MySci Roundup, Dec. 2: Ball lightning mystery solved?


For a long time, we’ve been perplexed by the weird, other-worldly phenomenon of ball lightning–luminous, usually spherical objects that vary from corn-kernel sized to several meters in diameter, and which usually  explode after a few moments, leaving a sulphur-like aroma. Since the first documented ball lightning sighting during a huge thunderstorm in England in 1638, countless reports have been recorded, and surveys indicate that as many as one in 30 people have seen ball lightning at some point in their lives. But scientists remained baffled by the glowing orbs.


 “There’s certainly no consensus. I don’t think that anyone knows what it is,” Graham K. Hubler, a physicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., told National Geographic News back in 2006. 

Earlier this year, in fact, New Scientist reported that Australian researchers offered an intriguing explanation: Ball lightning, they suggested, was a hallucination, caused by the powerful magnetic fields generated by lightning strikes. Such magnetic activity could cause neurons to fire in the brain’s visual cortex, creating visual illusions of the sort that are sometimes experienced by patients undergoing transcranial magnetic stimulation treatments. 

But now, the same publication informs us of another new study, which offers a somewhat less trippy explanation: the luminous orbs may actually be caused by space debris falling into the atmosphere. 

The study, by astrophysicist Stephen Hughes at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, focuses upon a 2006 ball lightning sighting by an Australian farmer. He observed two green balls descending from the sky, the second of which rolled down a hill, bounced over a rock and then vanished.

Hughes set up an online survey, and discovered that more than 100 people in a 600-kilometer area had also seen the first green ball, though none of them saw the second bouncing one. 

Hughes compared the data with space object activity, and came up with a match. The first glowing ball, he theorizes, was a bright meteor caused by debris from Comet 73P, which passed closer to Earth than any other comet in the past 20 years. The second ball observed by the farmer, Hughes concluded, was ball lightning triggered by the meteor.

Hughes, who published his study in Proceedings of the Royal Society, theorizes that cometary debris ionized the gases in the upper atmosphere, creating a “supercharged” conduit that transmitted electrical energy to the Earth’s surface. When the energy reached the ground, he thinks it formed a plasma ball–not the sort that you buy in novelty stores, but a sphere of ionized gas. In 2006, scientists were able to simulate such an effect in the laboratory, according to this article from Physorg.com.

We should mention that some scientists don’t buy Hughes’ explanation, according to the New Scientist article. But we somehow find it more comforting than the theory that lightning is messing with our neurons. And now for the news.


Scientists simulate supernova in a jar.  And you thought soap-on-a-rope was a big deal.

Study reveals possible longevity breakthrough. Researchers have discovered a metabolic state control in the mitochondria of a roundworm, which determines how their cells extract energy, and were able to activate it. Altering the worms’ metabolic state increases their lifespan.

Get better at math by disrupting your brain.  Pondering the subtext of Lady Gaga’s lyrics may work, too.