I hope you can help me with this one — most of my friends think I'm crazy. I am convinced my physical presence has the ability to make streetlights burn out. On an average night, walking through a parking lot, at least one or two street lights will go out when I approach, then regain their luminous state after I have passed. Could there be some sort of electrochemical imbalance in my body that causes this to happen? Am I surrounded by some strange magnetic field? This happens only with street lights, not with lights in my home or public buildings. Is there a scientific explanation, am I looney, or do I just pay too much attention to street lights?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Nothing personal, Matthew, but our default explanation for things like this is that you are looney. However, on investigation (we had little Ed bring it up on talk radio), we are wondering if there is more to this than meets the eye.
When the sodium vapor bulbs commonly used in streetlights start to go bad, they “cycle” — go on and off repeatedly. Cecil is having a hard time getting the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board to agree on what happens, but apparently the bulb overheats, goes out, cools down, then relights. If you’re walking past when this happens and you’re the neurotic type, you think it’s your fault. This surely accounts for most of the reports we have gotten about this over the years.
But maybe not all. While making one of his periodic reports to the nation on the Mara Tapp show on WBEZ radio in Chicago, little Ed mentioned your letter, figuring he might get a few calls from, as he indelicately put it, “the looney tune quadrant of the listening audience.” As usual he got no help from Mara Tapp, who thought he was making the whole thing up. Also as usual, though, the lines lit up with listeners saying the same thing had happened to them. One caller, saying there was a 12-step program for streetlight snuffers, pointedly told Mara it was common for people to be in denial about this. So there.
And then there was a call from Joe. Joe claimed that when he and a friend walked down a street in Chicago once, eight or nine of the dozen or so street lights they passed went out as they approached, then relit after they had gone by. While subsequent forays into the city have not been so unenlightening, Joe says he will sometimes put out two or three lights in the course of a stroll, although he cannot do so at will. Hmm, said little Ed.
We are not about to say we believe in bodily emanations. No doubt it is all just coincidence. Or maybe Joe is lying, crazy, or under the influence. (He sounded OK, but on the phone you can’t tell if your source’s eyes are dilated.)
But we never rule anything out, especially if we can get a column out of it. We checked with several electrical engineering types, who professed bafflement. Deficient hypotheses include: Joe is somehow triggering the photocell that causes streetlamps to switch on and off. But Chicago streetlamps don’t have individual photocells. The photocell is in a master electrical box that controls 25 or 30 lights.
Joe is causing the bulb to vibrate loose. Supposedly if you hit the pole in the right spot the luminaire (the part with the bulb) will whip back and forth so sharply that the bulb loses contact. But Joe says he doesn’t hit the poles, periodically drop a box of anvils, or anything like that.
Seeing as how we’re not making much progress, we are faced with several choices: Give up in frustration. We’d sooner die.
Conduct six weeks of in-depth investigation. Right, like we get paid by the hour for this.
Fob the job off on the Teeming Millions. The very thing. We invite reports from persons who believe they douse more street lights than can be explained by mere happenstance. We are particularly interested in hearing from people who can do this at will, without the aid of wire cutters, slingshots, etc. Perhaps nothing will come of this. But you never know.
The delightful ones: A report
Here’s what I’ve seen as far as the streetlights thing goes, where they go off as people approach, and come back on as they move away. Senior Week in ’93 down at Ocean City, Maryland, my girlfriend and I were hanging out with another couple. This other couple had been having a rocky relationship over the preceding few months, but then about three days into the week they had some incredible love thing happen. Both later said that that was their most memorable time in their relationship. Anyhow, as the day wore into night we went to the boardwalk for a little fun, and as we walked down the boardwalk we noticed that the streetlights would flicker and go off as we approached, then flicker back on as we walked away. After a while the other couple separated and went off to do something. As I watched them walk away I noticed that a ratio of about eight out of ten streetlights would go out as they walked beneath and then come back on as they passed by. It had stopped happening to my girlfriend and me, so obviously it was the other couple who were causing this. They later mentioned that it continued all night. … Weird stuff, man.
While a student in Boston, I often experienced the streetlights shorting out as I passed under them (sometimes three and four in a row). This was witnessed on several occasions by friends. However, I am unable to make this happen at will. In my case, this phenomenon occurs when I go hyperactive. During this period, usually brought on by binge drinking or a full moon, I have no choice but to exist for long periods of time without eating or sleeping. This hyperactive state is when the lights go out, in more ways than one.
It used to happen to me, too. Then it began to happen less and less. I’m only 30. Too young for electropause. Then I read your column, and on Saturday night I get this whole bank of streetlights to come on. Not as a group, but one after the other just preceding my path down Ashland Avenue.
I have caused streetlights to go out in North America, Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Nepal, New Zealand …
… Chicago, New York, Athens (Georgia), upstate New York, and Arizona …
If I had a few in me it became clear I had some secret, but uncontrollable, power over the streetlight …
This is an example of what we in our lab call “the van is always at the corner” because one only notices the van when it is indeed parked at the corner, not the times when it is gone. How many lamps does one walk under that don’t go out? You just notice those that do.
Much as I admire your steely logic, Josh, I’m never letting you sit around the campfire when I’m telling ghost stories. I’m charmed by the thought that powerful physio-emotional emanations may be behind HLS (human light switch) syndrome. Lest you think my mid-life crisis has put me completely off my nut, I realize it’s a crock. But it’s a fun crock.
Now, since my contract obliges me to insert at least one fact per column, this word from a top high pressure sodium engineer at General Electric: “It is a combination of coincidence and wishful thinking. … Cycling [on and off] occurs because the [lamp] ballast is only able to sustain an arc with a certain maximum voltage. As high pressure sodium lamps age, their voltage increases as sodium is lost by various chemical processes. [The lamp starts at a low voltage, which climbs to a steady-state value as the lamp warms up.] It is the steady-state voltage that slowly increases with burning hours due to sodium loss. Eventually, the ballast will only be able to start a cold lamp and warm it up to the dropout voltage.” Then it goes out until the lamp is cool enough to restart. The GE guy preceded these comments with the note: “Here’s one explanation. Space aliens is another.” Hmph.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.