Atmospheric Sciences AGU News

Edmond Dewan, Citizen Science, and the Mystery of Ball Lightning

In the early 1960s, a physicist enlisted the help of the public to study a rare atmospheric phenomenon.

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In 1969, a powerful lightning storm crept up on Lexington, Mass., where Edmond Dewan—the namesake of the Edmond M. Dewan Young Scientist Scholarship—lived with his wife and two children. His son Ted, who was eight at the time, still harbors vivid memories of the storm. As howling wind and rain rattled the house, his father got up, threw open the front door, and let out “a cartoonish mad scientist laugh.”

“Curiously,” Ted recalls, “seeing this wasn’t disturbing to me as a kid, so much as it was inspiring that something so terrifying was actually a thing you could laugh at maniacally in celebration and defiance.”

Edmond Dewan was a physicist and longtime AGU member who worked at the Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass., for 52 years—right up until the day he died in 2009. He approached all of his scientific subjects, which ranged from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to brain waves to the aurora borealis, with a boundless and gleeful curiosity. “A scientist does not always have to be right,” he once said. “But he needs to be provocative and stimulating.”

Dewan had a knack for taking on “provocative and stimulating” projects that seem like the stuff of science fiction—sometimes even attracting conspiracy theories. He also loved to find creative ways to engage people with his work. Dewan’s most broadly collaborative endeavor came about during his study of something he would never observe himself: ball lightning, also known as kugelblitz.

Ball Lightning

Accounts of ball lightning—a small orb of floating light that appears during thunderstorms—have been around for hundreds of years. The phenomenon is rare enough that most people haven’t witnessed it firsthand but common enough that scientists don’t doubt its existence.

Dewan’s own interest in ball lightning was initially sparked by an account from his own grandmother, who described seeing an orb of light float through her kitchen window one day and evaporate a metal fork before harmlessly disappearing.

Luckily for Dewan, the U.S. military was also interested in the phenomenon and asked him to compile a report.

Dewan initially tried to make ball lightning in the lab with his colleague Martin Stiglitz, but their attempts to observe kugelblitz directly were unsuccessful. So Dewan changed his approach, figuring that the next best thing to seeing ball lightning himself would be to learn what he could from those who had.

Crowdsourced Science

Dewan “came up with the idea of publishing an open letter in a big paper,” said his son Brian. “That was the only way, at the time, to address the public in such a broad way.”

In 1960, Dewan put out a call for any personal anecdotes regarding peoples’ experiences with floating balls of light in the Boston Globe. The request apparently struck a chord, as letters came pouring in from all over the state.

Several letters reported balls of light “bouncing” or “rolling” along a surface; others described them as “floating” or “drifting” through the air. Sometimes the ball exploded, leaving an acrid or sulfurous smell, and sometimes it simply vanished without a trace. Some orbs were as small as tennis balls, whereas others were described as being much larger, and they ranged in color from blue to orange to red.

All sightings appeared to leave a deep impression on the letter writer. One woman, who recalled a blue ball of light rolling down an apple tree and right between her feet in 1942, wrote, “I knew that I had seen a marvel of nature and felt enriched by it.”

In 1964, Dewan compiled the dozens of letters from his citizen science campaign into a 60-page report, adding them to accounts from military pilots who described balls of light entering the cockpit when they were flying their planes at high altitudes.

Then he moved on to other projects.

An Enduring Mystery

To this day, we haven’t come much further than Dewan did in understanding this bizarre phenomenon. In 2006, researchers in Tel Aviv, Israel, managed to produce something with ball lightning–like qualities using microwaves in a lab. And in 2012, Chinese researchers even captured and recorded a light spectrum of this rare event for the first time. Just last year, a professor of informatics from the Russian Academy of Sciences proposed that ball lightning may not be lightning at all, but light trapped in a sphere of thin air. But researchers still debate what exactly ball lightning is and how it’s made.

Dewan’s crowdsourced approach may have been ahead of its time. Appreciation for citizen science efforts has blossomed in the age of the Internet and devices like smartphones that can serve as effective data collection tools for scientists and nonscientists alike. Today, researchers have greater scope than ever before to tap into the wisdom of the crowd to learn new things about elusive natural events, and community science has broadened the concept to support scientists and community leaders in advancing community solutions to local challenges.

Perhaps someday, citizen or community science might even solve the mysterious case of kugelblitz once and for all.

—Rachel Fritts (@rachel_fritts), Science Writer

Citation: Fritts, R. (2020), Edmond Dewan, citizen science, and the mystery of ball lightning, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO140320. Published on 19 February 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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