Does ball lightning really exist?

September 17, 2004

Dear Cecil:

In your recent column about lightning, what intrigued me the most was your mention of "ball lightning — a rare, poorly understood phenomenon that behaves like a mixture of electricity and fire." The accompanying anecdote was incredible. In the novel Lonesome Dove there is mention of lightning hopping along the horns of cattle, but I don't remember if it was in the form of a ball. Do we know any more about it, Cecil?

Cecil replies:

We don't know jack, though not for lack of trying. The first systematic survey of mysterious glowing globules was published in 1838, and countless papers have appeared since. Despite that . . . well, let's say we have yet to deal with some basic issues. In the book Ball Lightning: An Unsolved Problem in Atmospheric Physics (1999), British physicist Mark Stenhoff writes, "Ball lightning, if it exists, is a phenomenon that is both short lived and unpredictable" (my emphasis). Elsewhere he says, "My position is . . . perhaps that of an agnostic."

You see my point. Here's a fellow who devoted more than 20 years of his life to studying ball lightning. He collected numerous case reports, directed the ball lightning division of a UK storm research center, wrote a book — in short, he made a career out of the thing. Yet after all that time — and believe me, I admire the guy for admitting it — he's not sure if what he was studying is real.

Anybody who questions ball lightning's authenticity is certain to hear from its defenders. One showdown occurred in 1971. Astrophysicist Edward Argyle suggested in Nature that ball lightning was merely a positive afterimage — i.e., an optical illusion, an idea that dates back to the early days of ball lightning studies. In this view, witnesses are dazzled by an ordinary lightning strike, which remains briefly imprinted on their retinas. When they look away, the bright, ball-like afterimage seems to move around, then fades.

Other scientists didn't buy Argyle's contention, and a lively correspondence ensued. Physicist R.C. Jennison claimed that he had personally witnessed ball lightning during an airplane flight. What's more, he'd reported the incident in a letter to Nature two years earlier. Here's the nub:

I was seated near the front of the passenger cabin of an all-metal airliner (Eastern Airlines Flight EA 539) on a late night flight from New York to Washington. The aircraft encountered an electrical storm during which it was enveloped in a sudden bright and loud electrical discharge (0005 h EST, March 19, 1963). Some seconds after this a glowing sphere a little more than 20 cm in diameter emerged from the pilot's cabin and passed down the aisle of the aircraft approximately 50 cm from me, maintaining the same height and course for the whole distance over which it could be observed.

In his 1971 letter, Jennison added that "my account tallied precisely with that of the only other occupant of the passenger cabin, a terrified air hostess who was strapped in her seat on the opposite side and farther to the rear of the aircraft. She saw the ball continue to travel down the aisle and finally disappear towards the lavatory at the end. I had no alcohol on this flight."

To judge from later comments, this exchange was a watershed — previously scientists had been skeptical about ball lightning, but afterward they accepted it as real. However, let's note a few points. First, notwithstanding the remarkable detail Jennison provides — he even estimates the wattage of the ball's optical output — he didn't bother to submit his report until six years after the fact. Second, we have only his word that the flight attendant saw exactly what he did. Third, despite the fact that he must have spent a fair amount of time reviewing the incident with the woman to be certain his account "tallied precisely" with hers, he didn't bother to report her name. Fourth, there's no evidence he spoke to the pilots, from whose cabin the ball lightning emerged.

Do I think Jennison made it all up? No, but as any cop, reporter, or trial lawyer knows, eyewitness accounts of brief, startling events are often unreliable. Even a casual review of the literature suggests that much of the damage attributed to ball lightning was caused by the ordinary kind. I don't claim all the evidence can be explained away or that ball lightning is strictly an illusion, but we're dealing with a low ratio of signal to noise. Anybody wanting to get to the bottom of this will have to make a systematic effort to establish what we really know.

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