Balls of LightningMoments after hearing a sound like a thunderclap, a Parisian man reportedly witnessed an extraordinary sight: a fireball the size of a human head emerging from the fireplace in his fourth-story apartment. It pushed aside the frame covering and darted toward him "like a cat." He hastily withdrew his feet, and the ball moved to the center of the room. Though bright, it gave off no discernible heat. It ascended slightly, headed back to the fireplace, and rose up the chimney, exploding just before it escaped into the open air. It caused considerable damage to the chimney top.
This incident, which occurred on July 5, 1852, is one example of a strange and so far unexplained natural phenomenon, ball lightning, whose existence some scientists still dispute. The skeptics' objections are strikingly like those raised against reports of unidentified flying objects: the evidence is primarily anecdotal, most if not all of the photographs are open to question, and no conceivable scientific theory can make sense of the phenomenon.
The alternative (in other words, debunking) explanations also echo those voiced in the UFO debate. The "objects," the debunkers say, are either optical illusions-most likely visual afterimages formed by the observation of lightning strikes-or natural occurrences such as St. Elmo's Fire (a corona discharge from an object protruding above the ground during an electrical storm), misperceived or exaggerated. The former explanation requires remarkably obtuse witnesses. The latter has the virtue of at least surface plausibility, but as James Dale Barry, a leading scientific authority on ball lightning, notes, "A characteristic distinction between St. Elmo's Fire and ball lightning is the apparently independent motion of the latter. Although St. Elmo's Fire has been observed to move about, it may move along a conductor, sometimes pulsating as it moves, but it does not free itself from the conductor. Thus, it does not exhibit the descending, hovering, or flying motions that are common to ball lightning."
The first investigator to describe ball lightning in the scientific literature was G. W. Richman, a Russian. Tragically and ironically, his interest led to his death. The incident took place in 1754 during a thunderstorm, when Richman was attempting to measure the energy of a lightning strike. As he stood behind his equipment, a small, blue, fist-sized sphere came out of the electrodes and floated toward his face. A moment later it exploded violently, killing him and knocking his assistant unconscious.
Fortunately, deaths related to ball-lightning manifestations are rare, but many observers have witnessed its destructive qualities. In Paris in July 1849, during an electric storm, a red ball hovered about 20 feet above a tree. Abruptly it caught fire, burned up, and burst open, freeing jagged streaks of lightning to shoot in all directions, One hit a nearby house and blew a cannon-sized hole in it. What remained of the ball started to spin and spark and then exploded with great force, knocking down three pedestrians.
At 6:30 P.M. on October 8, 1919, at a busy downtown intersection in Salina, Kansas, a "ball of fire as large as a washtub floating low in the air" struck the side of a building, ripped out bricks, and demolished a second-story window. It then exploded with a "bang that resembled the noise made by the discharge of a large pistol, filling the air with balls of fire as large as baseballs, which floated away in all directions," according to a Monthly Weather Review correspondent (October 1919 issue). "Some of these balls followed trolley and electric-light wires in a snaky sort of manner and some simply floated off through the air independently of any objects near by. An electric switch box across the street was ripped open and a transformer destroyed, leaving the east side of the town in darkness."
In the summer of 1960, as Louise Matthews of South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, lay on her living room couch, she looked up to see a huge red ball coming through a window and the Venetian blinds, both closed and neither damaged in any way by the object's passage. When the ball, which was making a sizzling sound, passed by her, Mrs. Matthews felt a tingling on the back of her neck. She put her hand to the spot but felt nothing. The ball went through the living room and into the dining room, exitingagain without damage-through a closed window. She called her husband, who came home from work to find the back of her hand burned. The hair at the back of her head fell out, leaving the skin there as smooth as that in the front of her face.
During a violent early-evening thunderstorm on August 12, 1970, a "red ball of fire" appeared above Sidmouth, England, crackled for a few seconds, then exploded with a deafening roar. Jagged flashes of lightning shot from it toward the ground. At that moment 2,500 area television sets were cut off.
Ball lightning is not, of course, invariably harmful. It does not even always explode at the end of its manifestation. British scientist Alexander Russell saw ball lightning behaving both ways. He wrote in Nature (November 23, 1930):
Many years ago I saw two globes of lightning. They were reddish-yellow in color, and appeared to be rotating. One of them struck a building and burst with a loud report, causing the inhabitants to open the windows and look out to see what had happened, but as there was no trace of anything they looked bewildered. The other drifted slowly away. Globular lightning makes a slight noise as it drifts about. It has been compared with the purring of a cat.
TheoriesHard scientific data about ball lightning are rare a major reason for some scientists' continuing doubts about the phenomenon's existence. Even Barry, a major proponent, acknowledges, "The unbiased examination of ball lightning reports leads one to conclude that a great percentage of the reports are highly questionable and could be interpreted in several ways." (Again, these words echo those that have been said of UFO reports.) Of the many photographs alleged to be of ball lightning, Barry believes that only three "are not obviously erroneous or highly suspect."
Much of the problem of explaining (as opposed to explaining away) the phenomenon has to do with the varying descriptions witnesses have given. The ball either explodes loudly or vanishes silently; it is white, orange, red, blue, or purple; it is small or it is large; it survives for a few seconds or a couple of minutes. "These may seem like trivial distinctions," science writer Gordon Stein observes, "but they cause theorists no end of difficulties. Explanations that will work for a ball of one second's duration, for example, cannot account for a 10second ball." A ball that lasts one minute or more "requires an energy content so high that there is no known way for it to be formed."
Ball lightning also has the strange habit of penetrating the metal walls of in-flight aircraft. On March 19,1963, R. C. Jennison, a professor of electrical energy, saw a ball-lightning globe first outside, then inside, an airliner he was taking from New York to Washington. An electrical storm was in progress. Of this report Stein notes, "Microwave, electric, radio or heat energy-all of these figure in the various theories-could not have gotten through the metal fuselage. We can also eliminate antimatter as a possible cause of ball lightning [an extraordinary hypothesis proposed by E.T.F. Ashby and C. Whitehead in Nature, March 19, 1971]. When antimatter (matter with exactly the opposite charges from those on normal matter on each of its subatomic particles) comes in contact with normal matter, both are annihilated.... Antimatter would have a difficult time getting through the body or window of an airplane without colliding with some regular matter, thus destroying itself."
If the evidence for ball lightning is almost all anecdotal and if it seems too bizarre for any so-far imaginable physical theory to explain, why is it at least marginably acceptable to much of the scientific community when UFOs, the evidence for which shares many of the same problems, are not? If anything, the UFO evidence is better; no ball-lightning case is so well-documented as, for example, the January 1981 Trans-en-Province physical-trace case investigated by France's official UFO-investigative agency (discussed in the entry on unidentified flying objects).
The answer is not that no scientists have seen UFOs. In fact, many scientists, including some prominent ones, have seen UF0s, and some have acknowledged as much publicly. More likely, scientists see ball lightning as natural, even if deeply enigmatic, phenomena, whereas UFOs, if they exist, imply the operation of an alien intelligence in the earth's atmosphere -a prospect so incredible that it causes scientists, on some unconscious level, to see the balllightning evidence as a cup half full and the UFO evidence a cup half empty.