Field of Science

Shit, no ball lightning

Sigh sigh sigh. When I was a teenager I read about ball lightning, and ever since I have dreamed of seeing one. It's supposed to be a spherical ball of electricity, but an article in eSkeptic argues somewhat convincingly that the phenomenon does not exist at all. I'm disappointed!

One argument against its existence is that description of balls of lightning (BL) are very varied/contradictory:
According to reports, BL occurs in any type of weather, not just storms; it can be any color; it can be motionless or moving at any speed, often against the wind; it can disappear violently or silently; it may follow wires or edges or travel independently; it may be outside or inside; its life time varies from a fraction of a second to several minutes; its shape can be spherical or pear-shaped; it is either silent or noisy; etc.
Besides, apparently there are many other explanations for this supposed phenomenon, such as
  • bright astronomical objects at low altitude, sometimes seen in mirage
  • normal lightning igniting hydrocarbon gases in the atmosphere, and (of course)
  • misinterpretations of photographs:
Until the early 1970s, a photograph taken in 1961 at Castleford (Yorkshire, England) had been interpreted as showing the path of BL. Even New Scientist magazine described it as the ‘Path of a Thunderbolt’. But a decade later it was claimed that it showed the pulsed trace from a street lamp (Davies and Standler) and a decade after that it was demonstrated that this was correct (Campbell 1981b): the photographer incautiously moved the camera while the shutter was still open. A Russian photograph taken in 1957 had the same explanation, but not before a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences endorsed the picture on the basis of similar pictures he had seen in a 1939 US journal (Campbell 1987). He did not know that the pictures were all produced by lamps, presumably as hoaxes.
This is all very disappointing to me. Yet another childhood dream gone the way of Santa*, vampires, and ether.

* I actually never believed in Santa, because I knew no white dude would dare enter my neighborhood after dark.**

** Okay, the actual reason was that no one in my neighborhood had chimneys. I recently read somewhere that I cannot find now that children aren't at all as disappointed when they realize that Santa is a hoax as some adults think. Rather, they play along with the adults for the benefit of the younger children, and in this way feel a subtle connection with adults. Neat, no?


  1. My wife
    being a teacher, recently had a discussion with a mom, who wanted her to stop explaining the kids that Santa is fake...
    the kids in my wifes class are 11 and older.

    Land of the free, home of the brave, society of stupids...

    Cheers Arend

  2. Wow, that seems a tad on the extreme.

  3. I learnt BL in a picture children's picture book when I was little.
    A round shaped light slipped through the window seam of the timerwolves' log house, and cut them heads!
    I has been very scared to get my head cut sometime without noticing some round thing slipping into my house.
    So BL is fake...horaaaay!
    Yes that book WAS a children's picture book, very graphic memory about cutting heads.


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