Scientist Claims To Have Theory On Mysterious Balls Of Lightning
October 19, 2012

Scientist Claims To Have Theory On Mysterious Balls Of Lightning

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

CSIRO scientist John Lowke thinks he has the mysterious balls of lightning thing figured out, despite himself never witnessing one.

Lowke has written a new scientific paper, and has also given the first mathematical solution explaining the birth of ball lightning and how it is capable of passing through glass.

Documented sightings of ball lightning have been made across the world for centuries, but no explanation of how it occurs has been universally accepted by scientists. These balls of lightning have been known to form on glass, appearing in homes and even in airplanes.

Previous theories of ball lightning include microwave radiation from thunderclouds, oxidizing aerosols, nuclear energy, dark matter, and even black holes as causes for ball lightning, but Lowke disputes all of these theories.

He proposes that the ball lightning is caused when leftover ions are swept to the ground following a lightning strike.

After lightning strikes the ground, it leaves behind a trail of charged particles, or ions. In most cases, these positive and negative ions recombine in a split second, and any remaining ions travel down to the ground.

He says this is a result of a stream of ions accumulating on the outside of a glass window and resulting electric field on the other side excites air molecules to form a ball discharge.

He said the field gives free electrons on the inside of the window enough energy to knock off electrons from surrounding air molecules, as well as release photons, which creates a glowing ball.

"This is the first paper which gives a mathematical solution explaining the birth or initiation of ball lighting," Lowke told Discovery News.

He said the next step is to use the theory to replicate ball lightning in the laboratory, which could prove to be difficult.

One account of ball lightning comes from the 1960s, when a C-133A cargo plane was flying from California to Hawaii. Former Lieutenant Don Smith says he saw two horns of Saint Elmo's fire appear on the planet's radar cover, followed by ball lightning inside the cockpit.

"It looked as if the airplane had bull's horns...they were glowing with the blue of electricity," Lowke told Discovery News. "(It) was driven by ions from the aircraft radar operated at maximum power during a dense fog."

He said about a third of the sightings end in a bang, which may be because the electric field tends to heat the gas making it hotter and hotter.