Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Sky Spectacle

I don't know precisely where I am, except that I'm roughly six miles from the Earth and heading west. Several miles to the north, and perhaps 2 miles beneath, a brilliant electrical storm illuminates a cloud formation. The sparks fly at the surprising rate of one or two every second, as the light strobes in fiery spectacle.

I had thought this morning that the day couldn't get any better, tickled as I was to be golfing the legendary Augusta National course. The Georgia air was a balmy 70, the fairways greener than Al Gore, and my new, used woods from eBay swinging smooth. (Still, Jim "800-Flowers" McCann bested me by a stroke.) The setting was pastoral and glorious, but Nature's outdoing herself tonight with a fireworks display that barely resembles my normally grounded view of lightning.

It's humbling that physicists today know little more than Ben Franklin did as to the root cause of this thunderous phenomenon. (According to my favorite prevailing theory, Earth-bound solar winds carry starry particles that ignite the atmospheric explosions.) I recall that Ben Franklin's son had assisted his father with his daredevil experiment (don't try this at home--stormy kite-flying is not a good family activity), which reminds me of a conversation I had with my own 7 year old several months back as we drifted off to sleep in his room.

I had just answered--to the best of my ability--his question about what options people have for fuel sources. I thought that my list had sedated him for the night, but after some silence he asked me whether lightning can be a fuel source. Good idea, I said, but you can't harvest the power in lightning because you don't know where it will strike. But aren't there places, he asked, where you're likely to get much more than average? I supposed that there are, but I also reasoned confidently that the power is too bursty for any equipment to safely capture in a sustainable way. Okay, he said, but couldn't you attach a lightning rod to a bunch of other rods that branch out further and further, until the current spreads out enough to safely collect?

Yikes, I had no clue. But his idea's intriguing--at least as feasible as some of the technologies I assess for investment. (Action item: I must introduce him to my Cleantech partner Justin, just as soon as the boy graduates from second grade.) In my final moments watching the sparks flash through the clouds, they suddenly resemble the charged, frenetic neurons of a 7 year old mind.

I still don't know precisely where I am, but I do know exactly where I want to be.


  1. Great post. You have a future as a writer if the VC business ever tanks... :-)


  2. David: Check out for some theories on lightening. According to the electric universe theory you are not far off. The theory is that the earth is surrounded by a double layer sheath (capacitor)that slowly trickles charge all the way down to the earth's surface in the form of "sprites" in the upper atmosphere and lightening bolts at the earth's surface. It turns conventional thinking on its head. Lightening is not caused by clouds rubbing together, but weather systems are caused by electrical flux!

    Your son's ideas have potential! (sorry could not resist :-)

  3. I collect physics unexplains or anomalies like this (goes back to my Peace Corps teaching days). Here are some of my favs: sonoluminescence, lightning, the Pioneer Anomaly, and the existence of physicist John Hagelin (