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

Ball_lightning

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. 

‘The Cannonball’

This is another one from Dr Gotobed’s journal, however there is not a lot of corroborating evidence for this particular entry. I will detail what little I could find at the bottom of this post – C.R. 

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11th April 1974

Jason Ladejo is a troubled child, his mother a hazy memory and his father an unemployable drunk. Short and undernourished, bullied at school, Jason would call himself a cliché, if he had any idea what the word meant.

He is eleven years old when one push too many results in something inside the young Jason snapping and he beats the living snot out of his two older and much bigger assailants. He finds himself in the Headmaster’s office, seated in an uncomfortable plastic chair, looking down at his bloodied knuckles as his feet swing inches above the floor.

He doesn’t feel bad for what has happened, and he is not concerned about the bollocking he is about to receive. The only thing he is focused on is the sensation of adrenalin that moments ago pumped through his blood, driving his muscles and lighting a fire in his belly the likes of which he has never felt before.

He will spend years chasing that same fire.

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Seventeen now, and Jason is much bigger. Still not tall, but strong. And quick. He has been training to box for the last six years, and he has a right hand like no other. His father is long gone, and the young Jason lives at the gym, cleaning the place in exchange for board. His coach, the man who has so kindly taken him in, can only predict great things for the lad, so much so that he affectionately names him ‘The Cannonball’. As he prepares for his first professional fight, Jason acts like he doesn’t care about his new moniker.

But he does.

He beams with pride when no one is around.

Inside, the fire burns low, biding its time, patient.

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Five years later, Jason ‘Cannonball’ Ladejo is fighting for a shot at the title of middleweight champion of Great Britain. It is round five, and despite a spirited display, he has lost the crowd and been on the back foot since the second. His opponent is a tall fellow, cocky, with arms like tree trunks and a face only a mother could love.

A blow to the stomach doubles Jason over as two dozen cameras wink in the middle distance, capturing the moment. A glance to his left and Jason sees his coach grimace, the old man feeling the blow too. The cheer of the spectators baying for blood becomes a low thrum in Jason’s ears, tangling with the thud of his heartbeat and booming through his head.

And then it’s there.

The fire.

Jason hasn’t felt it in a while, but he recognises it, embraces it.

Before him, through a haze of spotlights, he sees his opponent playing to the crowd, one arm above his head and the other theatrically winding up a giant right hook.

The fire courses its way through Jason’s blood.

His adversary pulls the trigger and the punch is unleashed.

But it doesn’t matter.

The Cannonball is quicker.

Jason’s fist drives skywards, a perfect uppercut that connects with the other man’s chin, snapping his head back and almost lifting his feet from the canvas. The fire burns bright as Ladejo lines up another blow, but his opponent falls backwards, out for the count.

The crowd roars its approval as stars twinkle inside the arena.

Afterwards, there is a television camera and a microphone thrust into Jason’s face, an interview, slaps on the back and handshakes that fade from memory almost as soon as they are done. Talks of the next bout. In London. Something to do with being the mandatory challenger for the title.

The fire inside begins to dwindle once more.

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There are more fights over the next few years, although none as tough as that last one in which the fire burned. He is ‘Cannonball Jay’ now, and even though he loses his shot at the title on a technicality, he wins all the others, and all without feeling the flame inside.

The old man who coached him is gone, replaced by a newer, younger version, a man whose head is filled with statistics and hypothetical scenarios.

As Jay becomes more successful, the training gets harder, but the nights get longer too. There are evenings out with new friends that start one day and finish several later. There is booze, white powder and women, all of which his ‘new friends’ source for him. A trip to Las Vegas ends with a split points decision in his favour, another shot at a challenge for the title, a two page spread in Ringside magazine, a lost weekend and a four day hangover. There is a girlfriend, a leggy model who drapes herself over souped-up cars for the titillation of spotty teenagers impressed by such things.

Jay’s new friends multiply, so too does their ‘generosity’.

As they do, the fire inside dwindles, the embers close to consuming themselves.

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Jason Ladejo is nearly thirty years old now, living alone in a tiny flat on the outskirts of Sheffield city centre. The international travel, the title fights, the ‘new friends’, the booze and the white powder, all long gone. The leggy model is gone too, saying she is too young for a has-been and pretty enough to land herself a gonna-be. Jason has become a journeyman. Fighting for cash, he loses more than he wins; a cautionary tale to younger competitors, how to fuck it all up when you have everything you ever wanted and more. He now knows the word ‘cliché’, and he is aware that it applies to him.

He runs ten miles every morning and spends two hours hitting a punch-bag every night, telling himself it’s to keep in shape, but he knows really that he is looking for the fire. He fears it is long gone, that he will never experience it again, but still he pounds the streets every morning at dawn and thumps the bag at dusk.

There is a phone call from a promoter, a decent one, not the crooks and shysters he normally deals with these days. It transpires there is a new kid on the block, a rising star, much like Jason nearly a decade or so ago. The scheduled opponent has bailed, a fractured wrist, and ‘how would ‘The Cannonball’ like to step in?’

The purse is big, not as big as the glory days, but it rises with every round the fight goes on. Jason accepts, telling himself it’s just for the money.

It’s the first time in a long time that anyone has called him ‘The Cannonball’.

Inside his stomach, a tiny spark flares in the dark.

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Round six, and Jason is taking a pounding. His opponent is some kid called the ‘Steel Something-Or-Other’, and he’s good, very good. The crowd is cheering every jab, every cross and hook that lands on Jason’s face and ribs. The taste of his own blood fills his mouth, and the flesh over and around one eye is swelling up, forcing it closed.

Nobody is cheering for him.

Another blow smashes across his chin and Jason stumbles and falls, his cheek hitting the floor, the smell of sweat and the canvas flooding his nostrils.

Cameras flash in the crowd. Voices roar as the referee stands over him, shouting the count.

Just lay back, says a voice in Jason’s mind. You’ve earned your money. It’s over.

The kid with the name Jason can’t quite remember is waving victoriously to the crowd.

Lay back and wait for the count.

The lights above the ring swim across his vision.

The referee reaches five.

Nearly there.

Six.

A feeling that Jason has not felt for a long time grows in his stomach. It courses through his  limbs and pulls him back to his feet as the referee reaches eight.

The kid looks surprised, but his guard is up quickly and he comes at Jason, confidence written all over his face, smelling an easy victory and a glorious knock out. He leads with a jab, hitting Jason’s forearms but setting up a one-two.

It doesn’t matter. The fire is lit.

Before the kid unleashes the second punch, Jason takes a step forward, sets his feet and slams his fist into his opponent’s face like a jackhammer. The kid’s nose erupts in a spray of red and his guard collapses, his hands falling uselessly to his sides as he stumbles backwards.

The fire inside Jason burns bright now, ablaze inside him. He moves forwards and lets loose another blow, a looping left handed bomb that explodes where what’s left of the kid’s nose used to be. The space in the ring is running out and the kid stumbles back against the ropes, his eyes open but fixed on a point only he can see.

Over the din of the crowd, Jason is aware of the sound of a bell ringing frantically somewhere in the distance. But the fire is an inferno now, drowning out all sound as he unleashes another monster right hook.

The punch that gave him his name.

The Cannonball.

It connects cleanly and Jason is aware of something in Steel Something-Or-Other’s neck snapping.

The kid drops like a stone. The crowd falls with him, into a hushed silence. Doctors and paramedics swarm into the ring as the fire burning bright inside Jason once more begins to fade.

It takes a moment for reality to sink in.

The kid is dead.

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Jason heads home and drinks himself in to a stupor. He wakes the next afternoon on the sofa, a raging hangover having made acquaintance with the bruises on his face and body. Nearby, the light of an answering machine silently blinks, its tape holding thirty or so messages. He chases away two journalists from his door before sitting and waiting for the results of the enquiry as to how he was allowed to take another’s life in the name of sport. Several large bottles of vodka whisper sweet nothings as they keep him company.

And there is something else. A weight on his shoulders, so heavy it forces him into a contorted stoop.

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Six months of visits to doctors, specialists and physiotherapists results only in baffled faces and endless prescriptions for painkillers. And still the weight grows heavier, the stoop more pronounced.

As a last resort, and on the recommendation of a drunken acquaintance, he visits a local so-called psychic. An old woman of gypsy stock, she tells Jason that the shade of the dead man from that fateful night sits upon his shoulders. It is the weight of this man’s life, all his potential, his unfulfilled hopes and dreams that were extinguished in the ring, that is responsible for compressing Jason’s once mighty frame.

He initially scoffs at this old woman with her crackpot ideas, but that night, Jason wakes and goes into the bathroom. Turning on the light, he sees the shape of his broken foe sitting astride his shoulders, his battered and bruised head lolling at an unnatural angle.

From that point on, this is all Jason sees whenever he looks in the mirror.

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Three weeks later, Jason is dead, his life ended by a large amount of painkillers washed down with copious amounts of vodka.

A doctor rules the death an overdose. But there is one fact that troubles this man of medicine:

The lifeless body of Jason ‘Cannonball’ Ladejo, once contender for the title of British Middleweight Champion, ‘weighs the same as two men his size‘.

Dr Thomas Gotobed 

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The only evidence with this particular entry is a torn out page from the May 1987 edition of ‘Ringside’ magazine. It is one half of the interview mentioned above. While there is no Wikipedia entry for Jason Ladejo (which in itself is not entirely damning), I did find an article in a local Sheffield newspaper about a young man named Bobby ‘Steel Hands’ Sheppard who died in the ring at the hands of an unknown opponent in 1992. I will continue to look into this, time permitting – C.R.