Jonathan Salem Baskin

Still Unexplained

Today, a phenomenon is still unexplained.

Ball lightning — spheres of electricity ranging in size from a pea to a large workout ball — occurs naturally and randomly. There have been sightings since the Middle Ages, and balls have been seen hovering and traveling through windows before exploding with a puff of sulfur. Tsar Nicholas II and occultist Aleister Crowley reported them, but the phenomenon has proved impossible to study, because there’s no known cause. Explanations range from plasma and microwave radiation, to mini-black holes and epileptic-type hallucinations. An interesting side note: Allied pilots reported seeing them frequently during WWII, and named them foo fighters.

Physicist Nicola Tesla took a stab at answering the question on this day in 1904, in an article he wrote for Electrical World and Engineer. It turns out he’d created something that resembled ball lightening as an offshoot of his work transmitting electrical currents through the air. He attributed them to the interaction of two oscillating frequencies of electrical current that created brief moments of intense energy that were “released into surrounding space with inconceivable violence.” Tesla was blessed and cursed with the ability to see most natural phenomena as patterns in space and time resulting from waves (much like Buckminster Fuller would see solids as the outcome of lines of energy moving on their edges). Nobody could really understand what either of them was talking about. But there’s no denying that Tesla created what sure looked like ball lightning in his lab, and Fuller’s geodesic dome architecture supports massive weights with little apparent structure.

Sometimes we just can’t understand the explanations we’re given.

Here’s the link to Today in the Histories of Social Media, and this is the latest edition of Histories of Social Media