photo: Rob Dekker, photograph of lightning storm over Madeira, Portugal
I found these gorgeous photographs on a site that Phila linked to (for something else) Dark Roasted Blend, an interesting blog that always has a lot of weird and interesting things posted.
When I was in 5th grade, one of my teachers gave us an assignment, to write a paper (a report really) and give an oral presentation on a science subject of our choosing, the catch being that we were assigned a specific part of the alphabet and sent off to look at the Encyclopedia Britannica. I got "L" and the only thing that interested me was the entry on lightning, which went on for several pages. Gah! what a failure that report was! I was completely incapable of understanding, much less explaining, what lightning was and how it worked. "It's bright and pretty and causes loud booms!!" I shuffled my feet and struggled to explain what positive and negative charges were and what that had to do with clouds. Really, I hadnt a clue. That oral report was one of the longest 15 minutes of my childhood. The next kid up had the letter "D" and his report was on dogs. The class was very entertained.
Childhood can be so cruel.
These days scientists still don't completely understand lightning (or so I gather from watching the Discover and Science Channels), but it's essentially a plasma discharge- and both of these photos illustrate the incredible power of those discharges. Gorgeous and terrifying. I still don't really understand it either, but I still like the pictures a lot.
I always wonder if maybe aliens come flying through our neighborhood and look at our world and say, "fuck! I'm not stopping there- look at the atmosphere! Not only is it composed of corrosive oxygen, it has those huge freaking storms that give off plasma bolts!! Run for your lives!"
Okay, maybe not, but the pictures are stunning. And if you happen upon it, look out for a show that's frequently repeated on Discovery Channel about superlightning- which is about exotic kinds of lightning that happen above the clouds, some of it jetting all the way into the upper atmosphere at the boundaries of space. Here's a good graphic from NASA of the different types:
You can haz science!!