back to article Ball lightning is all in the mind, say Austrian physicists

Physicists in Austria say they have solved the conundrum of "ball lightning", mysterious glowing spherical apparitions which baffled boffins have struggled to explain for centuries. According to Josef Peer and Alexander Kendl of the University of Innsbruck, there is in fact no such thing as ball lightning in reality. Rather, …


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  1. sgb


    You'd still be able to 'see' the phenomenon with your eyes closed?

    1. Thomas 18
      Thumb Up

      oh yeah

      Hah that's a bloody good point.

      In any event if you see any glowing balls that look about a billion volts, you should definitely try to touch them if only to reassure the scientists.

      1. Walking Turtle

        That'd likely comfort 'em.

        Also stimulate a brand-new Spontaneous Human Combustion controversy as well, no doubt. Black Rains at Slains and Cartload Deluges of Fresh Mussels on the streets of Leeds got nuthin' on this...

        Gotta' love a Magnetically Bottled natural Plasma. (Now where's my Book of the Damned Icon?)

    2. henrydddd
      Thumb Up

      Ball lightening

      Also, if two people or more people see exactly the same thing would make it improbable that it was a phenomena the occurs only in the mind

      1. Allan George Dyer
        Thumb Up


        The lightening strikes, some shouts "look over there, ball lightening", and everyone is looking in roughly the same direction, seeing a fuzzy, hard-to-place ball. No-one closes their eyes (too scared or too interested).

        This seems like a credible hypothesis, needs some testing.

  2. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. Alister

    hang on a minute...

    ...although quite rare, doesn't there exist some photographic evidence of ball lightning?

    If so, then the phenomenon can't possibly be "all in the mind" as this study suggests - unless film cameras can be somehow influenced in the same way as the human visual system?

    I feel a largish pinch of salt may be required.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Video files?

    I was curious when i first saw this as i recalled reading about people who HAD re-created ball lightning conditions, not to mention potential video recordings... of course i didn't really have the time or knowledge to make a serious judement

  5. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    I know nothing about this phenomenon whatsoever...

    ...but that doesn't stop all the other Reg contributors, so why should I be any different...

    It seems to me that two or more people simultaneously confirming the existence and position of a stable ball-shaped electrical discharge ought to disprove the suggestion that it's all in the mind. Several people might have a simultaneous halucination, but hardly the SAME hallucination?

    I seem to recall reports of groups of people experiencing this phenomena, so there's certainly people to interview. Get a grant application to disprove an idea, and them apply for more grants to disprove that which you thought of in the first place...

    Troll, 'cos his hair's standing on end...

    1. Oninoshiko


      actually, since they are talking about a signal acting on the nerves, it could vary well be "seen" by multiple people. Although, as others have suggested it would not be visable in a recording.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So all those youtube videos are fake?

    It'th a conthpwacy!

  7. lansalot

    easy to test, surely..?

    Has it EVER been captured on film ?

  8. Goatan

    Then explain . . .

    All the video evidence of Ball Lightning. The strikes magnetic effects can be captured and transmitted through Video recorders and display equipment.

    You can't alter the evidence for something to fit a theory already disproven.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      "You can't alter the evidence"

      Tsk, tsk, tsk.

      Have you already forgotten the Bush era ?

      1. Walking Turtle

        "Not I", said the Little Red Hen.

        Bronzed Keyboard Trophy for you, my friend... Just please 'n' kindly send me a fresh new one in its place. Still bellylaughing...

        Seems as though somewhere along the way those ball-buster boffins just might have taken up with a bit of Faulty Intelligence?

  9. Daniel Bennett

    They're wrong! I've seen one.

    Back in.. I think 1999. A huge thunderstorm at stupid o clock in the morning.

    Watching it... All sorts of amazing lightning going off... Then there was a ball of lightning that fell from the sky, hit something and then rings from that lightning appeared and spread across the sky.

    In the morning there was a news report of a chimney falling down, right where I saw that ball of lightning land.

    If these physicists were right, I wouldn't see the ball fall down or spread rings through the sky.


    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      stupid o clock in the morning

      Good one, I'll remember that !

  10. Iain B. Findleton

    Ball lightning....

    Being a professional meteorologist of some repute for more than 30 years, I confess to having always been skeptical of the phenomenon until I did observe a case. The incident was hardly as dramatic as some accounts, however, I did observe a rather large sphere of what appeared to be glowing lightning descend from a thunderhead that was across a lake from my location.

    I personally speculate that the structure of the phenomenon is more likely to be associated with an ignited gas bubble of some kind rather than a strictly electrical phenomenon, however, not having ever seen any analytical reports on the actual objects, its just a personal theory. The main oddity that I recall was the rather ballistic trajectory of the ball, which I would normally have expected to be more congruent with thunderhead downdraft trajectories. There are a lot of basic physics questions associated with that latter observation, however, perhaps the intense magnetic or electro-static fields in play would account for the trajectory. In any event, it is clear that gravity was the dominating force in this case, which in my mind raises a question about how "intense" the magnetic field actually are. Certainly much less than 9.8m/sec*2, or the trajectory would not be ballistic, either that, or the ball was not electrical in nature.

    As to the intense magnetic fields disturbing my brain to the extent that I imagined the incident, I can not credit that theory. My point of observation was some 4 miles from the thunderhead, or perhaps more, with a significant body of water between myself and the thunderhead.

    While it is certainly true that the current discharge through the core of a thunderhead predicts a short lived but intense magnetic field associated with the motion of the electrons along the path of the lightning strike, I am not aware of any reports of strong magnetic phenomena associated with lightning. By strong magnetic phenomena I mean bicycles flying through the air, pots of soup jumping off the stove, or even metal cutlery leaving plates. Electromagnetic interference with radio communications is limited to the duration of the strikes themselves, while reports of ball lightning, and indeed the case I observed, have and had durations of many seconds.

    Let's not forget that the existence of Neutercanes, a small severe ocean storm now thought to be the cause of many lost vessels in the "Bermuda Triangle" area, was unknown until satellite observations became available in the 1960s. Notwithstanding the research of the Austrians, the ball lightning phenomenon has been widely and consistently reported for centuries, and although not yet digitally documented, ascribing it to a psychic cause does not ring true to me.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Dear me

      A truly intelligent, verbose, well-construction and correctly-written post on the Internet ?

      What is this world coming to ?


      On a more serious note, would you be the Founder and President of Custom Clients, as stated here : ?

  11. LuMan


    Well, that explains it then. Perhaps we can use this explanation for other events in the physical world; badgers, for example, don't really exist. What we see is a 'phosphene' brought about by a special chemical that rabbits emit when they need to disguise themselves!

    Perhaps someone ought to point this out to that liverpudlian tit on Most Haunted. Fecking orbs, my arse!

  12. Eponymous Cowherd
    Thumb Down

    Photographic evidence?

    So the various photos of ball lightning are:-


    Something else that looks like ball lightning, but isn't.?

    Or are cameras subject to "phosphenes" too?

  13. Citizen Kaned


    ok, so if they are imaginary how come i can find loads of pics?

    i guess the magnetic field can also warp a camera lens?

  14. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Sounds fishy

    UFOs grilling your lawn are ball lightning but ball lightning does not exist. So who now grills your lawn?

  15. MacRat

    What's Next?

    Will they discover that alcohol and inbreeding creates UFO sightings?

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    So, er, ball lightning = god?

  17. Red Bren

    Great Cthulu

    "powerful magnetic fields created by ordinary lightning affect the brains of humans nearby so that they see the unspeakable things that are really there."

    There, corrected that for you.

    Mine's the one with the Lovecraft paperback in the pocket.

    1. DJV Silver badge

      You could be right!

      Just recently I've seen politicians apparently talking sense! What is the world coming to?!

  18. Thomas 4

    Awfully dismissive of them

    There have been people admitted to hospitals with severe burns resulting from a hit by ball lightning and I'm pretty sure the doctors aren't hallucinating as well.

  19. Julz

    Mind Over Matter

    What about the reported physical effects?

    Not to mention a posible mechanism

    Flame, because, well self evident really.

  20. Rosco

    A photo?

    Someone claims to have a photo of ball lightning here:

    I can't say I'm completely convinced but I'm more convinced by this theory. They claim that large numbers of people in wildly varying conditions (different lightning types, different distances from it etc etc) experience exactly the same type of hallucination and no other type of hallucination. That just doesn't add up to me. But what do I know?

    1. Rosco


      "I can't say I'm completely convinced but I'm more convinced by this theory."

      I meant, obviously, "less convinced by this theory". Damnit, I'll have to sack my proofreader.

  21. peyton?

    Another overlooked item

    Witnesses have also reported hearing ball lightning go out with a bang... so that would be two parts of the brain apparently out of whack yet working in concert?

  22. JeffyPooh

    These boffins require a brain transplant

    If something is sufficiently rare, then it's expected that there wouldn't be any clear-cut irrefutable evidence (such as one example captured in a bottle and delivered, still pulsing and sparking, to the overly-skeptical boffins).

    But chunks of floating highly-electrified plasma isn't all that controversial a claim. It's not "an extraordinary claim". There's no reason not to accept that reports of ball lightning are probably true (but yet to be ultimately confirmed).

    And there's no absolutely reason to invoke bizarre and silly explanation such as the one offer from these boffins.

    1. Walking Turtle
      Black Helicopters

      But these are *Austrian* Boffins

      Doubtless out to lend a hand in the Restorartrion of the Empire to its Former Glory, one rather thinks.

      Can't dominate a populace until it's properly dumbed-down. (Remember.)

  23. Mr_Pitiful

    But I've seen it!

    A massive thunderstorm in Texas 1995 I think

    Me and my friend were looking out over possum kingdom lake

    A huge lightening strike hit the lake and a few seconds later about 5 or 6 bright,

    buzzing spheres appeared, maybe 20 - 25 feet above the water.

    They were approx 2 feet in diameter

    They hovered for a second or two then kinda fizzed and hit the water with a large pop sound

    1. Daniel Bennett


      That sounds exactly like what I saw! Except these spheres carried on in the sky after ball impact lol.

    2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Really ?

      So, how's the medication these days ?

      Sorry, couldn't resist.

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      You may be interested in this item

      They seem to be re-creating the conditions that you had when you saw them. The real question is can it be photographed? Well look at the picture.

  24. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    I hope they are wrong

    I always hoped I would have my very own ball lightning gun one day...

  25. Damo666

    It's true, the scientist said so

    My father once saw a ball of lightening, as did everyone in the house, so that's a lot of minds played with. Apparently it came through the front window, through the hatch into the kitchen, and bounced off the fridge. All of them saw exactly this happen apparently, so not sure it could have been in the mind.

    But if the scientists say it, it must be true, just like Cows having regional accents :)

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    He isn't a scientist

    'no new and other suppositions are necessary'

    That comment shows he is no scientist. Real scientists know that any theory no matter how concrete it seems (and his is far from concrete) can be shown to be junk when new evidence comes to light and they are willing to adapt to new information. To refuse to consider any other possibility after you have made your mind up should be left to the religious

    1. bell

      Bit of a context failure there ...

      Kendl was saying that physics didn't need to be stretched with any 'new and other suppositions' to make ball lightning fit, not that this was the final answer on the matter of ball lightning.

      More generally, this theory provides an interesting opportunity to make ball lightning explicable. It does so by providing two classes of ball lightning observations - real ball lightning and phosphenes. If use irresponsibly this just provides cover for cherry-picking but the idea that not all ball lightning is created equal will provide at least an interest in distinguishing between the two.

  27. CrysXP

    You wanna know what else is 'all in the mind'?

    Australia! Never been there myself so i doubt it actually exists

  28. M7S

    Hang on a sec guys (and gals), there's an upside to this!

    Your honour, the witness statements/photo/video of the arresting officer/other persons/Gatso/cctv etc against me must be discounted, there was wifi coming from my laptop/mobe/Starbucks etc and the magnetic field associated with this caused them to hallucinate. The man in the white coat said so (no, not "the men in white coats")

    My own personal reality distortion field at last.

    Yay boffins!

  29. Anonymous Coward

    Scientist are dumb

    Then can they explain why I have seen balls lightning in my house. Don't tell me it is a metaphysical divergence of magnetic resonence through a flux capacitance. Rubbish! Scientific theory is as ludicrous as religious doctrine.

    1. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Scientist are dumb

      This has given me a Steven Wright lol-back.

      "There was a power cut. Good job my camera had a flash. The neighbours called the police, they thought there was lightning in my house."

  30. EddieD

    Could not there be more than one solution?

    Given the varied nature of reports of ball lightning, I'd think that there were several mechanisms that led to "balls of lightning" - plasmas, gas ignitions, magnetophosphenes, infrasonics, and probably others.

    There are more things in heaven and earth, young scientist. than are dreamed of in your philosophies.

    Alien icon, as one other hypothesis

  31. Inachu

    Oh really?

    what about real BALL lightning videos?

    I have seen a few videos on this where lightning just hits and glowing balls are flown outwards from the source of the hit.

    Just go visit Google image search and type in ball lightning and you will see real

    photos of it. it is not so much of a brain phenomenon as people think it is.

    I call this report junk science.

  32. Anonymous Coward

    Unfortunately, those seem to be the ways of science today

    "We can't explain what you saw, but we can explain it away"

    Mine is the one with sunglasses and a neuralyzer in the pocket

    1. Luther Blissett


      And mine's the one with the MSM publicity kit and the clothes peg to apply to my nose when I use it.

  33. Robert Ramsay
    Thumb Down

    then there are the guys who make the stuff...

  34. Adwords

    What emprical evidence

    do they have of (a) the magnetism and (b) its effect on brains?

    Furthermore, these chaps are physicists. this looks a bit outside of their field. It's one thing to say they don't believe in ball lightening; it's another thing altogether to come up with this magnestism/brain theory. I'd be interested to hear what a neuroscientist or cognitive psychologist has to say about it.

    1. LaeMing

      Great Balls of Fire!

      > I'd be interested to hear what a neuroscientist or cognitive psychologist has to say about it

      Probably "Balls".

  35. Brennan Young

    Reproduce it in the lab, then, "boffins"

    If it can't be reproduced, it's a junk hypothesis

  36. Anonymous Coward

    "Click" from nearby lightning..

    had a strange experience a few years back. there was a massive (near vertical extremely bright) bolt that hit near the left hand side of Rovers football club field, and at the exact same time I heard a loud "click" noise and then about 1 second later the usual rumble.

    Have recorded some pretty strange intracloud lightning which went round in a circle, never seen this before but it can happen under certain conditions. when multiple cells are nearby.

    never seen BL yet, ,at least not the classic "fireball".

    my own theory, perhaps BL is actually something similar to sonoluminescence in moisture saturated air, with continuous energy input via ultrasonic waves generated far up in the thunderstorm by colliding ice crystals, travelling in the direction of least resistance (ie towards the ground) ?

    AC for reasons of national security :-)

    1. Red Bren

      Me too

      I've also heard clicking sounds in sync with nearby lightning flashes. The two explanations I found were synaesthesia - where the brain confuses one sensory input with another, or direct electromagnetic stimulation of the nerve endings in the inner ear.

      Annoyingly, I can't find the sources of these explanations. Citation FAIL for me.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    phosphenes moving around?

    this is interesting, it seems that they can move depending on direction of gaze.

    now this makes me wonder if a suitably intense field could hyperexcite the neurons and cause relatively long lived phosphenes until the cells recover their normal firing patterns...


  38. John F***ing Stepp

    Back in the old analog days.

    You know film?

    They have pictures and all.

    On film.

    Or maybe there is some kind of magic here.

    You look at the picture of ball lightning and imagine you see the little ball of light.

    Damn strong magnetic field; damn strong.

    Because even though I am a fan of Doc Kellogg's magnetic chair (no, the other one) I do not see one of these things creating ball lightning.

    (aside, the none Icon is still not showing up.)

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So even physicists can talk pure BS...

    Ball lightning is a fact. I've seen it, and it was no hallucination or optical illusion. If it was the people around me at the time must have been suffering from mass hysteria.

    Our Austrian friends have demonstrated nothing but the limits of their own experience.

    1. John 62

      magnetic fields affect large areas

      I have no reason to disbelieve you or your Austrian friends. However, I will say that your argument does not disprove theirs. By definition, the magnetic field from an electrical storm will cover a large area, thus, all the people around you would have been affected in the same way as you. Your Austrian friends, being from the home of psychotherapy may have an opionion on mass hysteria as well. As I said, ball lightning could be real. I haven't seen it and I only vaguely remember a TV programme from years ago linking ball lightning with crop circles, where I think small electrical fireballs were created in the lab. [Crop circles are still more likely down to young farmers or 'artists' though.]

      If that's TL;DR, here's the short version: pics or it didn't happen.

  40. John F***ing Stepp
    Big Brother

    Actually, this might have just solved one of my problems.

    Really, spend thirty years of your life on something and flash on a possible solution.

    A photon is a grouping of a magnetic and electrostatic field.

    Ninety degrees out (or so, doesn't have to be that close.)

    That is what a photon, or a radio wave is.

    A spiral.

    (What it looks like to me.)

    So I add in some fourth dimension, not the fourth dimension just anything above three.

    I can make that ball of light.

    I can work with this.

    It is going to take a bit of work; but when it is done I can damn near go anywhere.

    (Cue the maniacal laugh*.)

    *It is alive, my creature is alive.

    Are you certain this is not Nikola Tesla?

    For reals it looks like him.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I recall seeing video taken from the space station of a thunderstorm from above. A number of glowing balls were clearly visible, travelling upwards to space from the cloud that was creating the lightning down to earth. I also recall reading an account of a plane that was struck by lightning and this created a glowing ball which multiple passengers watched travel slowly down the centre of the plane.

  42. Mips
    Jobs Horns

    Oh! That explains it then..

    ... and I though I was drunk.

  43. Anonymous Coward

    Brain short?

    Apparently, there are so many lightning bolts in Austria that there is a substantial probability of even relatively rare physicists being struck dumb by them. (Maybe that explains Aaarhhnold too)

    My professional opinion, as a physiological psychologist, is that the propensity to spawn theories is inversely related to the amount of gray matter engaged with relevant subject matter and directly related to the probability of sliding them by one's equally ignorant peer reviewers. Now, I must be off to polish my theory of quantum entanglement as an explanation for my instantaneous realization, at a distance, that my ex is dialing my number to ask about the alimony.

  44. Tsu Dho Nimh

    What about the burns? The explosions?

    Many eyewitness reports indicate the ball lightning did things like explode masonry chimneys, and leave scorch marks on paint.

  45. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Candidate for an (ig)nobel prize?

    While there *might* be multiple explanations for this and this *might* be one of them Occam's razor suggests the it's got 1 cause and that's something to do with plasma physics.

    It's *not* the eyewitness accounts (the *whole* point of their work is that *all* you posters who described seeing things were seeing an illusion). It's the film and video recordings and the reports of damage *after* contact.

    IMHO V. poor use of scientist time.

  46. Phil Lean


    I know what I saw (1975, Oundle) - a series of lightning bolts lasting half an hour and it was utterly beautiful. Austrian physicists on the other hand are a figment of the imagination.

  47. Ordinary Fool

    Caught on film...

    Arthur C. Clarke's "Mysterious World" TV series showed such a bouncing ball. It was produced experimentally by shorting out submarine batteries.

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