Ball Lightning: A Secret Transport Medium For An Unknown Lifeform?

Ball lightning is a phenomenon that continues to baffle scientists the world over. Its volatile and dynamic nature make it practically impossible to place under a microscope for closer scrutiny. Researchers are forced to rely on laboratory simulations to catch a glimpse of its fascinating behavior. While the scientific community has learned a great deal about the phenomenon, researchers have still been unable to replicate the anomaly. Naturally occurring ball lightning doesn’t rise, and every replication attempt has resulted in a manifestation that does.

The fact that ball lightning is still not completely understood and that all simulations have failed to recreate it has caused others to wonder if there’s some sort of supernatural force at work. Some believe the mysterious force is actually a trasport mechanism for an alien lifeform or Earth-originating lifeform ascended to the point that it no longer needs a husk to exist. Indeed, ball lightning’s movements and path are unpredictable, which implies choice. By contrast, regular lightning always behaves the same way – taking the shortest route to the ground. It selects the most optimum path from a list of choices designated by the environment, and initiates.

Ball lightning manifests at will and seems to “explore” its surroundings. It’s known to surge and travel in all directions before disappearing. Witnesses have described it as levitating, floating, flying and pulsing, among other oddities. This is similar to the behavior we’d expect from a foreign entity seeking to familiarize itself with an alien environment, perhaps testing for threats or ability to sustain its own life. All sentient life, regardless of physical form or capability, is hard wired to collect information in order to survive. The thing that continues to fascinate researchers regarding ball lightning is that its behavior is not that of a random phenomenon. There is a presence of sentience involved, which is both frightening and mystifying.

On August 24, 1895, about ten in the morning, in the midst of a storm of wind and rain, several persons saw descending to the ground a whitish-coloured globe of about an inch and a half in diameter, which, on touching the ground, split into two smaller globes. These rose at once to the height of the chimneys on the houses close by and disappeared. One went down a chimney, crossed a room in which were a man and a child, without harming them, and went through the floor, perforating a brick with a clean round hole of about the size of a franc.—from Thunder and Lightning, by Camille Flammarion (translated by Walter Mostyn), 1905.

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For centuries, people have related similar accounts to the one described above, entailing glowing spheres of red, yellow, orange, or white light, measuring between the size of a golf ball and a grapefruit, and capable of traveling slowly through the air or on the ground.

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These anecdotes likely describe a phenomenon loosely referred to as “ball lightning,” according to lightning expert Martin Uman, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida. The balls typically last for a second, luminescing constantly and not rising. Rather, “sometimes they fall and bounce,” says Uman—and when they do, they can even break into two.

The jury’s still out on what causes ball lightning. “There’s just an enormous literature of theories,” says Uman. Most of the time,

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it seems to be associated with garden-variety, cloud-to-ground lightning. For instance, ball lightning could result from the combustion of silicon—which is contained in soil—after lightning hits the dirt. But versions have also manifested from wall sockets and electrical machinery, according to Uman. In other words, he says, “ball lightning” could be considered more of a catchall term to describe a collection of electrically charged phenomena that, outwardly, appear similar but which manifest for a variety of reasons.

Attempts to recreate the phenomenon in the lab have been elusive. “We can’t do it on demand,” says Uman, although nature does it “in some very strange circumstances”—such as inside of airplanes (yes, airplanes), where the orbs have been documented “floating down the aisle.” Reporting in The Journal of Physical Chemistry this past June, a team working under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force Academy tried its hand at cooking up the glowing spheres. They ran electricity through an electrolyte solution and watched as a luminous, uniformly dense plasmoid—that is, a ball of ionized gas—rose from the pool. Yet, “ball lightning doesn’t rise,” says Uman.

Uman’s team has also made and published its own attempts. “We struck everything in the world with so-called triggered [with a rocket trailing a grounded wire] lightning that we could find, and we made some very interesting glows,” he says, “but all of them had the same characteristics in that they decreased in luminosity with time or did not otherwise resemble reported natural ball lightning”—except for one event: The team electrocuted a wet stainless steel plate, producing a glowing phenomenon above the plate that had a defined shape, didn’t rise, and which lasted for a half second—but it decreased in luminosity. “It may be the closest thing that anybody ever made [to ball lightning],” he says.

Ironically, while Uman has spent his career studying lightning, he has yet to see ball lightning in the wild (though his wife has). Accounts suggest that between one and 10 percent of the population has witnessed one, so it’s not exactly rare—yet, says Uman, it’s still “sort of a far-out phenomenon.”

About Julie Leibach

Julie is the managing editor of ScienceFriday.com. She is a huge fan of sleep and chocolate.



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