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Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009 | ISSN 1556-5696

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Steuart Campbell discusses the evidence (or lack thereof) of the phenomenon known as ball lightning. Steuart Campbell is a Scottish science writer born in 1937. Originally an architect, he has a degree in science and applied mathematics. He is the author of many skeptical articles on unsual phenomena and mysteries. In particular he is the author of The UFO Mystery Solved, The Rise and Fall of Jesus and The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence.


Ball Lightning -- Globe of Fire Descending into a Room, in The Aerial World, by Dr. G. Hartwig, London, 1886. P. 267. Library Call Number QC863.4 H33 1886. Image ID: libr0524, Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection. This image is in the public domain due to its age.

The Case Against Ball Lightning

by Steuart Campbell

Ball lightning (BL) is popularly described as a slowly-moving luminous ball not more than twelve inches (30 cm) in diameter occasionally seen at ground level during a thunderstorm. Scientists usually understand it as an electrical discharge phenomenon somehow associated with normal lightning.

The existence of BL is controversial with opinions and explanations changing over time. While many theories have been advanced to explain it, none of them account for all the reported characteristics, Further, it has not been created in laboratory conditions with all these characteristics, and reliable accounts of it are rare and often suspect. Because of perceptual and memory problems, anecdotal evidence is of doubtful value. There is no photograph, film or video recording that can be accepted unreservedly as showing BL. Many forget the null hypothesis, which has explained many postulated phenomena, such as phlogiston and the ether, that turn out to be nonexistent. The null hypothesis may also explains BL, which could be a chimera, a pseudo-phenomenon.

Skepticism regarding the existence of BL goes back at least to Michael Faraday and Francois Arago in the nineteenth century. In 1839 Faraday, while allowing that balls of fire might appear in the atmosphere, doubted that they had anything to do with lightning or atmospheric electricity (Barry, p.133). More recently, Karl Berger reported that, in over 20 years of study as a meteorologist and lightning investigator, he had never observed BL. He concluded that it did not exist (Barry, p.133). Other scientists have reached the same conclusion. James Lovelock put tales of BL in the same category as those of spontaneous human combustion and crop circles (Lovelock, p. 86). Even Barry allows that unbiased examination of reports leads to the conclusion that a great percentage are highly questionable and could be interpreted in several ways (op. cit. p.134). Among those ways is the persistence of vision theory proposed by Lord Kelvin in 1888. He claimed that the uniform size reported in many cases was ascribed to an illusion associated with the blind spot in the eye (Singer, p.19). Lovelock reported such a case after a lightning flash (p. 86). Other sources of deception proposed have been will-o’-the-wisp and owls with luminous wings, but the existence of both of these is itself doubtful. In recent years, some scientists have accepted the existence of BL, but with little evidence.

Reports of BL suffer from defects inherent in the human perceptual and memory systems. Because both perception and memory are reconstructive processes, what we perceive is not necessarily what the sense organs receive. This is demonstrated by various well-known optical illusions, such as the moon illusion. Distant stationary lights are subject to several movement illusions, all of which attribute movement to the light. The most famous is the autokinetic illusion, in which a stationary light (usually a star) will appear to move about at random.

The size or distance of an unknown object cannot be determined by observers without additional information. Observers usually make a guess about either the size or distance of an object and then determine the other parameter from their guess. In fact both can be wrong. The size of distant objects seen near the horizon can be exaggerated (the moon illusion), as can an object’s altitude (angle above the horizon). Nor can observers usually distinguish between change in size of an object and change in its distance, usually interpreting a change in size as a change in distance. A phenomenon called size constancy can interfere with size perception. Even estimates of time-span are unreliable; fascination tends to shorten it. Estimates of brightness are meaningless (it is a relative term) and observers tend to make false associations, drawing unwarranted conclusions from what they perceive. They may associate effects with the wrong cause. In the case of anomalous luminous phenomena, observers try to identify them by reference to the models they carry in their minds. Clearly they can only identify a phenomenon as BL if they have heard of it. Conversely they are likely to identify an anomalous object as BL simply because they have heard of it.

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Nor is memory much more reliable than perception. People who report BL and who have heard about other reports may, inadvertently, draw on these previous reports for their own report. Tests show that reliability decreases with time and it is strongly suspected that observers attempt to make facts fit theory.

Consequently, genuine anecdotal reports of BL must be regarded with suspicion. Observers are mostly unaware of the distortions involved in perception and memory. Worse still, asking people if they have seen BL begs the question of its existence and ignores their inability to distinguish it (if it exists) from other phenomena. The question plants a concept in the mind which will distort the memory of any genuine perception. Such a question should not be asked and surveys based on it are worthless.

The contradictory results obtained from reports were noted by an early investigator, F. von Lepel (Singer, p. 62). 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.

In other words, the phenomenon exhibits no consistent characteristics and appears to be all things to all observers. One investigator commented that there are very few natural phenomena that observation makes more difficult to explain (Singer, p. 62). However such contradictions might be explained if the observers are reporting many different phenomena, none of which are actually BL. Among the objects mistaken for BL are bright astronomical objects at low altitude, sometimes seen in mirage (Campbell 1988a).

Because anecdotal reports are unreliable, so are illustrations based on these reports. However, it is more difficult to explain reports of physical damage and photographic evidence. It is sometimes alleged that BL can penetrate closed windows and the literature contains several alleged examples. When a mysterious hole appeared in a window of his department during a storm, a professor of meteorology in Edinburgh concluded that BL was the cause. However later investigation showed a simpler explanation—mechanical damage (Campbell 1981a). Almost circular cracks can appear in sheet glass when subjected to the appropriate sudden stress.

Reports of extensive damage such as fires or explosions may more easily be explained as the result of ordinary lightning strikes. Such reports are not clarified by the popular belief that lightning strikes are the result of something called a ‘thunderbolt’.

Barry demonstrated that a long-lived luminous ball phenomenon can be produced by spark-initiated combustion of low-density hydrocarbon gas at atmospheric pressure (p.108). This may explain the 1975 report from a housewife in Smethwick (English Midlands) that BL appeared over her gas cooker (Campbell 1988b). Normal lightning may ignite hydrocarbon gases in the atmosphere, producing similar phenomena, but this is not what is understood as BL.

Photographs alleged to show BL are as suspect as anecdotal reports and sketches. The camera cannot lie, but what it shows can be misinterpreted and the photographer can lie. 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.

Many alleged pictures of BL are deliberate fakes. They appear to include the picture produced in 1966 by a former Canadian Air Force pilot, which misled the American editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology, who used it on the cover of his skeptical books on UFOs (Campbell 1988c).

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Although it is fairly easy to take a photograph, or to fake one, which many mistakenly interpret as showing BL, it should be less easy to produce a film or video sequence that could fool anyone. However, in 1973 a film appeared that was claimed to show BL traveling slowly across the horizon near Aylesbury (England). It shows a bright ball of light moving on a steady horizontal course for twenty-three seconds until it suddenly vanishes. Because it was reported initially as a UFO, the film has been shown many times at UFO conferences and has featured in a BBC TV program about UFOs. But it was also thought that it showed BL. Later it was demonstrated that the ‘ball’ was burning fuel being dumped from a damaged US fighter-bomber; the aircraft itself, nearly four miles (6 km) away, was not visible beside the fireball and too far away to be heard (Campbell 1991).

In 1989 a TV station in south-east England screened a video of a smudgy spherical object with a hole which was captured accidentally as the videographer attempted to video normal lightning; he had not seen anything unusual during the recording. The videographer thought it might show BL and this explanation was initially endorsed by Professor Roger Jennison of the University of Kent (he has himself reported seeing BL). However, it was later demonstrated that the object in the sequence was a combination of an artifact of the camera itself and a distant street light (Bergstrom and Campbell).

References
  1. Bergstrom, Arne and Steuart Campbell. 1991. “The Ashford ‘Ball Lightning’ Video Explained.” pp. 185–190 in J. Meteorology, UK. Vol. 16, No. 160.
  2. Barry, James Dale. 1980. Ball Lightning and Bead Lightning: Extreme Forms of Atmospheric Electricity. New York: Plenum Press.
  3. Campbell, Steuart. 1981a. “Not Lightning Damage.” pp. 66–71 in Weather, Vol. 36, No. 3.
  4. ___. 1981b. “How Not to Photograph Ball Lightning.” pp. 1096–1097/1105 in Brit. J. of Photography, Vol. 128, No. 6326.
  5. ___. 1987. “Ball Lightning Exposed! Another Picture puzzle…” pp. 1537–1538 in Brit. J. of Photography. Vol. 134, No. 6645.
  6. ___. 1988a. “Russian accounts of ball lightning.” pp. 126–128 in J. of Meteorology, UK. Vol. 13, No. 128.
  7. ___. 1988b. “The Smethwick Ball Lightning Report.” pp. 391–393 in J. of Meteorology, UK. Vol.13, No. 134.
  8. ___. 1988c. “The Childerhose UFO: fact or fiction?” P. 72 in Brit. J. of Photography, Vol. 135, No. 6686.
  9. ___. 1991. “Fireball by Day.” pp. 22–23 in Brit. J. of Photography, Vol. 138, No. 6814.
  10. Davies, D.W. and R.B. Standler. 1972. “Ball lightning.” P. 144 in Nature, 240 (17 November).
  11. Lovelock, J. 2001 Homage to Gaia. Oxford University Press, USA
  12. Singer, Stanley. 1971. The Nature of Ball Lightning. New York: Plenum Press.

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14 Comments »

14 Comments

  1. Larry Johnson says:

    I find Steuart Campbell’s article “The Case Against Ball Lightning” to be shockingly poor, and a bad example for skeptics everywhere.

    His piece is full of examples of poor or frivolous logic, and is biased beyond all reason.

    Let’s look at just 3 examples found in the first couple paragraphs:

    “Further, it has not been created in laboratory conditions….”
    The fact that BL has not been created in laboratory conditions is a poor argument that it does not exist in nature. Firstly there are few working on recreating the phenomenon, and secondly, there are many examples of natural events that cannot be created in the lab, such as Sprites, which were reported for 100 years before being clearly photographed, and have never been reproduced (obviously).

    “There is no photograph, film or video recording that can be accepted unreservedly….”
    It is 1) an unreasonable expectation to have anything “accepted unreservedly”, and 2) not valid evidence for or against BL in any case. Take the holocaust as an example. There are a large number of people who still believe it never happened, and who don’t “accept unreservedly” the photographic evidence. Is it therefore reasonable to deny its reality? Hardly.

    “More recently, Karl Berger reported that, in over 20 years of study as a meteorologist and lightning investigator, he had never observed BL.” If he never saw a sprite, is that “evidence” that they don’t exist also? His lack of exposure to an event is hardly evidence of the lack of existence of an event.

    Similar comments could be made on nearly every bit of logic in the article, and I find that insulting. Hopefully others look critically, in the tradition of Skeptic thinking, at the article, and the logic, before being swayed one way or the other.

    I understand this is tricky territory. I understand that the evidence for BL is similar to that of extraterrestrials, Lock Ness Monsters, and many many other phenomenon. I understand that disproving an existence is impossible.

    But let’s not lose or pervert critical and logical thinking and barrage readers with 1651 faulty logic words in order to shove one point of view down reader’s throats.

    Come on Skeptic, let’s step up the quality a little okay?

    Larry

    • Rusko says:

      I liked the article.  I don’t think the author was trying to prove the non-existence of BL.  Rather, he is exercising what we should all use as critical thinking and examining the quality of the evidence.
       
      “His lack of exposure to an event is hardly evidence of the lack of existence of an event.”
       
      This statement reminds me of the Carl Sagan story called “The Dragon in My Garage”, where Sagan posits, “What is the difference between and invisible, hovering, cold-fire breathing, ethereal dragon and no dragon at all?”
       
      In science, we can’t prove the non-existence of anything, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it seems that the pool of evidence for BL is not very extraordinary.

  2. Nick says:

    Twice my wife and I “saw” a bluish ball of light about the size of a soft ball come from the area of our exposed water pipes in the kitchen of our old farm house. Both times it appeared to move rapidly (but slower than a thrown object), bounce off the wall and disappear as it crossed the kitchen. After the first encounter, we later found our twin hermit crabs dead. This happened years ago, but never reoccurred after we had our house covered in steel siding and rewired. We have retold this story many, many times.

    Hey, I consider myself an educated, scientific minded skeptic. I don’t know if what we saw was BL some other phenomena and one of us influenced the other, but it seems as real to me as anything I have observed.

  3. Armando Simon says:

    Leaving aside the question of ball lightning, the argument put forth does not make sense: anecdotal evidence should be disregarded. First, if a phenomenon does exist but it is exceedingly rare, anecdotal evidence may be all that is available at the present time. Second, for many years, there was anecdotal reports that Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa had snow, but they were disregarded. Also, that in the Antarctic there were occasional green icebergs. Both were eventually proven to be true. By all means, let us be skeptics, but let’s not throw out the baby along with the bathwater.

  4. Jim Williams says:

    I had heard of BL from several different sources over a number of years. In January 2005, while living in west central Michigan we had a somewhat unusual mid winter thunderstorm. My wife and I had just gone to bed around 11:00 PM. She really hadn’t heard of BL. I had wanted to see it for 40 years. Just as I closed my eyes she yelled with alarm “what’s that”? I of course missed it. She described a soccer ball sized globe hovering, for a few seconds, in our back yard. It disappeared in a flash. Our neighbor, up the road about a quarter of a mile, was out feeding his horses. He saw it floating and heading in our direction. He phoned us at that somewhat late hour to see if we were alright. Anecdotal? You bet.

  5. bob becht says:

    When I was 8 I walked into a dark room. I turned on a lamp hung on the wall. I blue softball sized ball of light came through the outside wall into the room. The ball traveled 10 feet across the room hitting the lamp. The lamp shorted out. I was unhurt. I didn’t learn about ball lighting until 20 years later but this sounds like it. Being a skeptic I know youth and tricks of memory make my account doubtfull. There is a 2007 article in NG about lab production of BL. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/01/070122-ball-lightning.html

  6. Erik from Sweden says:

    I am rather insulted by the article. As a boy, me and my family lived in a small house on the Swedish west coast. One summer a thunder storm roared outside. As always during storms, the telephone was unplugged and we were watching the lightning outside in an adjacent room. I can not remember if there was any particular sound but what I can remember I remember clearly. From the direction of the telephone socket, a lightly yellow football (soccer) sized ball was moving about one meter per second, it went around a corner, accelerated and dissapeared through a closed wooden door. Nothing happened to the door.

    I do not know what was the purpose of the article, if it was to ridicule lightning bolt observers or to make us be more skeptical. If it was the first, I am offended by the ignorance, if it was the latter I think Skeptic is the wrong forum.

  7. Jeffrey Hazzard says:

    I was standing in my kitchen in Valrico, Florida, USA, facing the back yard. I had a screened lanai, an uncovered pool, and a big tree in the back yard.

    Anyway, lightning struck the tree, or just in front of it, flashed several times in an instant, and then seemed to crackle, pop, zig-zag to the house very slowly (as if burning through the air), pass through the aluminum screen frame, through the aluminum window frame and to my telephone on the wall about 2 feet from the window. It seems to me that I don’t know precisely when the lightning/electricity going through the air got to the phone, but I recall it was after the thunder of the initial flashes of lightning in the back yard, and so I’d say at least 3 seconds for the event to happen. Because most of the movement of the sparking traveled horizontally directly toward me, I am not able to say if it was linear or ball in shape. Interestingly the path of the electricity I witnessed more or less was over the ground path of the buried phone cable, but the visible electricity in the air was head height to me and I was standing up (ground graded slightly down hill away from the house). The sod was not scorched and the phone line didn’t seem to be damaged. I never found any damage on the tree and it lives to this day.

    Later, there was a small mark to be seen on the screen room where the lightning (?) or electricity (?) struck it and the phone was dead –had to be replaced. The phone line was fine. The window frame had a clear mark right where I saw the spark pass through it. Was that static electricity or ball lightning, or what?

  8. Lawrence Mayes says:

    A good article – I have always found the idea of ball lightning being an objective occurrence a difficult one to accept. BL and its inconsistent and implausible properties put it closer to ghosts, yeti and UFOs than to a real electromagnetic phenomenon.
    Surely some of the believers have not read the article in its entirety – particularly the title – and so are unwarrantedly surprised and dismayed by its conclusions. Perhaps a believer could write “The Case For Ball Lightning” that would be as equally well-argued.

  9. Jack says:

    I had a situation where I was sure I “encountered” a yellowish ball of lightning that seemed to hover along a golf course for a couple of seconds and disappear into a tree. After being “weirded” out, I came to my own conclusion that it was maybe a visual artefact from the original strike, as it was very similar in motion and speed to an eye floater.

  10. shane says:

    I had an experience of BL when I was about 13yo.
    I was sitting in the kitchen of our house on the westcoast of New Zealand .It was a very stormy morning with a lot of sheet lighting and thunder when suddenly a blue-ish white soccor ball sized ball of light appeared close to the window i was sitting beside and moved along the side of the house for about 5 seconds with a sizziling sound before dissapearing . Thunder and ligntening storms are very common in the area and i would watch them all the time but never experienced that phenomena again. Hmmmmm…..

  11. Lisa says:

    I guess it’s easy to dismiss ball lightning if you’ve never seen it. It does sound fantastical. But I have seen it and can never forget it, or doubt its existence. Several years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I was teaching English in Poland. I was living on the 2nd floor in a dorm room which had floor to ceiling windows. It was late evening with an overcast sky but no rain. The lights were off and the drapes were left open. I heard what sounded like firecrackers and then saw a basketball sized object move slowly across the windows. It was glowing yellow/green/blue and looked to be spinning. It left me speechless. I had no idea what it was and had never heard of ball lightning at the time. I talked about it in the staff room the next morning with my colleagues but nobody else had seen it. It would be almost 10 years later when I recounted that story to my then boyfriend who said it sounded like ball lightning. Indeed it does.

  12. Chris in Sweden says:

    The entire article is basically an argument from ignorance. Reasoning like this is what give skeptics a bad name, shape up.

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