Son of low-hanging fruit

In yet another example of  long-delayed discovery, forms of high-altitude lightning were observed for at least a century before becoming officially real (as opposed to really real).

Some thunderstorms manage to generate blue jets shooting out of their thunderheads, or  glowing red rings and associated tentacles around 70 kilometers up.   C T R Wilson predicted this long ago, back in the 1920s.  He had a simple model that gets you started.

You see, you can think of the thunderstorm, after a ground discharge,  as a vertical dipole. Its electrical field drops as the cube of altitude.  The threshold voltage for atmospheric breakdown is proportional to pressure, while pressure drops exponentially with altitude: and as everyone knows, a negative exponential drops faster than any power.

The curves must cross.   Electrical breakdown occurs.  Weird lightning, way above the clouds.

As I said, people reported sprites at least a hundred years ago, and they have probably been observed occasionally since the dawn of time. However, they’re far easier to see if you’re above the clouds – pilots often do.

Pilots also learned not to talk about it, because nobody listened.   Military and commercial pilots have to pass periodic medical exams known as ‘flight physicals’,  and there was a suspicion that reporting glowing red cephalopods in the sky might interfere with that.  Generally, you had to see the things that were officially real (whether they were really real or not), and only those things.

Sprites became real when someone recorded one by accident on a fast camera in 1989.  Since then it’s turned into a real subject, full of strangeness: turns out that thunderstorms  sometimes generate gamma-rays and even antimatter.

Presumably we’ve gotten over all that ignoring your lying eyes stuff by now.

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19 Responses to Son of low-hanging fruit

  1. If you think of a thunderstorm as a huge particle accelerator, maybe not so strange. If lightning is producing 50k volts of current, you could easily get the same sorts of strangeness physicists find when they turn on their colliders. Thunderstorms generate lots of lightning. If we can produce X-rays, gamma rays and the like in the lab, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that nature can do the same and on a larger scale.

  2. winestock says:

    This suggests a way of finding low-hanging fruit.

    1. Pick a profession in which members must pass a psychological exam in order to remain in good standing.

    2. Befriend some of them, earn their trust, then buy them a few drinks.

    3. When they’re in their cups, listen to their weirder stories. Bonus points if they say “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but…”

    4. Follow up on those stories.

    5. Profit!

  3. LemmusLemmus says:

    Oh, so you’re talking about race again?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Gives a new definition of a “red ring of death”…. and I was worried about my Xbox

  5. cubano says:

    By the same logic we should already have confirmed the existence of little green men and the chupacabra, and get over the darned skepticism once and for all.
    I do get your point that sometimes the truth is willfully ignored, there are countless examples all around us (ask climate scientists). This is missing the point of the scientific method. Claims backed by hard proof have to be acnolegged however unconfortable they may be to accept. But in some cases there are legitimate reasons for long-delaying the discoveries, such as for the Yeti and Bigfoot. If we don’t require hard proof to believe that the blue jets and the glowing red rings occur, and we accept rare witness sightings as truth, then we have to accept all other ghost stories that people come up with.
    I think that there is always going to exist a resistance against unconfortable facts. But if you have good data and a demonstrable theory you should be able to whistand all critcism and triumph one day.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    “Military and commercial pilots have to pass periodic medical exams known as ‘flight physicals’, and there was a suspicion that reporting glowing red cephalopods in the sky might interfere with that. ”

    I wonder if this phenomenon observable to pilots but not supposed to be talked about was an inspiration for Heinlein’s strange 1942 short story Goldfish Bowl about an energy-based intelligent life form that lives in the upper atmosphere.

  7. dearieme says:

    It makes more sense that real, odd phenomena are observed in regions where humans are only recent arrivals – e.g. the upper atmosphere – than where they have pootled about for millenia e.g. the banks of Loch Ness.

  8. says:

    The point isn’t that all such stories should be taken at face value, just that stuff that’s widely reported by people but officially discounted and shut up probably includes a certain amount of real stuff, amidst the nonsense and superstitions and elaborate practical jokes. Also, “you didn’t really see that because it doesn’t fit in my model” is probably a bad approach to finding out new stuff, relative to “Wow, I wonder what the heck that was.”

    • billswift says:

      “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'”
      – – Isaac Asimov

      • billswift says:

        I think one of the hardest things, and one that should produce lots more new results, is to simply notice that some common phenomenon actually doesn’t have a good explanation (yet).

  9. Pingback: This Week in the News » Synapse | Blog Archive | Boston University

  10. Nanonymous says:

    While we are on a subject of lightning, what about ball lightnings? Presumably, they have been flying into apartments through open windows and observed discharging by many people. And yet, there is a scarcity of physicists trying to explain the phenomenon and build experimental models to support their theories.

  11. my hobby says:

    More easily said than performed. insight

  12. Lard Khan says:

    This blog post should be called “UFOs: Finally Explained”.


    There was belief in the 1950s that UFOs were actually sky bound cephalopods. The sky bound cephalopods supposedly fed on lighting.

  13. j says:

    What about the turtles?

  14. random mutation says:

    What I would really like to know is:

    Was it really vaccination that (possibly) eliminated smallpox or was it some combination of the elimination of the genes of the more susceptible and improved sanitation and healthcare and quarantine?

    • saintonge235 says:

             It was vaccination.

              The drop in the incidence was too fast to be natural selection.  There was no great use of quarantine.  Sanitation has nothing to do with smallpox spread.  The only “healthcare” for smallpox is nursing support, available for millenia.  And smallpox vaccination definitely worked: people who’d been vaccinated were deliberately inoculated with smallpox, and didn’t get the disease.

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