Boom! Crack! Duck! It’s thunderstorm season!
Lightning can be frightening, but it’s also pretty interesting stuff. Well, it’s not actually stuff. It’s an electrical discharge. But cool anyway. For example, a bolt of lightning is about five times hotter than the surface of the sun. And there’s a lot of lightning around, too. At least 30 million places on the ground are struck by lightning each year in the United States alone. But that’s just ordinary lightning.
What about … ball lightning?
At least since the Middle Ages, people have told wild tales about a very strange type of lightning: glowing orbs of lightning that hover like alien spaceships or drift along like balls of electric feathers.
According to reports from rare sightings, the balls are usually about the size of a tennis ball, though sometimes as big as beach balls. They are often white, but can be orange or yellow or blue. They don’t last long. If you ever do see ball lightning, get a good look while you can; it generally lasts fewer than ten seconds. Sometimes it fades away; other times it burns out with a little bang.
For a long time, people who hadn’t seen ball lightning thought it was a myth. But a lot of people claim to have seen it. Because the set of all people who’ve seen ball lightning and the set of all people who’ve seen Elvis post-1977 don’t overlap too much, scientists started taking these reports a little more seriously. Even so, scientists still weren’t able to capture it on film—until a few years ago. In 2014 a group of researchers in China were setting up an experiment to study regular old garden-variety lightning. To their surprise, ball lightning turned up for the party. The gate-crasher drifted horizontally for about 10 meters (32.8 feet), then shot up about three meters (9.8 feet).
The equipment they’d set up to study the ordinary lightning captured the phenomenon. For the first time, someone saw ball lightning and could prove it. There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to understanding this weird form of lightning, but at least we now have it on film. So if you happen to see ball lightning, you can tell the world about it without having to worry that your friends will give you a tinfoil hat for your next birthday.
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