportedly consistently made small long-lasting balls using this method.[21][22] These experiments stemmed from the theory that ball lightning is actually oxidized silicon vapors (see vaporized silicon theory, below).

Possible scientific explanations

An early attempt to explain ball lightning was recorded by Nikola Tesla in 1904,[23] but currently, there is no widely accepted explanation of what exactly ball lightning is. Several theories have been advanced, however, since the phenomenon was brought into the scientific realm by the French Academy scientist François Arago.[citation needed]

Vaporized silicon theory

Currently, one prominent theory suggests that ball lightning is nothing more than vaporized silicon burning through oxidation. When lightning strikes earth's silica-rich soil, the silicon could be instantly vaporized, the vapor itself condensing and burning slowly via the oxygen in the surrounding air. A recently published experimental investigation of this effect by evaporating pure silicon with an electric arc reported producing "luminous balls with lifetime in the order of seconds".[24][25][26] Videos of this experiment have been made available: [6]

Nanobattery theory

Another current theory published by Oleg Meshcheryakov suggests that ball lightning is made of composite nano or submicrometre particles, each particle constituting a nanobattery. A surface discharge shorts these batteries, resulting in a current which forms the ball. His model is described as an aerosol, but not aerogel, model that explains all the observable properties and processes of ball lightning.[27][28]

Black hole theory

Yet another theory is that ball lightning is actually the passage of microscopic primordial black holes through the Earth's atmosphere. No such tiny black holes have ever been positively detected, and it is uncertain whether they would have the physical properties described by ball lightning if they did in fact exist and in great enough quantity to account for ball lightning reports. This explanation also would not account for their alleged co-occurrence with electrical storms. However, inspired by accounts of ball lightning that, amongst other physically verifiable effects, had plowed a 90-meter trench across peat bogs in Ireland, Pace Vandevender, a plasma physicist who worked until his retirement on thermonuclear fusion at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, believes that no explanation other than a black hole with a mass of more than 20 tons could explain the displacement of more than 100 tons of peat. His colleagues at Sandia agreed that, crazy though the hypothesis seems, it was worthy of the attention of a national laboratory.[29]

Other theories

There also are many other theories put forth to explain ball lightning, such as:

  1. Spinning electric dipole theory. (Endean (1976) published this theory. He postulated that ball lightning could be described as an electric field vector spinning in the microwave frequency region.)
  2. Electrostatic Leyden jar models. (Singer (1971) discusses this type of theory and suggested that the electrical recombination time would be too short for the ball lightning lifetimes often reported.)
  3. J. Pace VanDevender separates extreme ball lightning of the highly energetic violent kind, and proposes a theory of neutrinos and heavy neutrinos. [30]
  4. Nuclear theories
  5. Trapped microwave theories
  6. Maser caviton theory
  7. Fractal aerogel theories (Smirnov (1987) put forward a charged aerosol cluster theory.)
  8. Magnetically trapped plasma theories
  9. Vortex theories (Coleman (2006) described ball lightning as a vortex fireball or natural vortex burning a combustible fuel. Ball lightning under this theory is essentially a turbulent swirling flame inside a vortex.
  10. Rydberg matter theories
  11. Chemical combustion theories
  12. Black hole theories
  13. Anti-matter theories
  14. Optical illusions.

Esoteric explanations

Ball lightning has been connected to reports of several supernatural phenomena, ranging from will o' the wisps to UFOs. Some people believe the ball lightning phenomena are ghosts or spirits, or are related to poltergeists and spontaneous human combustion.[1] References can be seen in the will o' the wisp and other spirits that take the guise of orbs of light. Some UFO skeptics have suggested that many apparent close encounters are actually observations of ball lightning. UFO enthusiasts report seeing ball lightning often at crop circle sites and believe them to be some kind of intelligence or come from some kind of intelligence while not denying that it is indeed ball lightning.

Ball lightning in mythology and fiction


In mythology

Among the ancients of Japanese mythology, there is a myth that ball lightning is the wrath of the thunder god, Raijin from Japanese mythology. In Basque mythology ball lightning were believed to be either main deity, Mari or Sugaar, traveling from one mountain to another.

M. l'abbé de Tressan, in Mythology compared with history: or, the fables of the ancients elucidated from historical records:

...during a storm which endangered the ship Argo, fires were seen to play round the heads of the Tyndarides, and the instant after the storm ceased. From that time, those fires which frequently appear on the surface of the ocean were called the fire of Castor and Pollux. When two were seen at the same time, it announced the return of calm, when only one, it was the presage of a dreadful storm. This species of fire is frequently seen by sailors, and is a species of ignis fatuus. (page 417)

In literature

An early fictional reference to ball lightning appears in a children's book set in the 1800s by Laura Ingalls Wilder.[31] The books are considered historical fiction, but the author always insisted they were descriptive of actual events in her life. In Wilder's description, three separate balls of lightning appear during a winter blizzard near a cast iron stove in the family's kitchen. They are described as appearing near the stovepipe, then rolling across the floor, only to disappear as the mother (Caroline Ingalls) chases them with a willow-branch broom.[32]

  • Ball lightning occurs in The Seven Crystal Balls, one of the books in The Adventures of Tintin series.
  • In Stephen King's novella The Body, the narrator and his friends encounter this phenomenon traveling down railroad tracks just outside the fictional town of Castle Rock.
  • A ball lightning named "Skip" makes a brief appearance as a character in Thomas Pynchon's novel Against the Day.

In film

The Canadian animated film Heavy Metal (1981) consists a green ball known as the Loc-Nar. The Loc-Nar is similair to a ball lightning, an artifact over which people are killing each other and is the sum of all evils. The Loc-Nar has got influence on society through time and space. The film also shows how the Loc-Nar follows a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II.

See also

  • St. Elmo's fire
  • Naga fireballs
  • Hessdalen light
  • Spooklight
  • Will o' the wisp
  • Foo fighter
  • Red sprite

Further reading

  • Barry, James Dale (1980). Ball Lightning and Bead Lightning. New York: Plenum Press. 
  • Cade, Cecil Maxwell; Delphine Davis (1969). The Taming of the Thunderbolts. New York: Abelard-Schuman Limited. 
  • Coleman, Peter F. (2004). Great Balls of Fire—A Unified Theory of Ball Lightning, UFOs, Tunguska and other Anomalous Lights. Christchurch, NZ: Fireshine Press. 
  • Coleman, P.F. 2006, J.Sci.Expl., Vol. 20, No.2, 215–238.
  • Endean, V.G.,1976, Nature, 263,753,754.
  • Golde, R. H. (1977). Lightning. Bristol: John Wright and Sons Limited. 
  • Golde, R. H. (1977). Lightning Volume 1 Physics of Lightning. Academic Press. 
  • Singer, Stanley (1971). The Nature of Ball Lightning. New York: Plenum Press. 
  • Smirnov, 1987, Physics Reports, (Review Section of Physical Letters,152, No. 4, 177–226.
  • Stenhoff, Mark (1999). Ball Lightning, An Unsolved Problem in Atmospheric Physics. New York, Boston, Dordrecht, London, Moscow: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. 
  • Uman, Martin A. (1984). Lightning. Dover Publications. 
  • Viemeister, Peter E. (1972). The Lightning Book. Cambridge: MIT Press. 


  1. ^ a b Ball lightning scientists remain in the dark. New Scientist (20 December 2001).
  2. ^ a b Ask the experts. Scientific American. Retrieved on 2007-04-04.
  3. ^ McNally, J. R. (1960). "Preliminary Report on Ball Lightning". Proceedings of the Second Annual Meeting of the Division of Plasma Physics of the American Physical Society: 1-25, Paper J-15. 
  4. ^ Grigoriev, A. I. (1988). "Statistical Analysis of the Ball Lightning Properties". Science of Ball Lightning: 88-134. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co..
  5. ^ Amery, Peter Fabyan Sparke; John S. Amery, Joshua Brooking Rowe. Devon Notes and Queries. 
  6. ^ Clarke, Ronald W. (1983). Benjamin Franklin, A Biography. Random House, 87. 
  7. ^ "Frenchman Thomas Francois D'Alibard used a 50-foot (15 m) long vertical rod to draw down the "electric fluid" of the lightning in Paris on May 10, 1752. One week later, M. Delor repeated the experiment in Paris, followed in July by an Englishman, John Canton. But one unfortunate physicist did not fare so well. Georg Wilhelm Reichmann attempted to reproduce the experiment, according to Franklin's instructions, standing inside a room. A glowing ball of charge traveled down the string, jumped to his forehead and killed him instantly.[1]
  8. ^ Crowley, Aleister (1989-12-05). "Chp. 83", The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autobiography. Penguin. ISBN 0140191895. 
  9. ^ Larsson, Anders (2002-04-23). Ett fenomen som gäckar vetenskapen (Swedish). Uppsala University. Retrieved on 2007-11-19.
  10. ^ Finns det klotblixtar? (Swedish). Dagens Nyheter (9 September 2003). Retrieved on 2007-11-19.
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  13. ^ Tesla, Nikola (1978). Nikola Tesla - Colorado Springs Notes 1899-1900. Nolit (Beograd, Yugoslavia), 368-370. ISBN-13: 978-0913022269
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  23. ^ Tesla, Nikola (1904-03-05). "The Transmission of Electrical Energy Without Wires". Electrical World and Engineer.
  24. ^ Paiva, Gerson Silva; Antonio Carlos Pavão, Elder Alpes de Vasconcelos, Odim Mendes, Jr., Eronides Felisberto da Silva, Jr. (2007). "Production of Ball-Lightning-Like Luminous Balls by Electrical Discharges in Silicon". Phys. Rev. Lett. 98. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.98.048501. Retrieved on 2007-04-06.
  25. ^ "Lightning balls created in the lab", New Scientist, 10 January 2007. 
  26. ^ "Ball Lightning Mystery Solved? Electrical Phenomenon Created in Lab", National Geographic News, 22 January 2007. 
  27. ^ Meshcheryakov, Oleg (2007). "Ball Lightning–Aerosol Electrochemical Power Source or A Cloud of Batteries". Nanoscale Res. Lett. 2 (3). doi:10.1007/s11671-007-9068-2. Retrieved on 2007-06-27.
  28. ^ "Ball lightning's frightening . . . but finally explained", EE Times, 29 August 2007. 
  29. ^ Muir, Hazel (23 December 2006). "Blackholes in your backyard". New Scientist 192 (2583/2584): 48–51.
  30. ^
  31. ^ Wilder, Laura Ingalls (1937). On the Banks of Plum Creek. Harper Trophy. 
  32. ^ Getline, Meryl. "Playing with (St. Elmo's) fire", USA Today, 2005-10-17. 
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Ball_lightning". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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