Scientists Accidentally Simulate Ball Lightning in a Laboratory

Friday, 02 March 2018 - 6:24PM
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Friday, 02 March 2018 - 6:24PM
Scientists Accidentally Simulate Ball Lightning in a Laboratory
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Ball lightning is one of the most obscure, perplexing mysteries in meteorology.

The name is fairly self-explanatory: ball lighting occurs when spheres of crackling electricity whizz around during a thunder storm or other electrically charged event. While these have often been reported, the phenomenon occurs so rarely that there's never been a method for observing it up close, and as such, scientists have to use a lot of guesswork when trying to figure out how ball lightning behaves.

A new study in Science Advances seems to have unlocked the potential to better explore exactly what's going on with ball lightning, as something approximating this rare spectacle has been created in a laboratory setting, in miniature, within a slow moving gaseous mass that scientists can study at their leisure.



This is especially fortuitous since the study was meant to be testing something completely different, and the creation of artificial ball lightning was a complete accident as part of their experiment.

The scientists were attempting to create a "Shankar skyrmion", which is essentially a dense, tangled mess of an electromagnetic field. The technique to achieve this involved experimenting on a supercooled mass of rubidium atoms, which were barely warmer than absolute zero, and therefore were traveling around in a very sluggish manner.

If this sounds familiar, it's because an experiment that attempted to create a mega atom recently used a similar technique - the benefit to super cooling atoms, creating what's known as an Einstein-Bose condensate, is that when the particles are exceptionally cold, they move slowly enough to be easily tracked, making observation and experimentation a lot easier.




When the scientists managed to achieve their goal of producing a Shankar skyrmion within their condensate, they noticed something very interesting: the gaseous orb's movements seemed to perfectly match up with theorized activity of ball lightning. Essentially, this experiment had inadvertently created the perfect way to study this rare phenomenon in a controlled environment where all the variables can be controlled.

This is big news for those who are researching ball lighting, as it makes it possible to photograph an approximation of this event in its various stages. According to the study's author Mikko Möttönen from Aalto University in Finland, who said the following to Gizmodo:

Opening quote
"That's the great thing about these quantum gases-you can take photos of them and see the details of the structure. We're absolutely sure it's the [three-dimensional] skyrmion that we've seen. The biggest moment was when we realized we got the same electromagnetic fields as predicted for ball lightning. We didn't aim for that. But wow."
Closing quote


This discovery is one of those happy accidents that help push science forward in unexpected ways. Now, it'll be possible to get a much better idea of what causes ball lightning, how it behaves, and how to control it.

We just have to hope that this new technology, which provides the ability to create ball lightning, doesn't fall into the wrong hands. After all, this kind of experimentation is how you end up with Spider-Man villains like Electro.
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