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The Mystery Of Ball Lightning

By James Donahue

 A recent story in National Geographic described ball lightning as a scientific mystery since scientists have not been able to identify what it is, or how it occurs.


The story quoted Graham K. Hubler, a physicist for the U.S. Naval Reserve Laboratory in Washington, D.C., as saying that while it remains a mystery to science, he knows it exists because he has seen it.


Hubler said he was a young lad of about 16, and got caught in a thunderstorm, so ducked under an open-sided park pavilion to wait it out. He said he saw a glowing, tennis ball-size ball of light hovering near him.


“It drifted along a few feet off the ground. But when it came inside (the pavilion) it dropped down to the ground and skittered along the floor. It made lots of gyrations or oscillations and a hissing sound like boiling water. When it went out the other side (of the pavilion) it climbed back up (to a level of several feet off the ground.)”


Hubler said the ball behaved as if it had a charge and was following electric field lines on the Earth.


This writer recalls a similar incident that occurred in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. Like Hubler, I also was a young man living with my family in our farm home in Michigan. Our house, a large two-story brick building, was a target for lightning strikes because it sat out in an open area and we had a very tall television antenna anchored on the center of the roof. The house was wisely protected by several copper lightning rods and all of them, including the antenna, were attached to a heavy metal cable that dropped down along the side of the house to a heavy grounding rod.


It was common during lightning storms for our house to be struck at least once, and sometimes several times by lightning. Every time it happened there was a loud crack and we could hear the electrical charge crackle and rattle as it followed that cable into the ground.


The ball lightning was surprisingly different. We were sitting in our living room when this sphere of crackling energy, about the size of a grapefruit, came right through the south wall and it slowly moved northward across the room until it disappeared in a little flash.


It was the kind of event that you watch in disbelief as it is happening. When it was over we all looked at each other and asked if everybody saw the same thing. It was kind of like watching a ghost, and then being afraid to talk about it for fear that our mind was playing tricks.


The National Geographic story notes that thousands of eyewitnesses to this phenomenon describe the same thing, a floating, glowing ball that ranges from tennis ball to beach ball in size. They generally occur during thunderstorms. The ball of light floats near the ground, sometimes bounces off the ground or other objects, and glows with the power of a 100-watt bulb. Some have been reported to melt through glass windows or burn through screens.


Our ball seemed to literally pass through the wall. There was no burn mark at the point of entry.


There are even rare reports of people being electrocuted by ball lightning. It was said that Georg Rickmann, a pioneer in electricity, was killed when he came in contact with ball lightning in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1753.


Some of the older folks had a name for ball lightning. They called it St. Elmo’s Fire. There are stories about people seeing glowing lights in the forests or along fence rows at night. A neighbor once told us he saw such a ball of light dancing along the roof of our barn and thought for sure our barn was going to burn. It didn’t.


St. Elmo’s Fire also occurs on the decks and masts of ships at sea. Sailors, who are usually a superstitious lot, usually record such a sighting as a bad omen.


One spectacular display occurred aboard the Goodrich Line steamer Truesdell, on the Great Lakes, in 1872. The Trusdell was battling a storm on Lake Michigan in the midst of a trip from Grand Haven, Michigan to Chicago, when a strange light appeared on the fantail at about 11 p.m.


The crew said the light glowed briefly before it disappeared. Then it was replaced by three balls of fire on the foremast. The balls hung over the ship for nearly an hour, at one time becoming so bright they illuminated the deck. Some of the braver sailors climbed the mast to get a closer look. They said the balls hissed like a hot iron when water was thrown on them. After a while the lights faded away until they disappeared.