This article is an excerpt from Louis Proud’s new book Strange Electromagnetic Dimensions: The Science of the Unexplainable – Chapter 7: The Fifth Force
Once relegated to the realm of myth and imagination, ball lightning has gradually gained acceptance among scientists as a real—albeit rare, fleeting, and elusive—aerial phenomenon. Although it’s not unheard of for ball lightning to be seen during perfect weather, it’s generally associated with thunderstorms, typically occurring near the ground after an incident of cloud-to-ground lightning.
Ranging in size from one half inch to many meters in diameter, ball lightning can occur in a variety of different colors, the most common being red, orange, and yellow. It’s luminous enough to be seen clearly in daylight; rarely is it dazzling. Most instances of ball lightning last only ten seconds or less; instances of more than a minute are rare. Often the object is accompanied by a hissing sound and distinct odor resembling ozone, burning sulfur, or nitric oxide. In most cases, the object will be seen to move about and then vanish, decaying either explosively or silently. “After the ball has decayed, it is sometimes reported that a mist or residue remains,” Martin Uman explains. “Occasionally a ball lightning has been observed to break up into two or more smaller balls.”1
Countless theories have been advanced to explain the existence of ball lightning. One such theory views the phenomenon as magnetic field induced hallucinations caused by being in close proximity to a lightning strike. However, without overlooking the possibility that there may be many different types of ball lightning, each with its own mechanism of production, the phenomenon can best be explained as a form of high-density plasma. While some of the attempts by physicists to create ball lightning in the laboratory have yielded intriguing results, so far none of them have come close to producing anything as spectacular and awe-inspiring as that which nature produces herself.
Proving that ball lightning is physically real is the fact that numerous cases exist where the object has left behind traces of physical damage, such as by burning or melting objects in the vicinity, or by injuring or killing people and animals. There are cases where ball lightning has left perfectly circular holes in panes of glass, in some cases by melting a hole straight through the glass; in other cases by removing a circular piece of glass as though by means of a glass cutter. It’s possible, too, for ball lightning to pass straight through a pane of glass—or wall, ceiling, or floor—without the least amount of hindrance. It can even enter a room by squeezing through the keyhole of the door, adjusting its shape in order to fit. Just as mysterious, ball lightning has a tendency to enter homes via the chimney.
Putting aside for the moment the more spectacular characteristics of the phenomenon, let’s take a look at a typical incident of ball lightning, as reported by E. Matts of England on November 10, 1940:
“I was working at the far end of my garden; the weather was normal, no rain, [and] no signs of thunder. Suddenly I seemed to be in the centre of intense blackness and looking down [I] observed at my feet a ball about 2 ft. across. It was of a pale blue-green colour and seemed made of a mass of writhing strings of light, about 1/4 in. in diameter. It remained there for about three seconds and then rose, away from me, just missing a poplar tree about 3 ft. away. It cleared the house by about 20 ft. and landed at the rear of the Weavers Arms on the Bell Green road, a distance of about 1/4 mile. There was a loud explosion and much damage was done to the public house.”2
Sometimes ball lightning materializes inside homes, airplanes, and other types of enclosures, suggesting as a possible mechanism of production some form of electrostatic induction. The following case took place in 1960 onboard a KC-97 U.S. Air Force tanker en route to Nevada:
“As I was concentrating on the instruments on the panel (no outside visual references were visible) a ball of yellow-white color approximately 18” in diameter emerged through the windshield center panels and passed at a rate about that of a fast run between my left seat and the co-pilot’s right seat, down the cabin passageway past the Navigator and Engineer. I had been struck by lightning two times through the years in previous flights and recall waiting for the explosion of the ball of light! I was unable to turn around and watch the progress of the ball as it proceeded to the rear of the aircraft, as I was expecting the explosion with a full load of JP-4 fuel aboard and concentrated on flying the aircraft. After approximately 3 seconds of amazingly quiet reaction by the 4 crew members in the flight compartment, the Boom operator sitting in the rear of the aircraft called on the interphone in an excited voice describing a ball of fire that came rolling through the aft cargo compartment abeam the wings, then danced out over the right wing and rolling off into the night and clouds! No noise accompanied the arrival or departure of the phenomenon.”3
By far the strangest ball lightning reports are those where the object displays apparent intelligence. According to Paul Snigier (1943–2008) in his book Ball Lightning: Paradox of Physics (2004), “Although many balls act dumb, others exhibit puzzling behavior that seems almost supernatural and quasi-intelligent. Some balls chase people across fields and up or down stairs. A few circle people, spiraling up from the knee level to the head and then dart out the nearest window or up a chimney, then explode.”4 Snigier, who wrote Ball Lightning under the pseudonym Paul Sagan, worked as an electrical engineer for Raytheon and Texas Instruments, later becoming editor of the computer magazines Mini Microsystems and Digital Design.
Featured in Paul Devereux’s book Earth Lights Revelation is a clear and credible report of seemingly intelligent ball lightning. The report was sent to Devereux by a University of Illinois industrial design professor named William Becker. Becker’s ball lightning encounter took place in the summer of 1958, while on a canoeing trip with five high school friends in a region north of Grand Marias, Minnesota. At one point during the trip, the weather turned bad, forcing Becker and his friends to seek shelter in an abandoned cabin. Becker and one of his friends made themselves comfortable in the back room of the cabin; the others occupied the remaining rooms.
Before long the rain outside had turned into a downpour and the sky had darkened considerably with the onset of evening. Becker opened the window a crack to emit some of the heat that had accumulated in the room throughout the day. A moment later, he and his friend saw “what looked like a flashlight moving around outside the opened window.”5 At first Becker assumed he was witnessing a prank perpetrated by a member of the group. He picks up the story:
“To our complete amazement, the ‘flashlight’ illumination began to squeeze through the open, one-inch crack above the window sill. As we watched, a ‘bubble’ of light emerged from the space in the open window and slowly floated into the room. The lightball I estimated to be just larger than a basketball. It hung in the air a moment and seemed to be making a lot of rapid short movements which added up to overall ‘smooth’ motions.
“The ball had a bright outer perimeter of yellow-white light with an inner core of darker orange light. As it moved from the window on my right to just in front of me, I saw what looked like ‘worms’ or short ‘strings’ of light writhing at its center. It made no sound, but slowly descended towards the floor where an old black and white, Indian-style rug still lay inside the door. Inexplicably, the lightball moved down just over the rug, and as it continued across the room from my right to my left, it ‘traced’ or followed the dark patterns in the rug on its course. It then slowly proceeded towards the end of the room where it angled away and shrunk in size as if finding an escape hole in the corner kick boards. In a moment, it was gone.”6
Before Becker and his friend had time to discuss the astonishing incident, they heard from behind the wall of the room “a sharp piercing report, like a loud firecracker.”7 The following day they found, at the location where the explosion had occurred, some damage in the form of a broken drain pipe connection. It is Becker’s hypothesis that “lightning must have interacted with some of the many copper deposits in the area to produce the ball.”8
“If not a rational skeptic, your author could suspect that fireballs might be a transient life form with some form of “alien” intelligence,” Snigier adds. “Perhaps DNA-based life is not the only form of life on earth. If so, then are fireballs non-carbon-based life forms?”9
The notion of ball lightning as non-carbon based life forms is not as outrageous as it sounds. In fact, a number of erudite UFO researchers view both ball lightning and their “cousins” earth lights as “plasma-based” life forms indigenous to Earth.
I wish to conclude our discussion on ball lightning with the following quote by William R. Corliss (1926–2011), a respected physicist and author of books on scientific anomalies: “Perhaps the intense electrical forces occurring during some thunderstorms somehow distort our space-time continuum and provide a fleeting glimpse into some unknown cosmos. Ball lightning is strange enough to stimulate such wild thoughts.”10
1. Uman, M. A., All About Lightning, Dover Publications, Inc., US, 1971, 129.
2. Corliss, William R., Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena, Gramercy Books, US, 1977, 19. (Report originally appeared in Weather, 19: 228, 1964.)
3. Uman, M. A., “Some Comments on Ball Lightning,” Journal of Atmospheric and Terrestrial Physics, Vol. 30, No. 6, 1968, 1245–1246.
4. Sagan, Paul, Ball Lightning: Paradox of Physics, iUniverse, Inc., US, 2004, 3.
5. Devereux, Paul, Earth Lights Revelation, Blandford Press, UK, 1989, 15.
6. Ibid, 15.
7. Ibid, 15.
8. Ibid, 15.
9. Ibid, 280.
10. Corliss, Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena, 18.
Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from STRANGE ELECTROMAGNETIC DIMENSIONS © 2015 Louis Proud. Published by New Page Books a division of Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved. Click here to order the book.