back to article Scientists investigate 'dark lightning' threat to aircraft passengers

US Navy scientists are going to rig aircraft with radiation detectors to check if a phenomenon known as dark lightning could be killing aircraft passengers. Dark lightning is the product of the electrical activity caused by thunderstorms and produces intense bursts of omnidirectional terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) up to …

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  1. Herby

    Compare to Dental X-Ray

    I went to the dentist a couple of hours ago, and was talking with the hygienist about X-rays. She made the comment that the X-rays used in dentists offices is MUCH less than it was only a few years ago (they now use electronic sensors, not film like they used to). I then pointed out that flying long flights (internationally) exposes you to LOTS more stuff than the simple X-rays you get on a yearly basis. The information I used related to high altitude exposure, but when you add in this little stuff, it can get excessive at times. When you only fly a few flights a year, the integrated exposure isn't very much, but if you are employed as part of the flight crew (main cabin, or cockpit) you get several trips in a month (sometimes over 4 long flights a week!) and for those people, it can add up.

    So, to really find out, we need some silly "in-depth" study, when collecting the data might be as easy as taping a piece of film (suitably shielded from light) to the side of the plane with duct tape.

    Then we get OSHA regulations and prop 65 warnings galore to scare the public!

    1. Turtle

      Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

      "So, to really find out, we need some silly "in-depth" study, when collecting the data might be as easy as taping a piece of film (suitably shielded from light) to the side of the plane with duct tape."

      I might be missing something here but wouldn't an "in-depth study" (read: health survey) of flight crews to find elevated cancer rates be fairly easy to arrange?* (And one could not unreasonably expect that elevated cancer rates would have been noted by flight crews long ago, if they exist.) Aside from whatever other scientific interest dark lightning has, wouldn't the health effects be the main area of concern?

      * I realize that while the existence of elevated cancer rates in such a survey would not necessarily mean that the increase was due to dark lightning, the lack of elevated rates would seem to strongly suggest that dark lightning has no effect on the incidence of cancer of the population under study.

      1. Wzrd1

        Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

        SOMETHING should be studied.

        On occasion, NOTHING should be studied.

        The entire point of the study is peer review.

        Hopefully...

        I'll await a peer review. Been there, done that, sucked to be there, moved on.

        Why can't YOU?

        1. Evil Auditor
          Pint

          Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

          sucked to be there, moved on

          Wzrd1, why don't you try beer review...

      2. Gordon 10 Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

        " (And one could not unreasonably expect that elevated cancer rates would have been noted by flight crews long ago, if they exist.) "

        Anecdotally (I used to work with Cabin Crew) - they are all well aware that they are part of a spike in cancer risk due to their job.

        No proof of course but lots of hosties in their 40's, 50's and 60's have developed lots of nasty cancers that friends in their peer group have not.

        1. stu 4
          Holmes

          Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

          some causality required here methinks... seems more likely to me to be caused by the Kgs of chemical crap they plaster all over their faces every morning....

          1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

            Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

            "seems more likely to me to be caused by the Kgs of chemical crap they plaster all over their faces every morning...."

            Also by the fact that lots of them used to smoke to keep thin / look glamorous

        2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

          >No proof of course but lots of hosties in their 40's, 50's and 60's have developed lots of nasty cancers that friends in their peer group have not.

          Presumably STDs are also caused by altitude then ?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

            > Presumably STDs are also caused by altitude then ?

            Well, if you can't get it up...

        3. The Indomitable Gall

          Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

          @Gordon 10

          "No proof of course but lots of hosties in their 40's, 50's and 60's have developed lots of nasty cancers that friends in their peer group have not."

          The biggest problem with the historical data is that there's no similar environment to compare with to eliminate the effects of passive smoking....

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

        I might be missing something here but wouldn't an "in-depth study" (read: health survey) of flight crews to find elevated cancer rates be fairly easy to arrange?

        Yes, you're maybe missing something. The moment this sort of research happens for real, airlines may be sued into oblivion by personnel on the basis of the then formalised conclusions. I suspect some shenanigans are already in play to avoid that.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Compare to Dental X-Ray

        " (And one could not unreasonably expect that elevated cancer rates would have been noted by flight crews long ago, if they exist.) "

        Yes indeed:

        http://oem.bmj.com/content/60/11/805.full

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If we were

      Meant to fly we'd have been born with jet packs in our ar*e

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: If we were

        What do you think vindaloo is fuel for?

  2. JP19
    FAIL

    hundreds of chest x-rays worth of radiation

    Hmm,

    You would think in all the history of flight, photography, and thunderstorms we might have noticed planes landing (or crashing) with every piece of photographic film on board having hundreds of chest x-rays worth of exposure?

    TGFs might exist, they might be worth investigating, but, the 'and they will kill you' bit sure looks like utter bollocks to me.

    Utter bollocks without which this 'news' would not have been reported <sigh>.

    1. Neoc

      Re: hundreds of chest x-rays worth of radiation

      Generally, when a plane crashes the film is either (a) burnt in the fire; or (b) destroyed by the actual impact. Add to this the fact that unless they suspected the cause of the crash to be radiation poisoning of the pilot(s), the investigators would not bother looking at the film... which would then likely be thrown away anyway.

      1. Irongut Silver badge

        Re: hundreds of chest x-rays worth of radiation (Neoc)

        At what point did anyone mention planes crashing? A plane is not going to crash because the pilot received a dose of radiation so your entire post is useless nonsense. I recommend classes in reading comprehension and reading the whole article before you post comments to avoid embarassing yourself further.

        1. JP19

          Re: hundreds of chest x-rays worth of radiation (Neoc)

          "At what point did anyone mention planes crashing?"

          I mentioned it as a (possible) alternative to landing because flying through thunder storms where TGFs might be experienced risks direct lightning strikes which we know have caused multiple plane crashes.

          I will assume you comment was directed at Neoc.

          All photographic film is sensitive to high energy particle exposure. We have had decades of planes carrying photographic film from holiday snaps to reconnaissance photograph to just plain cargo. If planes have been experiencing huge high energy particle exposure events we would have had evidence for decades.

        2. Neoc

          Re: hundreds of chest x-rays worth of radiation (Neoc)

          @Irongut: "...avoid embarassing yourself further."

          Says the commenter who apparently didn't read the post I was *replying* to but decided to flame me instead. JP19 mentions crashes, I was responding to that section of his (her?) comment.

    2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: hundreds of chest x-rays worth of radiation

      How sensitive is film to x-rays? Not very, as far as I know, without specialist emulsions. I seem to recall that 'x-ray film' in a hospital context is exposed to the light from a fluorescent sheet which *is* excited by the x-rays.

    3. JDX Gold badge

      Re: hundreds of chest x-rays worth of radiation

      Good to know JP19 is here to refute people who actually study physics for a living.

      Nowhere did the article say dark lightning risks x-ray exposure. gamma rays are not x-rays (well there's a cross-over but the principle applies).

    4. The Indomitable Gall

      Photographers' anecdotes

      You used to be able to request manual search of film cans to avoid "fogging" due to airport x-rays, but due to improvements in both emulsion and scanner tech, that's not a problem any more. But the fogging was always debated as to whether it was real or imagined. Perhaps the old stories of badly fogged film weren't down to security X-rays at all, but massive in-flight gamma exposure...?

  3. Don Jefe
    Happy

    Value Add

    The airlines should just put some film in the plane then sell whole body X-ray images to the passengers. Complimentary in First Class of course. And a guide to reading your X-ray available in the SkyMall catalog.

  4. Mark Jan

    Shame Kodak Went Bust

    Shame Kodak went bust, just when they could start selling their photographic film again!

  5. JaitcH
    Happy

    Cathay cares!

    I frequently have to travel trans-Pacific (Far East >> Canada - avoiding the USA and the TSA gorillas) and use Cathay Pacific often.

    Of all the carriers only CX has a passenger health warning like this < http://www.cathaypacific.com/cpa/en_INTL/helpingyoutravel/insidethecabin#C > and their concern is sufficiently great to limit crews to two return flights per month.

    On occasion, I have to make two return flights in a calendar month and CX flags my travel agent with a Cosmic Radiation warning. Imagine Expedia telling you?

    Of all the carriers CX is the only one who considers this, dog airlines such as Air Canada, don't even warn their crews.

    I expect to see a Dark Lightning warning on Cathay any day soon!

  6. Martin Budden Silver badge
    Alert

    ISS?

    Sure, planes fly around storms, but what about the ISS passing directly overhead? And because these bursts are omnidirectional there is no inverse square law in play so distance is irrelevant.

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: ISS?

      > because these bursts are omnidirectional there is no inverse square law in play so distance is irrelevant.

      Not so sure about that. A growing spherical 'wavefront' area expands according to a square law, surely the intensity for any given area must decrease accordingly with distance?

      1. T.a.f.T.
        Meh

        Re: ISS?

        Something about near and far fields? Although I don't think omnidirectional makes a difference there. Was it the near field that propagates at /r instead of /r^2.... so much EM theory that has leaked out of my brain now I just shuffle bits of a living.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: ISS?

      " these bursts are omnidirectional there is no inverse square law in play so distance is irrelevant"

      You fail physics forever.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: ISS?

        "You fail physics forever."

        And no re-sit.

        1. Tom 13

          Re: ISS?

          "You fail physics forever."

          And no re-sit.

          In fact, we don't even want you in the building (not classroom, building) where we teach it. No sense taking even the smallest chance it is contagious.

          1. Martin Budden Silver badge

            Re: ISS?

            Oops! I misunderstood "omnidirectionally" as "unidirectionally": I certainly do fail English forever. I believe my physics is still OK but I thank you all for your kind words.

            1. Marshalltown
              Coat

              Re: ISS?

              Go ahead. Dig it deeper.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. Irongut Silver badge

      Re: ISS?

      ROFL go back to the Daily Mail, you don't have the education to read The Register.

    4. bill 20
      Facepalm

      Re: ISS?

      "And because these bursts are omnidirectional there is no inverse square law in play so distance is irrelevant."

      Ummm..... so according your understanding of physics, since the sun also emits it's radiation omnidirectionally, there is no difference between it's effects here on Earth, and, ooh, say, at the surface of Mercury?

      Wow.

  7. FrankAlphaXII
    Thumb Up

    I wonder if NASA got rid of the F-106 they used to use to test Avionics against electrostatic lightning, it would be perfect for this, especially as its already hardened. Plus, I kind of miss seeing it flying around in what looked like a completely random pattern, trying to get struck.

    1. Def Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Trying to get struck

      I read that as 'trying to get stuck' at first. Imagine what confusion that caused my poor overworked brain.

  8. frank ly

    re. "... electrons and positrons forced to interact.."

    Where do all the positrons come from?

    1. Nigel 11

      Re: re. "... electrons and positrons forced to interact.."

      Created as positron / electron pairs by gamma radiation or high-energy electrons. Rest mass of an electron is 0.511eV, so anything much above 1MeV can do it. Electric potential of a thunderstorm is 100s of MV.

    2. Don Jefe
      Joke

      Re: re. "... electrons and positrons forced to interact.."

      Cybertron. Damnit man, they've had a documentary series about that on DVD for years.

  9. MrDamage

    Blue Jets, Sprites and Elves

    Have been known to exist for years, and only just now they are looking into other forms of radiation that can be created by lightning?

  10. This post has been deleted by a moderator

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: electrons/positrons are made of "light"

      Not to be confused with the much inferior positrons as used by Microsoft.

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Holmes

      Re: electrons/positrons are made of "light"

      Jeez Eadon.

      EVERYTHING is made of the same stuff. At the SAME TIME. This is why Feynman diagrams work.

      The quantum wave function has nothing to do with an classical Maxwell electromagnetic wave. Different levels of phenomenology (and theory) altogether.

      More in the amazing Quantum Theory in a Nutshell. Unfortunately for people just as myself, one has to have a pretty solid foundation in dog-standard Quantum Mechanics and the use of Lagrangians.

      1. Ellis Birt 1

        Re: electrons/positrons are made of "light"

        In Quantum physics, electron/positron pairs (and other particles) randomly come into existence. In the macroscopic scale this is balanced out by other pairs annihilating each other.

        Create the right (energy) conditions and the probability of this happening rise dramatically.

        That is effectively what they do at CERN (when they are not inventing the WWW).

      2. Tom 13
        Devil

        Re: Different levels of phenomenology (and theory) altogether.

        Why is it that whenever I see or hear the word "phenomenology" I hear a dialogue starting with "Bomb, you are not to explode" and ending with "Let there be light"?

  11. Winkypop Silver badge
    Coat

    "omnidirectional terrestrial gamma-ray flashes"

    That might explain airline food.

    1. Kevin Johnston

      Re: "omnidirectional terrestrial gamma-ray flashes"

      I'm sorry to disappoint you but NOTHING can explain airline food

      1. Alan Esworthy
        Pint

        Re: "omnidirectional terrestrial gamma-ray flashes"

        I'm sorry to disappoint you but there is no such thing as airline food. They do on occasion give you material they imply you should eat, but it fails to meet even one "food" criterion.

        Except for the beer and peanuts.

  12. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    But... how...????

    Deadly radiation coming from fluffy clouds? From Mother Nature? Such betrayal from Gaia! All those Greenpeace dues paid for nothing!? All those nights in a tent at the gates of nukular stations in miserable weather - in vain!!??!?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: But... how...????

      Don't tell Greenpeace about about all that radioactive Radon gas coming out of the rocks down in the West Country. Especially don't tell them about the natural nuclear reactor at Oklo in Gabon, Africa.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: But... how...????

        What's the argument devolving into here? "Because there's natural radioactivity and destructive things like volcanoes or lakes periodically releasing poison gases, therefore it makes no difference what we do"!?

        You go live in an asphalt lake, buddy, but for normal humans environmental regulations are a benefit.

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

          Re: But... how...????

          No, you're wrong. We are just talking about the superstitious and irrational paranoia of the Greens towards anything nuclear, which is the Evil Spirit of Nukular Radiashun Unleashed by Man onto Hollistic Life Forces of Gaia in the eyes of rank-and-file GP, FOTE etc members.

          1. asdf
            Trollface

            Re: But... how...????

            >We are just talking about the superstitious and irrational paranoia of the Greens towards anything nuclear

            Just as easy to talk about all the Jesus freak right wingers who look at this world only as a test of their irrational beliefs and as a Limbo to be exploited at all opportunities for personal gain until they get to leave to their magical place where they will see their zombie savior and their sky fairy. Plenty of delusion to be found on either side.

      2. The Indomitable Gall

        Re: But... how...????

        Yeah, but Oklo was 1.7 billion years ago. There wasn't anyone around at that point to get cancer. Well, there were single-celled organisms. Sh*t... what if all multicellular life started out when a microbe got cancer?!?

        1. asdf
          Trollface

          Re: But... how...????

          >Yeah, but Oklo was 1.7 billion years ago

          No that "proof" is just Satan tricking you that world is more than 6 thousand years old.

      3. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: But... how...????

        Don't tell Greenpeace about about all that radioactive Radon gas coming out of the rocks

        First read that as 'out of their socks'

  13. Anonymous Coward 15
    Devil

    Dark Lightning

    Good name for a band?

  14. PassiveSmoking
    Boffin

    The real question is, will it give you super powers? It'd be awesome to have a cool cape and be able to shoot gamma rays from my hands.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      PassiveSmoking,

      If you really want a cool cape, just go out and buy yourself one. I can't help with the shooting gamma rays from your hands, but LED torches are cheap. Will they do?

      Don't forget to put your underpants on after your trousers...

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. Don Jefe
        Happy

        Gamma radiation didn't hurt Bruce Banner. In fact it helped him by giving his superego an occasional opportunity to exhibit itself, thus reducing mental tensions in other facets of life.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
          Happy

          Gamma radiation didn't hurt Bruce Banner. In fact it helped him...

          I'm green with envy...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No Capes!

      http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_md8hekGkk31qc184to1_500.jpg

  15. Andy Lawton

    Radiation Detector

    Concorde carried a radiation detector. You can see a pic here http://www.flickr.com/photos/ruthann/2222758211/lightbox/

  16. Michael H.F. Wilkinson
    Joke

    Enter Otto von Chriek:

    Finally!!!! Ve vill haf proof of ze existence off ze DARK LIGHT!!!! Efen in ze roundworld!

    1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

      Re: Enter Otto von Chriek:

      Quiet! You'll scare the Land Eels!

  17. 4ecks

    Specially sheilded?

    So how much Lead do you need to make a Zeppelin resistant to "Dark Lightning"?

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Specially sheilded?

      A Whole Lotta...

      1. Turtle

        @Dave 126: Re: Specially sheilded?

        "A Whole Lotta..."

        A Whole Lotta Woman. In fact, a Whole Lotta Rosie, to be quite specific.

        1. The Indomitable Gall

          Re: @Dave 126: Specially sheilded?

          @Turtle,

          I'm sure an electric Zeppelin would be possible, but it would most likely be pure DC, using Li ion batteries. I suppose you could do a submarine style diesel-electric, but then you'd be best using AC motors on the propellors, rather than running it through a regulator and losing electrical efficiency....

          1. Turtle

            @The Indomitable Gall

            +1 Insightful.

            Nicely done! : )

            1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

              @turtle: Re: @The Indomitable Gall

              But you didn't "+1" it!

    2. Alan Esworthy
      Boffin

      Re: Specially sheilded?

      Not much because dark lightning occurs at an altitude of six to ten miles. That's well above a Zeppelin's operating ceiling.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One wonders

    How much airlines will charge for this service. $75 fee for radiation treatment with every international flight?

    Or "Good morning sir, are you in First Class or the unshielded section of the fuselage?"

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: One wonders

      I believe red wine is a good mitigation strategy for radiation exposure. Or so I shall be telling the stewardess next time I'm at 30,000 feet.

  19. PyLETS
    FAIL

    How the band got its name

    "In the summer the NRL will begin balloon flights into storm systems, and there are also plans for a specially-shielded aircraft to search for gamma radiation."

    As likely to fly as a lead zeppelin methinks.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Windows

      Re: How the band got its name

      Check out mythbusters!!!

      Lead ballon i believe but never-the-less...

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: How the band got its name

        Check out mythbusters!!!

        Enjoyable as Mythbusters might (usually1) be, we should give credit where it's due: Arther D Little Company did the lead-balloon thing 30 years before Adam and Jamie got around to it.

        1Do not think about their attempts at the Archimedes "death ray". Do not think about...

  20. This post has been deleted by its author

  21. Sigh Borg

    Add a broomstick and you've just described my ex-wife.

  22. TRT Silver badge

    Dark lightning...

    Isn't that a Guinness and cider? I can see the lethality.

  23. No ah!Compute

    Is Dark Lightning

    What the AllSpark emits?

  24. meanioni

    Proof thatsuperheros exist? :-O

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Lightning

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