Wired (February 20, 2009)
"Two hundred years ago this week, the warship HMS Warren Hastings was struck by a weird phenomenon: "Three distinct balls of fire" fell from the heavens, striking the ship and killing two crewmen, leaving behind 'a nauseous, sulfurous smell,' according to the Times of London.
"Ball lightning has been the subject of much scientific scrutiny over the years...."
An Aside About Sprites, Hallucinations, and Video CamerasDavid Hambling, who wrote this article, is almost certainly younger than I am. Ball lightning may have received "much scientific scrutiny over the years" - but I can remember when quite a number of scientific experts poo-poohed laymen who thought that ball lightning existed.
Or, that thunderstorm sprites weren't hallucinations. I remember when people like Stuart L. Becher were vindicated. Before the 1989 STS-34 Shuttle mission, pilots, soldiers, and other 'credulous' non-scientists saw lights shooting up from thunderstorms. The usual 'scientific' explanation was that they were crazy. A video camera on the shuttle recorded sprites.
Given a choice between saying that a video camera was hallucinating, and acknowledging that laymen had noticed something that scientists hadn't, scientists started studying sprites.
Smart move, I'd say.
Back to Ball LightningFrom the looks of it, scientists have decided that ball lightning exists, too. Also a smart move. I think video cameras and funding for high-energy physics helped.
Anyway, physicists haven't decided what ball lightning is, exactly. Actually, quite a few have: but they've come up with a whole lot of different explanations. A few more years - or decades - of this, and they'll probably work out a description of ball lightning that fits all the facts. Maybe several descriptions: I suspect there could be more than one sort of 'ball lightning.'
Although the natural phenomenon hasn't been quite nailed down, a scientist named Paul Koloc, has developed a technology that makes plasmoids (chunks of really hot stuff) about a foot in diameter. Problem is, they're not stable: yet.
Dr. Koloc's goal is to make stable magnetoplasmoids that would last about one to five seconds. Compressed and accelerated to around two hundred kilometers a second, the things would make an ideal anti-missile weapon.
Koloc called the weapon system "Phased Hyper-Acceleration for Shock, EMP, and Radiation." That's right: PHASER.
If he ever works out the kinks, the PHASER could - in theory - be a real-world equivalent of Star Trek's phaser - possibly the most well-known science fiction stun gun. At relatively low power, it could - again, in theory - scramble a car's electrical system: giving law enforcement another tool for ending high-speed chases.
And, a similar technology could - in theory - maybe - be used to contain fusion reactions.
Exciting times, these that we live in.
The Wired article includes this YouTube video:
"Ball Lightning compilation"
NaturalPhenomena, YouTube (October 20, 2008)