The Wild File

Outside Magazine, November 1994

The Wild File

Your urgent inquiries about the world, answered
By Patrick Clinton

My girlfriend claims she once saw a "lightning ball" on a camping trip. Should she get her eyes examined? Or her head?
--Ian Maloney, San Francisco, California

The phenomenon of ball lightning--small glowing spheres observed during thunderstorms and even in placid weather--has long been written off as either an optical illusion or superstition. But in the last decade, thousands of eyewitness accounts have been studied in Russia and Japan, and now most scientists are believers.

Which isn't to say they understand it. Ball lightning is weird stuff. The name is a misnomer because it doesn't really behave much like lightning. It's been known to drop down chimneys, pass through windows, and form suddenly in rooms. In one memorable case, a lightning ball floated down an airplane aisle. Sometimes it's cool to the touch; other times it's hot enough to boil water or melt glass. It usually lasts about five seconds, after which it may vanish quietly or explode.

Ball lightning has been invoked to explain everything from spontaneous human combustion to UFO sightings to the odd atmospheric lights of Marfa, Texas. But what is it? The leading theory is that it's plasma--atmospheric gas ionized by conventional lightning. Indeed, two Japanese physicists have used microwaves to create tiny plasma balls in the laboratory.

Whatever it is, fewer than one person in a thousand will encounter ball lightning over the course of a lifetime. So hang on to your girlfriend: She's a rare find.

How did Henry David Thoreau pronounce his name: Tho-roo or Tho-roe?
--Y. Littlefield, New York, New York

Neither. try Thor-o, accent on the first syllable. Nineteenth-century Americans yearned to sound European, and Tho-roe was their best guess at how a Frenchman would have pronounced the name. However, an aunt of Thoreau's called this mispronunciation "ludicrous."

By the way, our man on Walden Pond wasn't actually named Henry David; he was David Henry. For some reason he changed the order after college. Apparently his neighbors felt this was a snooty affectation. "His name ain't Henry D. Thoreau, and everybody knows it," one Concord farmer ranted. And people wonder why the guy wanted to be alone in the woods.

How high can birds fly?
--Billy Segovia, Austin, Texas

On November 29, 1973, over Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the voyage of a large bird was interrupted by a commercial jet at 37,000 feet. The bird's remains--five complete feathers, 15 partials--were later identified as belonging to a Rüppell's griffon, Gyps rueppellii, a vulture.

Too heavy to rely on wing-flapping alone, big scaven gers are unrivaled masters of riding updrafts. Some African vultures have been observed making trips of 60 miles --and barely moving their wings after takeoff. "But that's not flying," you might sneer. "That's soaring." Sticklers would give the record to 30 whooper swans spotted by a pilot at 27,000 feet over the Outer Hebrides in 1967. Next in line is a mallard that smashed into an airplane at 21,000 feet over Nevada in 1962.

As it turns out, the griffon record may have been a case of neither flying nor soaring. British ornithologist Colin Pennycuick, who has studied African vultures from a motorized glider, suspects that the griffon may have been sucked up in a violent thunderstorm--a real hazard in West Africa. "If so," Pennycuick says, "it would probably have been frozen solid by the time the airliner clobbered it."

All the same, I'm sticking with the hapless vulture. Whether he was a visionary or just a frozen ball of feathers tossed in the path of destiny, he still got there. Effort is admirable, but elevation is...well, it's elevation.

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