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Old 12th February 2005, 01:21 AM   #1
Explorer
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Ball Lightning - paranormal or good science?

This phenomena is similar to the reporting of UFOs. Its existence relies almost exclusively on eye witness reports, with some occasional physical after-effects.

It appears in the form of a glowing sphere. Usually in association with a conventional storm and/or tornado, but not on all occasions..

Let me first show you this extract from a dedicated website on the subject:

"Ball lightning (boules de feu or foudre spherique; Kugeblitz) is the name given to the mobile luminous spheres which have been observed during thunderstorms. A typical ball lightning is about the size of an orange or a grapefruit and has a lifetime of a few seconds. Compilations of eye-witness reports of ball lightning have been published by Brand(1923), Rodewald(1954), Dewan(1964), Silberg(1965), McNally(1966) and Rayle(1967) among others. Visual sightings are often accompanied by sound, odor, and permanent material damage, and hence it would appear difficult to deny the reality of the phenomenon [as Humphreys(1936) has done]. In a letter to the editor of the London Daily Mail, Morris(1936) described an unusual incident in which a ball lightning caused a tub of water to boil:

During a thunderstorm I saw a large, red hot ball come down from the sky. It struck our house, cut the telephone wire, burnt the window frame,and then buried itself in a tub of water which was underneath. The water boiled for some minutes afterwards, but when it was cool enough for me to search I could find nothing in it."

Other sites report much smaller glowing orbs, so there does not seem to be much consistency here regarding size or movement characteristics. Some witnesses have reported the orbs passing through glass window panes, and even originating from within the house.

My question is this:

Ball lightning, is a transient phenomena, lasting for just a few seconds, so observation and measurement is almost impossible. Attempts to reproduce it in the lab have so far failed. Like paranormal phenomena we rely on eye witness reports only, so how should we treat the subject?

Is it science, or the paranormal, and do we, or should we, class it as a woo woo subject? If we shouldn't, then in what way is it different qualitively, from the reporting and interpretation of UFO and ghost reports, etc.

Discuss!
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Old 12th February 2005, 05:18 PM   #2
Bikewer
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I seem to recall one of those Discovery chanel shows with an experiment that produced such an object. It's been a while, but I believe they were experimenting with a massive static-electricity generator, doing research on regular lightning, and produced a charged sphere which lasted several seconds and then dissapeared with a loud pop or bang.
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Old 12th February 2005, 06:50 PM   #3
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To deem an explanation woowoo, I'd say that this explanation should be one that Occam's razor would shave off if it was applied. With ball lightning it seems to be the most simple and natural hypothesis for the unexplained phenomenon.
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Old 12th February 2005, 07:05 PM   #4
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I should like to see more instances quoted than, say, zero.

Cheers.
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Old 13th February 2005, 01:20 AM   #5
Hantai
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Quote:
Originally posted by Bikewer
I seem to recall one of those Discovery chanel shows with an experiment that produced such an object. It's been a while, but I believe they were experimenting with a massive static-electricity generator, doing research on regular lightning, and produced a charged sphere which lasted several seconds and then dissapeared with a loud pop or bang.
The show in question featured a discussion between Arthur C. Clarke and Dr. James Tuck from Los Alamos. The footage was from a much earlier experiment conducted by Tuch in the late 60s or early 70s. As far as I know the footage is considered inconclusive due to a lack of information on video frame rate and other details. The experiment did not yield much useful information, most notably because it failed to prove whether the electrical phenomenon generated was in any way related to ball lightning as (and if) it occurs in the wild.

There's a newer paper on producing ball lightning effects in the lab here: http://home.dmv.com/~tbastian/ball.htm. Apparently the Corums produced some decent video footage too.
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Old 13th February 2005, 11:58 AM   #6
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Hmmmm... closest I've come to real ball lightning was back in '97 when during a thunderstorm I saw a horizontal bolt of lightning with "balls" all along the length, like a string of pearls. But I don't think that's what we're talking about and I seem to have read somewhere that that is a well-documented phenomenon. Correct me if I'm wrong.

A friend of mine claimed to have seen a ball of light come out of his dog's house one night, then roll down his hill in his backyard then disappear in a marshy area near a treeline about a hundred yards away. Who knows if he was speaking true or not. At the time I immediately said "swamp gas" but that doesn't really jive with what he was saying if he was even telling the truth. He seemed sincerely worried about it because after that he never went near that doghouse ... always gave it a wide berth.

Don't know if it ever bothered the dog ...

But I never assumed that there was anything paranormal about it at all. I just assumed that if he was speaking true, then it must be either swamp gas or ball lightning and that someone somewhere probably had an explanation for how ball lightning formed. Later I learned that we don't really understand it at all.

I've also heard anecdotes about ball lightning forming inside passenger aircraft during electrical storms a rolling down the center aisle for all to see. But those are anecdotes and it's been so long since I read that I couldn't tell you the source.

Also brings to mind reports of "earth lights" during periods of seismic activity. Are there any well documented cases of that, preferably with photo evidence?

So how do we treat this phenomenon? Well, keep working on reproducing it in the lab. If it can be reproduced, it can be studied as to why it forms. That's about all I can say.
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Old 14th February 2005, 12:56 AM   #7
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So far, nobody is treating this subject in the same way as other paranormal eye-witness phenomena. I am interested in finding out why.

Is it because the subject matter has gained respectability, as scientists are already investigating the phenomena on the basis that they may be able to reproduce it in the lab, or is it because most skeptics on this board have already assumed the phenomena as simply another form of natural lightning?

It also seems true that no eye-witness has yet interpreted what they have seen as anything other than natural phenomena, or at least not given any opinion at all as to any other alternative explanation. This, IMHO, tends to allow the subject to be discussed against the background of science rather than the paranormal. Humphreys(1937) though, denying the reality of the observations, seems to be the only exception, at least in public.

Can it be assumed then that other similar aerial phenomena, such as UFOs, has been so tainted by spurious and wild ET explanations and interpretations from witnesses and pseudo-scientists, that the subject has now disinfranchised itself from further serious discussion and scientific analysis?

My hypothesis is therefore that societal and cultural attitudes to rare and transient phenomena can dictate the pattern of scientific response to subsequent investigation and interpretation.

E.G. If it is assumed from the outset that the phenomena is of natural origin, it will be treated scientifically. If the phenomena is associated with supernatural or extra-terrestial origins, it will automatically be treated as a candidate for de-bunking, and subsequently scare off on-going funding for serious scientific investigation.

Further comments welcomed.
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Old 14th February 2005, 01:40 AM   #8
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There might be some truth to your hypothesis but it's very much a generalization, there are bound to be plenty of exceptions. Take UFOs for example, it isn't true to say that the matter is only discussed either from the woo or the skeptic's angle, there're plenty of discussions that center on the posibilities of extended space travel and the limitations of relativity vs FTL travel, and therefore by extension on whether it's even possible for (presumed) aliens to visit us or us to go out and find life elsewhere. A UFO discussion that evaluates the feasibility of the Alcubierre drive given a suitably advanced level of technology isn't the same as a UFO discussion that discusses whether the greys really like anal probing that much, and both exist out there.
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