Balls of fire: Rolling lightning misunderstood




Q. Ball lightning's so freaky it's often mistaken for a UFO. What in fact is it? –Merlin

A. Nobody knows, says University of Florida electrical engineer Martin A. Uman in All About Lightning. The phenomenon is still so poorly understood it's not clear if the energy source for these luminous "floating" colored spheres about the size of an orange or grapefruit is internal (gas behaving bizarrely?) or comes from some outside source (nearby thundercloud?).

Though 5-10 percent of people have witnessed it, ball lightning is rarely captured on film, adding to its mystery. One vivid account came from an Iowan after a violent thunderstorm: "I heard a heavy rushing sound, looked about and saw a yellowish-white fireball about the size of a wash tub bouncing down the dirt road, faster than one could run. It went about a city block, hit a small shed, which exploded, killing a horse inside."

Red or yellow balls are common, lasting a second or so, moving horizontally or hovering in midair, says Uman. At times they spin or bounce along the ground. Balls may enter houses through chimneys or windows, or originate within buildings, possibly from telephones, and even inside airplanes.

Q.  Would a gun fire in the vacuum of space? –S. Winchester

A. Neither a bullet's primer (where the hammer strikes) nor the powder in the cartridge requires oxygen to function, so a spaceshot would be a blast, says three-time shuttle astronaut R. Mike Mullane in Do Your Ears Pop in Space?

"However, if an unrestrained spacewalker ever did fire a pistol, the recoil would send her tumbling head-over-heels backward," Mullane says.

BTW, shuttle astronauts don't carry weapons to defend against aliens, because none are expected to board. Neither do they don't carry suicide pills in case they get stuck in orbit. As for ears popping, this doesn't happen, says Mullane, because– unlike in an airplane where air is introduced or released during ascent or descent to equalize pressure inside and out– shuttle pressures are kept steady. Q. Your lover just bought you a 25-karat-gold ring from a pawnbroker– "a steal of a deal." Now where should you tell your lover to go? –E. Taylor

A. To a jeweler's to test what's really in the ring. Pure gold is 24 karat, so 25 karat is impossible, a scam: 12K would be 50 percent pure, 18K 75 percent pure, etc. Some markings use 3-digit numbers, such as 375 (9K), 500 (12K) or 917 (22K). These are decimal fractions with the decimals dropped.

Q. Can you polish up your kissing techniques by practicing on an inanimate object or imaginary partner? –P. Charming

A. Don't be bashful– you can get needed osculatory experience by puckering up to a pillow or poster, or just "mentally rehearsing" with a fantasy lover, says Australian Olympic sports psychologist Dr. Jeff Simons. After all, kissing is a motor skill, and top athletes have long been perfecting their motor skills via intense imagery. So think of someone you'd really like to kiss, then close your eyes, picture that delicious face, those ruby reds. Try to feel it.

The more senses you bring into play, the better. Because the subconscious mind cannot distinguish reality from fantasy, at some level these kisses will really be happening to you!

Word of caution: You need feedback. Are your kisses too hard, too wet, too long, too probing? You may imagine your kiss as wonderful, but would a real partner agree? Before long you'll have to come out of the kissing closet.

Second pitfall is unrealistic expectations. "It would be a shame to live a fantasy life to such a degree that reality is nothing but a letdown. So enjoy those imaginary kisses, but don't fall in love with your fantasies. And remember to dry off the pillow before lying down to sleep."

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at