Ball lightning

Great balls of lightning! Image: Joe Thomissen

Sightings of balls of lightning have been made for centuries around the world – usually the size of a grapefruit and lasting up to twenty seconds – but no explanation of how it occurs has been universally accepted by science.  Even more mysterious are sightings of balls of lightning forming on glass and appearing in homes and in aeroplanes.

CSIRO scientist John Lowke has been studying ball lightning since the sixties. He’s never seen it, but has spoken to eye witnesses and in a new scientific paper, he gives the first mathematical solution explaining the birth of ball lightning – and how it can pass through glass.

Listen to John Lowke talk about his theory of ball lightning:

Previous theories have cited microwave radiation from thunderclouds, oxidising aerosols, nuclear energy, dark matter, antimatter, and even black holes as possible causes. John disputes these theories.

He proposes ball lightning is caused when leftover ions (electric energy), which are very dense, are swept to the ground following a lightning strike. As for how they pass through glass, he says this is a result of a stream of ions accumulating on the outside of a glass window and the resulting electric field on the other side excites air molecules to form a ball discharge.

According to John ball lightning is rare, but it has been witnessed in Australia many times. People just don’t realise what it is when they see it.


  1. errata
    in the first line of the last massive paragraph for last read least

  2. I experienced a ball lightning in the 1950s and I will relate not only the appearence but also the exact location which still exists though I didnt know about the name nor the importance of it nor the possiblity of visiting and observing the exact location.

    I am Dr Alexander Jablánczy MD in Sault Ste Marie Canada and my homonymous father was Professor of Silviculture at Sopron university from sometime in 1953 until Nov 4th 1956 when we escaped to Austria fleeing Rusian tanks. So that gives the prius quam limit of the date.

    So it would have been in the summer of 1955 possibly 1954 or 1956 as the outside dates that I saw this ball lightning which I didnt know what it was at that time. I have never seen another one before nor since.

    We lived at 63 Sztálin tér which we never called that but by the former name Deák Tér. This was a small apartment building and we lived on the second floor so my line of sight as I was looking out the window would have been barely below the moulding of the corner of the Teli which was my school.
    It was an experimental Elementary School of the Normal School or Teacher’ College and we were the subjects of the student teacher’s practice teaching. But we called it Teli as it was fromerly Evangélikus Teológia, Lutheran Theological Institute abolished by the Muscovite Communist system in the late 194Os.

    To my knowledge it still stands on Deák Tér but our apartment building had been demolished when I visited it 19 years later so about 1975.
    I dont know what the Teli is these days a school or a Teacher s College or has it been returned to the Lutheran Church.

    But the building is still there. I have also no idea if the corner moulding has been repaired or not. I cant remember if I actually looked at the exact location in 1975 or not when I visited it.

    So there I was about an 11 year old boy in the summer of 1955+-1 year looking out the window of our second floor apartment facing my school the Teli.

    An enormous crash a lightning of some sort which I believe I heard landed on the upper edge of the building and ran along the moulding at the top and smashed the corner of the buliding and a chunk of the corner fell into the street. Then the ball of lightning disappeared.
    The whole event must have lasted only a few seconds perhaps five or ten. The balls edge was indistict fuzzy with no distinct edge or shape except that is was spherical. It was extremely bright but it didnt blind me. The coulour wasnt the colour of the Sun ie. not golden yellow but pure white perhaps slightly bluish white. It s size was the size of a large soccer ball more like a basketball with which I was unfamiliar at the time. And it semed to be spinning extremely fast.

    So there you have it. My only contribution to the topic is this. In the summer 1955 +- 1 year
    a ball lightning the size of a basketball an indistinct furry or fuzzy edged spinning ball of white light ran along the the top edge of Teli about two meters possibly as little as 1m or as much as 5m and it knocked off a piece of moulding about the size of a cantaloupe but it could have been a watermelon. Of course not globular but like a truncated tetrahedron.

    Why I narrate this in such great detail is because it is highly probable if the Teli still stands which is very likely the corner of the building might not have been repaired and any researcher could travel to Sopron and observe it with his/her own eyes.

    Unfortunately i cannot give the correct EWNS orientation of the building from memory but
    I can still identify the correct corner of the four. If you go the length of Deák Tér, the other end has a stone memorial of WWI with an arrow pierced lion and a famous stone swan
    which gets tarred and feathered every year to deny a profs promise to a student that he will never pass him until the stone swan sprouts feathers. The other end of the square stood a statue of a Keller Sándor a Bolshevik worthy from 1919 which was toppled in imitation of the toppling of the bronze Sztálin colossus in Budapest by the freedom fighters of Sopron and I observed frozen spittle on his stone face on the morning of about October 28th +- 1 or 3 days so that gives us the weather fact that frost was present in those cold days. It also evidences the fact that 11 or 12 year old little boys can be extremely observant and old men can remember in great detail 56 years later what was significant to them.
    The communist statue was no longer there even in 1975 but the swan and the lion with the arrow were.

    The Teli has a curious architectural feature which is a yellow brick Roman bridge arch like
    frontal rise from two sides in advance of the facade forming a sort of elevated entrance
    walkway or driveway as probably coaches or carriages and later cars could drive up to the main entrance. I remember playing on it in the snow sliding down the slope on a small wooden sleigh and falling and getting a minor concussion. So that brings up global warming as we had enough snow in Sopron that we could slide down hills. We also made slides on the sidewalks by sliding along the frozen snow and extending it by sliding longer and longer.
    That was our ice sport. That was in the mid 195Os. I dont believe there is enough snow these days in Sopron for these childrens amusements.

    So if you stand roughly where the statue stood and face the main entry of the Teli the top corner where the ball lighting struck off a piece of moulding would be to your left and high

    I think it might be worthwhile for ball lighning researchers to go and observe the site in person. All you have to do is visit Sopron Hungary an hours drive from Vienna or four hours drive from Budapest.
    In the centre of Sopron there are two main squares Széchenyi Tér and Deák Tér.
    Both politicians in 1848/ 49 and 1867.
    At one end of Deék tér in the centre stands the Teli former Lutheran Theological Institute later Normal School Elementary School in all its yellow brick glory.
    This Teli received the attention of a ball lightning in the summer of 1955.

    This might also be significant as it would indicate that the Teli was built on a swamp or at last a moist soil as I remember that in its basement was where I learned to paint water colours in the art room from Tolcsvai Nagy Géza art teacher and a painter himself. He taught us wet on wet technique which is my point here. We had to moisten the paper stretched on a wooden board and fixed by four drawing pins or thumbtacks. The paper stayed moist forever well at least until we finished the picture. In fact it had to be moved still moist from the room if we wanted it to dry. Therefore the humidity in the basement must have been near 1OO %, perfect for this style of watercolour technique.
    The rest of the buliding our classrooms etc were I believe dry. It was only the basement and the art room which was extremely moist.

    So a free standing rather large edifice on a fair sized square ? football field pitch sized ? built on a wet site with a still humid basement but dry upper stories might also have something to do with the occurrence of the ball lightning.

    If you have never seen a ball lightning you have the chance to observe its effect 56 or 57 years later. Even if the corner moulding was repaired the line or joint of the repair should be visible still in 2O12.

    Dr Alexander Jablánczy MD

  3. In the mid 1980s, while investigating failure modes of power thyristors, I accidentally induced a transient earth fault in a 1,500 volt DC railway traction feeder. The HS breaker setting was 20kA, so the fault current could have been higher than 100kA.
    The fault induced a ball lightning effect that was observed by the manager (Mr G Ladd), another electrical engineer and other staff members and secondary effects that were observed by as many as 80 other persons. Several were traumatised and required medical assessment.
    The ball lightning, which I glimpsed but did not see as clearly as others, persisted for more than 15 seconds and varied in luminosity, and in diameter (up to about 300mm).
    It appeared to start near ground level within a building, move slowly upward, then laterally toward a main earth conductor return to the sub-station. The ball was then seen to accelerate and while moving in parallel to a vertically aligned steel-grating conduit enclosing that return cable and at times to pass through the grating.
    There subsequently appeared to be no damage to the grating, but surface effects could be seen at some places where the ball had been seen to pass through.

  4. Shelley translation of Goethe’s Faust: Were Ignis Fatuus ball lightning?

  5. Maybe that’s what ‘UFOs’ are? Amazing – I think his theory is pretty sound.

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