Satisfying non-explanations: an intriguing non-dream about ball lightning

October 10, 2008 | By | 12 Replies More

My interest in explanations was brought to a new higher intensified while I watched a movie. I must regress many more years to tell the entire story. Before I begin, though, I need to assure you that my story is absolutely true.

About 20 years ago, I awoke at about 3 a.m., and I saw the strangest thing. A small orb with a soft greenish glow hovered five feet over my bedroom floor, about an arm’s length out from the foot of the bed. The orb was about the size of a ping-pong ball. I walked toward the orb until my face was one foot from the orb. I tried to see if I could account for the glowing ball by checking for an external source of reflected light through the bedroom windows. I couldn’t find any such external light source, though. The orb itself was glowing and it was still in my bedroom. I considered touching the orb with my hand, but I didn’t. For a moment, I wondered whether it would try to communicate with me—a strange thought, given that I have never believed in disembodied sentience.

I noticed that the orb was slowly descending. It didn’t make any noise. After 30 seconds of descending, the orb reached the floor, then it took the shape of a sunny-side up egg as it melted into the bedroom floor. I went downstairs from my second floor bedroom to the first floor to see whether the orb was “melting” through the ceiling of that room, but I saw nothing. I went back upstairs and sat awake in bed for several minutes, wondering what it possibly could have been. I decided that I didn’t have a clue. Eventually, I went back to bed.

I sheepishly mentioned this weird and disorienting experience to a few close friends in the days after I saw it, always shaking my head with some embarrassment. It bothered me that the thing I witnessed appeared to be something “outside” of physics. I sometimes wondered whether I had been dreaming. I’m sure I hadn’t been dreaming, though (but too bad I didn’t write a note to myself that night “I saw a strange glowing orb tonight”). I don’t have any history of having any hallucinations or visions, nor any episode of vivid dreaming.

Fast forward about eleven years. About nine years ago, I happened to watch a PBS drama in which a female character was literally scared to death when a ball of light floated across the floor of her house—others in the drama referred to the phenomenon as “ball lightning.” After the show, I ran a Google search for “ball lightning,” and found dozens of sober-sounding testimonials. Large numbers of people have also seen things similar to the orb I saw (if you Google “ball lightning,” you’ll be amazed at the large number of reports). Then I found a Scientific American article describing “ball lightning. This column, which was titled something like “Ask the Expert” no longer appears to exist intact. I did copy down the expert’s answer, word for word, when I first read it. Here’s what that early version of the article said:

Ball lightning is a well-documented phenomenon in the sense that it has been seen and consistently described by people in all walks of life since the time of the ancient Greeks. There is no accepted theory for what causes it. It does not necessarily consist of plasma; for example, ball lightning could be the result of a chemiluminescent process. The literature abounds with speculations on the physics of the ball lightning . . .

Ball lightning is typically described as a luminous ball one to 25 centimeters in diameter having about the intensity of a 20-watt incandescent lamp; the phenomenon usually occurs after a lightning strike. It almost always moves, has a top speed of about three meters per second and floats about one meter above the ground. The motion can be counter to the prevailing breeze and can change direction erratically. Ball lightning may last up to 10 seconds, whereupon the ball extinguishes either noiselessly or with a bang. There have been many observations of ball lightning inside of houses and even in airplanes. There have also been a number of observations of ball lightning passing through closed glass windows, with no apparent damage to the glass.

[Again, the new version of the above article has been updated and elaborated].

Upon reading the above description by a scientistic expert, I experienced an intense feeling of relief. To me, this information served as an explanation with real consequences: I wasn’t dreaming. It wasn’t a spirit. Don’t touch glowing orbs! Science might figure this out someday . . .

[Wikipedia also offers an article about ball lighting. This will show my age: back when I saw the ball lightning, there was no World Wide Web; there was no Google ]

Here’s an experiment: I am betting that you, the reader, were also intrigued to learn about ball lightning and you also had a gut feeling that the phenomenon was at least somewhat “explained” by the above article I found at the Scientific American website.

I am still fascinated that the meager information provided by that article could “explain” the orb—or even seem to explain it. Consider how little I learned from the article: I learned that the phenomenon had a generally accepted name, “ball lightning.” The article gave me assurances that other people had reported ball lightning. A scientist offered some speculation about the phenomenon. There was no technical information, no measurements, no experiments, no predictability and no mathematics. Though I don’t have any working grasp of “plasmas” and I don’t have any insight into chemiluminescence, when the article described the phenomenon in these terms, it gave me some assurance that it was a natural, rather than a supernatural, phenomenon. And here’s the kicker: the article clearly stated that “There is no accepted theory for what causes it.” Therefore, even though the SciAm article seemed like an “explanation,” it was ostensibly the opposite of an explanation.

The SciAm article provided an (albeit imperfect) explanation, at least from my perspective. The heart and soul of that explanation seemed to be a feeling of intellectual satisfaction. That feeling could be found in a “flip” from my feeling that I didn’t understand the phenomenon to a sudden realization that I was at least somewhat intellectually satisfied. This article, even though it was short and non-technical, somehow seemed to address my concerns and curiosity regarding the glowing orb. The article triggered, in me, the feeling popularized by the cartoon light bulb turning on over one’s head, or of clouds parting. I had a feeling of “ah-HA!” It was a feeling akin to the feeling of recognition of a person.

Unfortunately, that “feeling” does not appear to be susceptible to further meaningful analysis, at least within the current state of cognitive science (though Robert Burton’s new book, On Being Certain,” offers some clues). What I’m left with is that an explanation is largely dependent on a vague feeling of satisfaction.

That good explanations provoke a “feeling” just doesn’t help us to filter out many suspicious “explanations, such as those so often offered by politicians and Bible-literalists. Those people who seek to explain and justify such things as dowsing, astrology pyramid power and virgin birth also tend to have good and satisfying feelings associated with their explanations, just as do world class scientists. What is the value of that good feeling that one has explained something given that such a feeling is even experienced by children who “explain” that thunder is caused by God going bowling during a storm?

To offer subjective satisfaction as a sufficient litmus test to guarantee that an explanation is worthy would be the basis for unending scientific, political, social and religious nonsense. Come to think of it, that’s what we now have—social and intellectual chaos, and it’s caused in large part by the many people who claim that they have offered bona fide explanations whereas they have offered nonsense that they misinterpret as knowledge, based on their own inner glow.

The above story raises many questions for me. Here are a few of those questions: Is an “explanation” merely a description that makes us feel good? Is it relevant to consider subjective states in order to decide what assertions constitute worthy “explanations”? What more (more than subjective satisfaction) is required for an explanation to be worthwhile?

I am already acquainted with some of the philosophical and scientific literature regarding the nature of explanations. These thinkers have suggested various approaches to modeling worthwhile explanations, such as A) conformity with a known scientific law (Hempel’s Deductive-nomological model of scientific explanation) or B) Philip Kitcher’s approach, stressing explanatory unification or C) the ability of that explanation to precisely generate predictions of future events or D) Bas van Fraassen’s approach. For van Fraassen, an explanation is an answer—an informative description evaluated pursuant to the context established by a particular question—a request for a specific kind of information.

This topic is critically important for all of us. Outside of laboratories (as well as in those labs), all of us constantly make judgments as to whether particular explanations pass muster. Is it possible that all of us might someday pre-agree on a test that allows us to throw out bad explanations but keep good ones? Is there any sort of approach that all reasonable people could agree to in advance, a test that we can apply, in real-time, that would allow worthy explanations (such as “Days and nights occur because the Earth is rotating relative to the sun”) but exclude false explanations (such as “The Grand Canyon was created in less than 10,000 years”)?

If there were such a practical test, we would waste a lot less time arguing about silly things and we could spend much more time fixing up our world together. But does such a test exist, or even something approaching such a test?


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Category: American Culture, Psychology Cognition, Science, snake oil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (12)

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  1. The supernatural: I define this as a realm of phenomena that do not adhere to the laws of physics to a degree.

    My take on it: There is no such realm, never has been, never will be.

    There are however phenomena of which we do not understand how they fit into the fabric of natural laws, presumably because we don't have a full view of this fabric. That's noting to worry about, at the contrary. It simply means that there are many more discoveries to be made and the thrill of scientific exploration continues.

    It also means we can't be certain and that's where the real trouble starts. People want certainties to make them feel good and will start making up things to get there. Religion is a case in point imho. But the scientific world is not free from this craving for certainty either. Often discoveries are made that lead away from established insights and scientists may roll over the floor fighting for years about who is right. Plate tectonics anyone? But when Science runs its course, the theory that fits the observable facts best prevails. That's why I like Science, it's open-ended and you get real results.

    It would be silly to presume that no such battles are raging in our own time.

    You are a lucky man Erich to have witnessed a phenomenon that one day will probably lead to new scientific insight.


    Strange things have been seen by many in the sky. Of course when anyone told he'd seen something strange the reaction would be: "You've seen them flying". Scientists often dismiss those reports from "crackpots" as not worth looking at.

    One report from Holland was made by a bus driver who, during a night shift noticed something moving overhead. He stopped his bus and got out to look at what it was. He couldn't make heads or tails from it, and reported it to the police.

    He ended up on national television in a panel of three. One person was a lady who could only repeat that ET's were coming to save the earth and the second was a member of the Dutch Sceptics Society who could only repeat that UFO's didn't exist. The only sane person was the bus driver who stuck to his story and the subsequent question: "What was it I saw?"

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    After doing a bit of related reading, it seems to me that most spontaneous ball lightning observations involve a tired and solitary observer.

    Also, all the experiments to try to reproduce the effect require maintaining very high energy gradients, as inside a microwave oven, or show normal material sparks (superheated plasma-emitting burning crumbs of carbon or silicon).

    The comforting effect of having authorities offer nomenclature, taxonomy, and/or soothing (albeit unsupported) assertions as to the cause of spooky phenomena is a very interesting point.

    Much like how we "know" about gravity. Actually, we only know how it behaves; its effect on everything. Open questions include: Is it transmitted by the Higgs Boson (how does a particle "feel" the mass of another)? Is it inherently linked to inertia, as opposed to coincidentally proportional? And inertia itself is another question.

    I mean that even this everyday observation is a spooky phenomenon at its core. We can use it, but so far not reproduce or counter it aside from using matter already containing whatever it is.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I have also witnessed ball lightning. I think I was 11 or 12 years old. I was visiting at my grandparents who lived in an old farmhouse near the edge of the Barrens plateau close to Beech Grove, Tennessee. The day had been very hot and humid, small thunder shower had popped up. My grandfather, an uncle and I were sitting on the front porch enjoying the cool mist of rain water whipped up by the wind under the porch,

    Suddenly the rain stopped and the sun cam out. I started looking for a rainbow,as the conditions were right for it, when lightning hit a tree that was about 25 feet in front of the house. I not only heard th thunder, but I felt it hit me like a giant hot pillow. With my ears ringing, I looked quickly toward my grandfather and uncle, and saw them staring at something. I looked in that direction and saw a glowing ball of light, about the size of a softball.

    The ball floated toward the house quickly passing between my uncle and me. It went through the screen door and into the house, leaving a circular hole in the screen that was smaller that the ball. by the time I could get turned around to look into the house, the ball had made its way to the door of the kitchen and seem to be heading toward the massive cast-iron cook-stove.

    The phone, which was wall mounted next to the front door, rang and the ball darted to the phone, which stopped ringing. The ball immediately started back toward the kitchen, but at a slower rate. When it got to the middle of the room, it disappeared.

    The entire event lasted a few seconds. The telephone repair man came out a few days later to fix the phone. He said the phone was melted on the inside and he replaced it.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    In my case there were three witnesses to the event, each with different points of view. All three of us saw the ball enter the house. My grandfather also saw it touch the phone. My uncle, who was closest to the door, saw th entire event.My vantage point allowed me to see everything except the phone, as I could see into the house through the front window, but my view of the phone was blocked by the curtains.

    I have studied similar reports over the years and arrived at the conclusion that "ball lightning" or "lightning ball" is a common name given to any of several rare natural phenomena involving a luminescent gaseous bubble.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus: Lucky for you, that others were around to corroborate your sighting.

    You and I simply recounted what we saw without any explanatory gloss. I wonder how many times ball lightning has been noticed, yet "explained" by the witness as "God communicated with me" or "an angel visited me"?

    It was frustrating to me to not have an explanation. Deep down, I suspect I still don't have much of one. Before I heard the term "ball lightning" and read the SciAm article, what I saw simply had no explanation. It sat there in my memory as a singularity. Whenever I was reminded of is, I thought "I still wonder what that was all about."

    BTW, when I saw the orb, I wasn't paying attention to the weather outside. I could have been stormy, but I just don't know. From the reports of ball lightning you can now read on the internet, many such sightings occurred during storms.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    And now I know a lot more about ball lightning, thanks to Mikhail Shmatov, who works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Ioffe Physical Technical Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia. Mikhail emailed me one of his articles: "New model and estimation of the danger of ball lightning." (2003)

    The first sentence is instructive: "The very important factor of the danger of ball lightning is that its physical nature is not yet established."

    On the other hand, as indicated in the following abstract, we do know some things about ball lighting, enough for me to be glad that I didn't reach out and try to grab that glowing orb:

    A new model of ball lightning is proposed. The main model assumption is that ball lightning has a core consisting of clouds of electrons and totally ionized ions which oscillate with respect to each other. According to the model, ball lightning emits high energy photons that are sometimes dangerous for human beings, and in a number of situations it can kill humans by electric pulses; the ball lightning energy can be of the order of 106 J and even greater. The electric charges that need to be injected into the atmosphere to create ball lightning and the currents, providing the injection of such charges, are estimated. These estimates predict that ball lightning can be created in the experiments with ordinary lightning or powerful electrical installations.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Intriguing post, Erich. It reminds me of the old joke about the practice of medicine being mostly about keeping the patient entertained until the body can heal itself. Humans seem to *want* to believe the universe is a rational place, so we tend to turn to either religion or science to supply the enabling “explanation.”

    Which reminds me of another old saw: Science is the art of substituting unimportant questions which can be answered, for important questions which cannot. Of course, religion steps in to provide the universal (non-)explanation: it’s the will of some god, even if that god doesn’t actually explain what that will is.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Chinese scientists have observed and recorded ball lightning in the wild.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Judges have invented the “Daubert” test to try to weed out science from junk science. It gives some criteria to the debate.

    In Daubert, seven members of the Court agreed on the following guidelines for admitting scientific expert testimony:
    Judge is gatekeeper: Under Rule 702, the task of “gatekeeping”, or assuring that scientific expert testimony truly proceeds from “scientific knowledge”, rests on the trial judge.
    Relevance and reliability: This requires the trial judge to ensure that the expert’s testimony is “relevant to the task at hand” and that it rests “on a reliable foundation”. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 584-587. Concerns about expert testimony cannot be simply referred to the jury as a question of weight. Furthermore, the admissibility of expert testimony is governed by Rule 104(a), not Rule 104(b); thus, the Judge must find it more likely than not that the expert’s methods are reliable and reliably applied to the facts at hand.
    Scientific knowledge = scientific method/methodology: A conclusion will qualify as scientific knowledge if the proponent can demonstrate that it is the product of sound “scientific methodology” derived from the scientific method.[3]
    Factors relevant: The Court defined “scientific methodology” as the process of formulating hypotheses and then conducting experiments to prove or falsify the hypothesis, and provided a nondispositive, nonexclusive, “flexible” set of “general observations” (i.e. not a “test”) [4] that it considered relevant for establishing the “validity” of scientific testimony:
    Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable.
    Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.
    The known or potential error rate.
    The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation.
    The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

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