On the Possible Mechanism of Ball Lightning, and Other Luminous Effects

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If one were to take to a trip in the darkening autumn months to North Carolina, USA, and park up at Brown Mountain Overlook, somewhere between Morganton and Linville on Highway 181, one would have a good chance of witnessing the ‘Brown Mountain Lights’, a series of glowing orange spheres that hover just above the horizon.

Legend has it that these lights have appeared since the earliest days of the thirteenth century, although the first record that appears in print is from September 1913, in an article that appeared in the Charlotte Daily Observer. This article details the account of a local fisherman who witnessed these mysterious orbs appear several times over the space of a month.

Reports of these lights continued, prompting a formal US Geological Study in 1922. This study determined that the Brown Mountain Lights were nothing more mysterious than the misidentified lights of automobiles or trains.

So far, so mundane.

But, not long after the study was completed, an enormous deluge struck the area, completely flooding all the local roads and tracks, cutting off power and halting all traffic.

And yet, the lights continued. If anything, they grew more frequent.

They are still spotted to this day.

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So, just what are the Brown Mountain Lights? One theory postulates that they are examples of a phenomenon known as ball lightning.

Ball lightning is often, but not exclusively, witnessed during a thunderstorm. Unlike the split second flash of traditional lightning bolts, ball lightning manifests as a spherical, luminous orb ranging from the size of a pea to several metres in diameter. These orbs hover, pass through solid objects, burning or melting as they go, before exploding violently or fading away, leaving a lingering smell of sulfur behind.

Owing to the unpredictability and infrequency of the phenomenon, actual scientific data remains scarce. Its existence is almost entirely predicated on witness reports throughout history.

A few examples:

In July of 1852, during a particularly fierce storm, a tailor living in Paris witnessed a ball the size of a human head appear in the fireplace. This ball proceeded to travel around the room at waist height, before returning to the fireplace, floating up the chimney stack and exploding. The top of the stack was blown apart.

In April of 1925, in the town of Bischofswerda, Germany, multiple witnesses saw a large glowing orb land near a postman. This orb travelled along a telephone wire to a school, knocked a teacher who happened to be using a telephone to her feet, and bored several perfectly round tennis ball-sized holes through a glass pane. Over 200 metres of wire were melted that day, and numerous telephone poles destroyed.

In August of 1970, in the town of Sidmouth, UK, a large, sizzling red-lit ball appeared over the area during a violent thunderstorm. The ball exploded, knocking out nearly 2,000 television sets.

There are many more of these incidents scattered throughout history.

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In 2002, one Associate Professor John Abrahamson, a chemical engineer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, presented a theory to the Physics World Digest. This theory states that ball lightning is no more than a chemical reaction of silicon particles burning in the air.

First, a bolt of lightning strikes the ground. The tremendous energy present in the strike vaporises the ground, forcing a puff of hot silicon vapour to expand upward (silicon being the most common element in the ground).

This vapour then condenses into tiny particles, and electrical charges pull these particles into tiny threads. These threads are hot, very hot, and they begin to burn with the oxygen present in the air, forming a ball. The weight of the silicon is enough to counter the upward buoyancy, so the ball floats, as opposed to flying upwards.

Once all the silicon has been burned through, the ball either explodes or dies out.

Whilst Associate Professor Abrahamson’s theory is certainly interesting, it is worth noting that, for all his experiments, he has been unable to actually create an incidence of ball lightning under laboratory conditions.

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In 1936, a small team of investigators from the newly formed Psychical Research and Investigation Society travelled to the city of Ural’sk (now Oral) in the Kazakh region of the Soviet Union, to investigate an elderly medium known locally as Madame Sokolov.

According to the investigator’s notes, over the course of several sessions, Madame Sokolov was able to manifest small orbs of coloured light. She was able to control these orbs to a certain degree, making them rise to the ceiling and drop to the floor, and change in size and luminosity.

Astounded by this, the Society paid a not inconsiderable amount of money to have the medium brought to their Laboratory in London for extensive testing.

It is also worth noting here that, for all the Society’s experiments, they and Madame Solokov were unable to create any orbs of lights under laboratory conditions.

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In conclusion, ball lightning appears to be like so many incidents of paranormal phenomenon; ephemeral and difficult to pin down, existing only as eyewitness accounts and indistinct images, ghost lights and will-o’-the-wisps.

Once again, without someone willing to invest the time, money and resources into an extensive investigation, I fear the answer to the creation of ball lightning will remain a mystery.

Dr Thomas Gotobed 

More info on the Brown Mountain Lights can be found here – C.R. 

Strange Lights, Green Children and Scarlet Men

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The village of Woolpit is located in the county of Suffolk, to the east of Bury St Edmunds. At some point in the mid-12th Century, during harvest time, the villagers of Woolpit discovered two children out in the fields. Dressed in unfamiliar clothing, speaking in a strange tongue, and with a curious green hue to their skin, the boy and girl caused quite a stir locally.

Local legend records that the two emerald children were a boy and a girl; brother and sister, no less. They were taken to the local landowner, where the pair refused all food served to them until they stumbled across a plate of raw broad beans.

The aforementioned beans did not last long.

After some time, the children learnt to speak English, explaining that they came from a place without a sun, bathed in perpetual twilight: a place they called St Martin’s Land, where everything was green. The children had been herding their father’s cattle when they suddenly heard a loud and unfamiliar sound, possibly the sounds of the church bells at nearby Bury St Edmunds, and then the pair found themselves in the fields of Woolpit.

The children eventually lost their verdant hue and settled in the area, working in the household of the landowner.

There are no further reports of visitors from St Martin’s Land.

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It is widely accepted that this famous story is either descended from much older local folklore, or is a rather confused and muddled account of a real event of which the actual history has been lost.

Ufologists, however, are quick to point that this story is one of the earliest encounters of ‘little green men’.

I must confess, UFOs and extra-terrestrial beings are not my particular field of interest. However, a similar event was recently brought to my attention, an event that happened as the nineteenth century transitioned into the twentieth, and took place not too far from my current location.

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The Park Estate is a privately owned residential housing estate just to the west of Nottingham City Centre. Many of the houses are spacious villas, built for wealthy locals from 1809 onwards, despite the objections of the ‘ordinary’ citizens of Nottingham, who regarded the area as belonging to the public.

The area is laid out in the Victorian style, a network of wide streets lit by a network of gas powered lamps.

A copy of the Nottingham Daily Journal, dated Tuesday the 3rd of July 1900, carried a curious account of strange lights seen over the Park Estate the previous weekend. These lights were said to have hovered over the Park Tunnel (a wide walkway carved into a sandstone hill, allowing access to the city centre), before dropping down and vanishing into the earth. Four witnesses testified to this. Apparently this event lasted for several hours, and then repeated itself the next night.

But it seems this aerial display of luminescence was just an overture to something far more bizarre.

The following is a police report from two days later, written by a Constable DB Johnson (I have edited the language of this a little to update some of the more archaic terminology):

‘Having finished my rounds of the Estate for the evening, I was walking toward the tunnel back to the city. I was assailed by a bright flash of light and a smell I had never encountered before. Fearing that the lamp at the far end had ‘popped’ I entered the tunnel. Much to my surprise, I found a large and ruddy character lying upon the floor. He appeared to be completely in the nude.

‘Having encountered intoxicated men in the tunnel before, I gave the fellow a swift kick on the behind and ordered him to move on.

‘He muttered something at me, a word I didn’t understand. It was then I noticed that the man was besmeared from head to foot in a thick, reddish liquid. He also appeared completely devoid of hair, on both his head and body.

‘He began to babble something at me. Fearing he had injured himself, I blew my whistle vigorously to summon help.’

Several more constables arrived on the scene and together they attempted to take this large, naked yet hairless man to the local station. He initially resisted, but was eventually subdued.

The constables noted that whilst this man did speak, it was in a language that they could not understand.

The man was duly taken to the station and incarcerated for the rest of the night.

In the morning, the duty sergeant unlocked the man’s cell to check on him, hoping their guest was now in a position to explain himself.

The man was gone. All that remained in the cell to show he was ever there was a large patch of a thick, red liquid on the floor and the lingering smell of ozone in the air.

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All this was brought to my attention by a student at Nottingham University studying local history. She stumbled across the police report and then sought out local newspaper accounts from that period, hoping to glean some further information. The above excerpt was all she could find.

A thorough search of the Psychical Research and Investigation Society’s extensive archives details no further accounts of any other paranormal events taking place in or around the area of the Park Tunnel.

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So who was this large, scarlet man who appeared for six or so hours on that strange July night? Where did he come from? How did he escape the locked cell? And, perhaps more importantly, where did he go? Unfortunately, everyone involved in this particular event is long dead, so the only evidence available is what I have presented above.

Perhaps all this was no more than a misremembered encounter with a drunk. Perhaps the nocturnal lights were just coincidental examples of a little understood phenomenon know as ball lightning.

But coincidence is often a message that has yet to reveal itself. Indeed, this is not my first brush with individuals slipping in and out of reality. Those cases, too, were preceded by strange lights in the sky.

One wonders if there were similar airbourne shimmers in the area of Woolpit just before the appearance of the green-tinged pair in the mid-12th century. Alas, I fear that question will remain unanswered.

Dr Thomas Gotobed

I’ve found another entry where the good doctor discusses ball lightning, and further information on the green children of Woolpit can be found here – C.R.