Whistlers

 

Steven McGreevy , who studies VLF Whistlers and mentions the INSPIRE VLF Receiver has this to say about whistler 'sweet spots' (http://www.triax.com/vlfradio/vlfstory.htm):

Neither myself or anyone else have yet to determine if there are "special places" where, perhaps due to local terrain or geology, whistlers are louder and more frequent than average. But, they may exist somewhere. Intriguingly, Edson Hendricks, a researcher into the mysterious "Marfa Lights," heard extremely loud whistlers issuing forth from a very crude and seemingly insensitive whistler receiver during a display of these strange and spooky colored balls of lights occasionally seen in the desert near Marfa Texas for nearly 50 years. (See the document "Seeing the Marfa Lights..." Ed was listening right near powerlines, and their "hum" would have surely been overpowering to more sensitive whistler receivers like my WR- 3, WR-4b or BBB-4, and also Mike Mideke's fine RS-3/4's, but Ed tells of these very pure whistler-like notes far stronger than the weakish background hum, as heard in the output of his simple receiver. Something is going on there in west Texas that needs further checking out, and it again points to the great need for more people to join in the whistler listening movement. "

Here follows Edison Hendricks Story (read his follow-up story!):

Seeing the Marfa Lights on February 2, 1991 Edson C. Hendricks 2336 Wilbur Avenue San Diego, CA 92109-2357, USA edh@edh.net On Saturday, February 2, 1991, I visited the Marfa Lights viewing area east of Marfa on Route 90. I brought with me a good quality pair of 9x35 binoculars and a simple homebuilt receiver for audio frequency electromagnetic radiation, similar to radio signals but at much lower frequencies. My reason for having with me such a receiver was that atmospheric electrical phenomena are known to operate at such frequencies in some cases, and I wondered whether there might be a connection between such radiation and the Marfa Lights. I arrived at the Marfa Lights viewing area, parking at the far right at about 5:30 in the afternoon, while the sun was still low in the sky. At this time the weather was clear and dry, with a dark cloud bank low on the distant west horizon. My intent in arriving this early was to gain familiarity with local land features in daylight so that I could more easily interpret the positions of distant lights after dark. Using the binoculars occasionally as darkness gradually descended, and ranch lights and automobile headlights switched on, I quickly learned to identify each by their position and appearance. The ranch lights were still and constant in brightness, and were either white or blue in color. Most of the visible automobile headlights were from northbound traffic along Route 67, 20 to 25 miles to the southwest. These moved at an apparently steady rate in a northward direction, following a constant path that gradually descended toward the north, and were white in color. These lights appeared to vary in brightness, evidently due to roadside obstructions and veering angles along the distant curving road. Along this road there were several points at which headlights often seemed to flare up brightly, no doubt as the road path directed the headlights toward my position. I tracked several automobiles as they followed the distant road, and soon I could accurately anticipate how the apparent headlight brightness would change as the automobiles proceeded. Seated in my parked automobile, using the binoculars, I continued to examine the landscape in this manner until daylight had almost completely faded. At several minutes before 7:00 P.M., I suddenly noticed a rather bright light to the west-southwest, north of the region where the automobile headlights were visible. I had seen no light in the same vicinity prior to that moment. The light attracted my attention mostly because of its color which was brilliant yellow, unlike the other lights I'd been examining. I carefully situated the binoculars on the headrest of the passenger seat next to me, so that they were quite stable and directed toward this new light. Although it was late dusk, I was still able to see a nearby utility pole in the same field, providing me a fixed reference point with which I could gauge the light's movement. Initially the light did not appear to move, but there did seem to be a slight erratic variation in its brightness. As I stared at it through the binoculars it began to move slowly to the north. It remained brilliant, perhaps somewhat brighter than the brightest headlight flashes I'd seen along Route 67, but it continued to flicker slightly and irregularly. The light gradually seemed to gain speed somewhat, then it gradually slowed as it passed behind the nearby utility pole in front of me. As it emerged from behind the pole it slowed to a halt, and remained stationary for half a minute or so. Then it slowly began to rise and move back toward the south, back behind the utility pole and past it to the south. It had by now ceased rising as it moved laterally southward, still flickering but it was now generally gaining brightness. I was puzzled by this light, but I had not yet been able to decide whether I might be seeing another automobile headlight. And then, as I stared with great surprise, the light divided into two separate lights which continued to move southward and gradually drew apart. At this point I glanced at my watch, noting the time at 7:08, so I had watched this light for about ten minutes. As I continued to watch what was now a pair of lights, the leftmost one (to the south) flickered a bit, quickly increased brightness, and divided again. At the same moment, the rightmost light of the original pair (to the north) abruptly changed direction, began to move away to the north accelerating to a speed much greater than any automobile headlights I'd observed earlier, and gradually faded in brightness. It vanished about as it reached a point due west of my position, almost in line with Route 90. By then as I looked back toward the other pair to the south, yet another similar light had appeared, and the erratic movement and varying brightness continued. I watched what seemed to be a fairly continuous display of this light behavior for another twenty to thirty minutes. I recall seeing as many as five lights at one time during this phase. I noted that the central point of the display seemed to be moving gradually toward the south. During the entire performance I could observe slowly moving automobile headlights in the distance which were distinctly different in appearance from the lights to the north that held most of my attention. Gradually the lights faded away, and by about 7:35 it seemed to me that only ranch lights and a few distant headlights remained. As these peculiar lights were fading, several other automobiles arrived at the viewing area, parking to my left. So I got out of my car and strolled over to greet the new arrivals, who were also standing outside their cars. I asked if any of them had seen the lights, and was startled to hear that they were still visible. I looked around to see that indeed the performance had resumed, but perhaps even more extravagantly than before. There now seemed to be generally more lights visible at once, and these had moved further southward toward the distant headlight track along Route 67. Moving headlights were visible along with these anomalous lights, but were easily distinguished due to their color, motion and brightness variations. Use of the binoculars made the distinction much easier to perceive. The others present were evidently seeing just what I saw. There were two who seemed familiar with the phenomenon, whom I assumed to be local residents, and several others who seemed to be tourists. There was an open discussion among the group of what each person was seeing; all reported seeing exactly the same light behavior, and all reports agreed with what I saw through the binoculars. I then returned to my automobile to continue observing the performance, which continued for perhaps another twenty to thirty minutes. Finally these lights again faded, at about 8:00 P.M. I remained and watched carefully for further appearances. During this period I was still able to see all the ranch lights and distant automobile headlights, but I saw nothing else that resembled those lights that moved erratically and glowed with the often brilliant, flickering yellow light. During this hour the other visitors evidently lost interest and and gradually departed, as did I at around 9:15 P.M. I noticed rain appearing on my windshield even before I arrived at Marfa ten miles to the west, and the rain continued intermittently for most of the night. During the hour between 7:00 and 8:00 P.M. I observed a display of evidently inexplicable moving lights that was nearly continuous and fairly complex from time to time. At some points the scene rather resembled a three-ring circus, as there was more concurrent activity in different directions than one could fully follow. I recall at least six instances of seeing a single light divide into two that gradually moved apart. In one of these instances the two moved quite some distance apart, perhaps six degrees from my viewing position, and then both reversed their motion and moved back together. As they met, the one on the right appeared to spiral upward abruptly, seeming to circle above the one on the left, flickered out and vanished. I observed several instances in which a light vanished abruptly, and another appeared abruptly at a distance of several degrees laterally from where the light vanished, seemingly at the same moment. If the light actually moved the distance, it did so at a speed so great that I could detect no trace of any motion. In one case I noticed a barely visible, dim deep red light appearing to move southward from one light toward another adjacent to it. These two were each a brilliant yellow, and I believe they had emerged when an individual light divided. As the faint red light approached the vicinity of the leftmost bright light, it flickered and suddenly flared up, changing color to the same brilliant yellow as the other two. It moved past the leftmost light and proceeded gradually southward. At most times during the hour-long display multiple lights were visible. The individual lights would sometimes hang motionless for short periods, but most of the time they would move. Such movement was generally erratic, involving both gradual and abrupt changes in speed and direction. The lights appeared to move both horizontally and vertically, but individual lights always seemed to move over much greater distances horizontally than vertically. So far as I could determine, this motion exhibited no directional preference. Motions of individual lights often seemed independent of other lights, but there was an apparent tendency to form straight lines of equally spaced individual lights which would often seem to move together as a group. At one point I counted as many as six separate lights visible in such a line for a short time. I noted cases of different lights moving apparently independently that would abruptly move into a straight line formation, and cases of individual lights departing such formations and diverging off independently. In one startling instance, an entire row of four or five bright lights disappeared from view at the same instant, evidently extinguished as though controlled by a single switch. And then, after only several seconds, evidently these same lights began to switch back on, but this time individually in no apparent order or pattern. None of these lights ever seemed to be very close to my viewing position. I doubt that they were closer than several hundred yards, nor further away than perhaps fifteen miles. The lights were not beyond the hills in the distance, as at times they appeared in the foreground against them. Nor can I make any reliable estimate of their physical dimensions or altitude, except to observe that they never appeared to rise very far above the horizon along the distant hilltops. Some lights glowed steadily for fairly long durations, but they usually would flicker and brightnesses would vary irregularly and erratically. I did note one thing that may have been a significant pattern. Prior to the moment that I observed an individual light to divide into a pair, in each case I recall, the original light rapidly grew very brilliant. I began to anticipate seeing a light divide when I noticed this quick brightening, and it usually did so. The binoculars I used displayed a 7.3 degree field of view. At a distance of twenty miles, for example, the width of the field would be about two to three miles. At most times the multiple light displays could be observed entirely within this field of view, but in a few cases individual lights were spaced at extremes beyond this limit. I noticed that the central point of the display of multiple lights seemed to be quite stable. This point was initially west- southwest from my viewing position, but gradually drifted to the south so that it was southwest by the time the display finally faded an hour later. In my judgement I was watching neither ranch lights nor automobile headlights, and the others present unanimously agreed. I spent about three hours watching the same vicinity. During the first and third hours I saw many lights, all of which appeared to be ordinary ranch lights and headlights. These same lights were fully visible during the second hour, but something strikingly different from these was also visible. Virtually all of the automobile headlights I saw appeared to move at slow, near-constant speeds in a northward direction only. These other lights moved erratically, often shifting speed and direction. The patterns of movement I saw were inconsistent with any reasonable explanation involving automobile headlights, and the colors of the two were quite distinct to my eye. Of course the ranch lights were very easy to identify, since their positions, intensities and colors were absolutely constant. It is conceivable that the appearances were due to atmospheric mirage effects, but this is also extremely difficult to accept. The colors of the lights that moved in peculiar patterns generally tended to be hues of yellow, unlike any other apparent light source. I do not immediately understand how atmospheric image distortion could involve consistent and stable color changes. Perhaps a more convincing argument against atmospheric distortion effects can be made in the case where the light display had moved directly to the southwest from my viewing position. That is the same direction as the distant Route 67. At the time the peculiar lights appeared interposed between my eye and that distant scene, which included frequent automobile headlights and a fixed tower with a steady red light beneath a flashing red light. All were perfectly visible at the same time, and occasionally the images would appear to pass quite close to one another. Using binoculars I examined these very carefully, and I detected absolutely no trace of distortion or attenuation of any distant images. I can understand no way that atmospheric mirage or distortion effects could generate such peculiar light images, while concurrently transmitting adjacent images of objects in the distance showing no perceptible distortion at all. I observed the usual desert mirage effects occasionally in the vicinity, but none during the time I spent at the Marfa Lights viewing area, and none that seemed to be associated with the peculiar light behavior in any way that I could discern. I was listening to the audio frequency electromagnetic radiation detector (or "VLF receiver", meaning "Very Low Frequency") for the entire duration I spent watching for these strange Marfa Lights. It seemed to be working properly, as it easily detected emanations from the nearby electric power lines, as well as VLF noise from some of the passing vehicles. I had hoped to find some fairly strong and constant signal that might point to a power source for the peculiar light phenomenon, but I heard nothing such as that. However, I did notice the frequent occurrence of rather loud "whistlers," which are signals caused by a lightning strike (sounding rather like a bullet ricocheting off a rock). The weather was clear at this time, but a cold front was approaching from the west and nearby. Beyond the horizon to the northwest, I noticed occasional bright flashes I interpreted to be due to lightning strikes. I also heard crackling typical of lightning noise on a standard AM-band radio I brought with me. It seemed to me that the whistler signals were surprisingly strong, considering the apparent distance of the storm, but I'm not sure this is either relevant or true. However, it did appear that the occurrence of such signals evidently due to the distant electrical storm activity correlated with the appearance of the peculiar lights. That is, the two emerged roughly concurrently, persisted over approximately the same period, and abated at about the same time. I am certainly not convinced, but I would not yet rule out the possibility of some causal connection between the distant storm activity and these strange lights. In closing, I am a professional electrical engineer, computer system designer, and scientist. As such, I am always skeptical toward "unexplained" phenomena. However, I am absolutely certain that what I herein report having observed was nothing that can be readily explained. My main reason for visiting Marfa was to investigate the reports I'd read, hoping to determine if these might easily be dismissed as hoaxes or errors. I determined that they could not be, but I surely did not expect to see the phenomenon myself with so little difficulty, and in such a spectacular display. I now wonder if I was extremely fortunate, or if the Marfa Lights are perhaps less elusive than one might expect such an extraordinary phenomenon to be. I plan to return in the near future to pursue this and the many other questions.

An Addendum -- Whistlers and the Marfa Lights

I wrote the above report immediately upon my return to San Diego from Marfa on February 3, 1991, while my memory of the circumstances and my perceptions was very fresh. Since then I have edited this report only to clarify its language and to correct grammar and spelling. I have taken care to avoid modifying its content in any way, and I stand by this account's completeness and accuracy to what I believe I encountered in Marfa that evening. Some months have now passed, and during this time I have been investigating a variety of issues related to this peculiar matter. For the most part, nothing I have learned since February 1991 inclines me to qualify anything I reported my above account. However, regarding the topic of whistlers, I now believe my earlier account conveys an honestly erroneous impression. I shall not modify the content of my original report, although it may be in error, but instead I shall append here my clarification. The above report includes my observation of the "frequent occurrence of rather loud `whistlers,' ...." I paid little attention to these sounds because I did not recognize them to be abnormal, as explained below. As I now recall, these whistler signals occurred perhaps once every five seconds or so averaged over time, and their typical duration was between half a second and one second. I recall their timing pattern to have seemed random and irregular. At the time of my February 1991 visit to Marfa, my understanding of whistlers and other atmospherics was only cursory. I understood whistlers to be signals generated by lightning strikes which generally follow geomagnetic field lines, and which can cause peculiar audible effects that sometimes resemble the sound of a bullet ricocheting. I had never before attempted to capture any whistler signals, and I had no real awareness of their properties. When I heard what I believe I identified correctly in Marfa as whistler signals, I merely assumed they arose from the electrical storm activity perhaps 20-50 miles distant. I noticed the distant lightning, heard signals, presumed the two were connected and concluded all was normal. It turns out that all was not normal. I had designed and built my very simple VLF receiver on the spur of the moment, without notable research or analysis. My intent was not to find whistlers, but rather to seek the possible presence of some strong, probably constant audio-frequency electromagnetic signal that might plausibly power atmospheric discharge effects. I had never attempted to ascertain anything regarding the signal sensitivity of this device prior to my trip to Marfa; I relied solely on my belief that anything capable of driving a bright discharge effect ought also do something audible to that device. I am still quite certain that belief is valid. When the device began to produce very loud whistler sounds, I did not realize the signals must have traveled a very long distance beyond the atmosphere, nor that they must have been arriving from the southern hemisphere. A whistler's characteristic concurrent decay in both frequency and amplitude which persists a second or so is caused by its traversal of perhaps hundreds of thousands of miles along geomagnetic field lines lying well beyond the earth's surface and atmosphere. So my simple presumption that these signals were arising directly from the distant, visible electrical storm activity was definitely incorrect. The local storm may have been generating them if they were propagating to the southern hemisphere, reflecting and propagating back to Marfa, which is surely possible but it is by no means certain. In fact, I was suspicious of these signals even as I heard them. They seemed to me too strong to make sense of my assumption that they were being driven by lightning activity beyond the horizon from my location. This reservation does appear in my original report. I noticed, but did not report, that I could not correlate audible whistler signals with any visible lightning flashes. At the time I was fully engrossed observing the Marfa Lights. I confess I overlooked the lack of detailed correlation between my observations of the lightning and the whistler signals, and that my tacit assumption of some connection between the two was without firm basis. In fact, I have no good reason to connect the distant storm activity I noticed in Marfa with either the signals I heard from my VLF receiver or with the peculiar lights I watched at the time, but I still cannot rule out the possibility of some kind of relationship. My initial suspicions led me to test my VLF receiver's sensitivity using some professional laboratory equipment immediately upon my return to San Diego from Marfa. I was initially surprised at the device's very low sensitivity, since the whistler sounds it produced in Marfa seemed loud. Still, the measurements were clear; this device produces loud sounds only if the electromagnetic audio frequency signals in its vicinity are quite strong. I observed these anomalous phenomena at the site along Route 90 designated for for the purpose by the Texas Historical Commission. Directly adjacent to this site runs an aerial power transmission line of moderate scale. Judging by its appearance, I would expect it to carry substantial current, and if so it would accordingly radiate a very strong 60 Hz. signal throughout the vicinity. This VLF receiver easily detected the power line's field, but the apparent whistler sounds it produced were much louder, easily drowning out that 60 Hz. noise. I regard this in retrospect as highly peculiar, and I can offer no explanation. I have subsequently experimented with this very same device in the presence of electrical storm activity in San Diego. Since my return from Marfa early this year, at least five significant electrical storms have passed through the San Diego area. I have been careful to listen to the output of the VLF receiver I used in Marfa on each of these occasions, and I have heard nothing resembling the sounds it yielded in Marfa. Each of these storms passed much closer to my location than did the electrical storm I observed at a long distance in Marfa. One of these storms was extremely intense electrically, and it passed directly over my San Diego location. This one caused a power outage that began just as the storm approached major intensity in my vicinity, and the outage lasted for several hours. Many powerful lightning strikes very close to my location were obvious from their flash and noise effects. At the same time, since power was out, my VLF receiver was reporting almost no extraneous noise signals. Still, the only signals it produced were some rather faint "click" sounds concurrent with nearby lightning hits. I heard nothing from it resembling a whistler. I am unsure how to interpret all this. I don't really understand how whistler signals could power persistent, long duration, brilliant atmospheric discharge phenomena, and I do not conclude that they do. On the other hand, I don't yet understand why such evidently anomalously strong whistler signals would appear in Marfa just as the odd light phenomenon emerges, then fade just as the light phenomenon fades, with no further explanation. After I heard these signals I actively attempted to detect them again until I left Marfa late the following day, with no success at all. I regularly monitor this VLF receiver now at my home in San Diego, but it has produced no whistler sound since the evening of February 2, 1991, in Marfa. I still suspect some sort of association between the whistler signals and the Marfa Lights I encountered concurrently; but I no longer presume that either involved the local electrical storm activity at the time, nor can I dismiss the possibility that they might have. --BOUNDARY.7698.1501.138326240.1 Content-Type: text/plain; name="science.txt" Can Science See the Marfa Lights? Edson C. Hendricks 2336 Wilbur Avenue San Diego, CA 92109-2357, USA edh@edh.net May 31, 1995

 

Here is an additional article that Hendricks emailed me in February 2001:

 

Can Science See the Marfa Lights?

Edson C. Hendricks 2336 Wilbur Avenue San Diego, CA 92109-2357, USA edh@edh.net 858-273-1194 December 26, 1991

What are the Marfa Lights? The Marfa Lights are usually described as brightly glowing balls of light that appear spontaneously at night and move erratically through the air at very low altitudes. No plausible scientific explanation has yet been offered for these frequently reported sightings that span more than a century. I have observed this phenomenon myself, I can confirm that what I saw conforms closely to the common trend of recorded accounts, and I dismiss suggestions that I might have been watching anything so simply explained as automobile headlights or optical illusions. Reports of nocturnal light phenomena are not unprecedented. Such things have been occasionally reported in various locations worldwide. Acquaintances have related accounts attributed to named first person witnesses of encounters with nocturnal lights, whose descriptions resemble the Marfa Lights. Such reports have been published, sometimes accompanied by photographs, and no good reason to discount their validity is evident. So one might reasonably proceed from a working hypothesis that nighttime floating, glowing balls are objectively real phenomena demanding a logical explanation. The Marfa Lights may not be unique, but they may still offer something unique. Evidence suggests that no other location seems to match Marfa's reliability of of producing this phenomenon. There may be some instances where a particular locality experiences occasional but rare appearances of such nocturnal lights over a long period of time, and other cases of localized outbreaks of frequent nocturnal light reports persisting over periods lasting from several weeks to several years. Marfa may be the only place on earth where one can observe the nocturnal light phenomenon with a reasonable expectation of success at almost any time with relative ease. No one can really explain these lights, but many have tried nonetheless. Most such theories are plainly inadequate. There is no rational justification for explanations involving glowing or burning gasses, luminescent minerals, extra- terrestrial intelligence or supernatural mysticism. Jackrabbits infested with glowworms is a charming and amusing concept, but unrelated to any observation. Deserts are renown for their mirage effects, and perhaps inevitably these are suggested as the source of the nocturnal lights. (This demands no significant extrapolation of current science, which most scientists find comforting.) But a careful examination of the evidence suggests strongly that something besides mere optical illusion is required to explain all of it. Spectacular electrical storm lightning and the aurora ("northern lights") are relatively common and prominent phenomena involving the electrical behavior of earth's atmosphere, but various less familiar phenomena are suspected or known to share the category, and much remains to be learned. A particular field of interest may be "atmospherics" (or "sferics"), natural electromagnetic signals generated within the atmosphere. Even ordinary thunderstorm lightning remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. I suspect the Marfa Lights belong to a class of atmospheric electrical phenomena that are quite bizarre and generally elusive, reports of which are often attributed to observer error by baffled scientists. St. Elmo's fire and ball lightning are good examples of atmospheric electrical phenomena that are rather bizarre and elusive, but which are still accepted as objectively real by mainstream science. These are sometimes cited as possible candidates to explain the Marfa Lights. I have both observed and experienced St. Elmo's fire (it once formed on my body), but I have not yet witnessed ball lightning. I doubt that the Marfa Lights are related to St. Elmo's fire, but they do seem to resemble ball lightning. Western society relates ball lightning to electrical storm and ordinary chain lightning activity. It is not often observed, but because it is rather small and short-lived, and because it generally appears only near the ground during stormy weather, it might occur much more often than it is seen. Perhaps some ten percent or so of the world's population claim to have seen ball lightning, and many thousands of reports are currently recorded. Anyone who asks perhaps several dozen friends about it can be assured of finding at least one who will attest to having personally witnessed ball lightning. However, some appear to be hesitant to discuss their experiences, fearing to be judged unbalanced. My own inquiries have elicited fascinating reports, accompanied by the observers' claims never before to have related them due to such apprehensions. Following many years of denial by the scientific community (and continuing denial among a small minority), science now generally accepts ball lightning as objectively real, although no wholly sensible explanation for it has yet been constructed. Ball lightning usually appears as floating, brightly glowing balls that range between golf ball and beach ball sizes. These can appear in almost any color, but bright yellow or white are most often described. They are usually said to move, but they can hover motionlessly. They may move steadily or erratically, with speeds ranging from quite slow to perhaps over one hundred miles an hour. They sometimes move along the ground, or soar at aircraft altitudes, but they are most often reported to track several feet above the ground surface. They seem attracted to large metal objects and to enclosed structures, and they are often observed speeding along power lines. They may appear individually or in pairs, or rarely in groups, and they are reportedly observed to bounce on the ground or against other solid objects. They often seem to vanish silently or or with a moderate "popping" sound. These frequently reported ball lightning properties are drastically unlike any other known natural phenomena, but they seem strikingly consistent with most reports of Marfa Lights behavior at close range. However, reports of ball lightning often diverge significantly in certain ways from reports of the Marfa Lights. Ball lightning reports in the United States and western Europe are nearly always related to intense electrical storms; the Marfa Lights are reportedly observed in almost any kind of weather. (However, Japanese accounts of similar phenomena seem unrelated to local stormy weather, and no explanation of this divergence is evident.) Ball lightning is usually reported to persist for a few seconds, rarely more than one minute, while the Marfa Lights are often reported to persist for many minutes or even as long as several hours. Ball lightning is sometimes reported to explode loudly and to inflict burn or blast damage on nearby objects, but such violent behavior has never been reliably attributed to the Marfa Lights. (It is worth noting that since ball lightning is often observed amid violent electrical storm activity, confusion may arise between its effects and those of nearby lightning strikes. Also, it has been suggested that one might somehow trigger the other.) There are also some reports of flying fireballs seen to emerge from the ground in the vicinity of geological faults during earthquakes, and even a few cases of glowing balls reportedly rising from bodies of water. Such reports are so rare that little can be inferred from them, but this alone is no justification to assume they are not legitimate. These descriptions may differ in important ways, but it may still be reasonable to hypothesize a rather divergent family of elusive terrestrial atmospheric phenomena, evidently electrical, involving all these balls of glowing air with their varying qualities and behaviors. Why are scientists so skeptical? Many people seem enchanted by tales of mysterious, unexplained "spooky" goings on; tales of ghosts, UFOs and such are always popular. A few individuals who avidly pursue paranormal matters are prone to express frustration with formal science over what they may perceive as an unreasonable and arrogant refusal to confront these topics so fascinating to them. Scientists I know are about as curious over such things as everyone else. But science is not a freewheeling medium for the pursuit of its practitioners' individual fancies. In fact, the the practice of formal science is rather constrained and conservative for good cause. An overview of these considerations might illuminate the relationship science must maintain toward peculiar phenomena such as the Marfa Lights. Science always tries to proceed methodically. Experience gained since ancient times teaches scientists that progress over the long term is best facilitated through exquisitely careful steps. Past misdirection has been far more costly than the sometimes lengthy delays incurred while facts and interpretations are clearly and firmly established. Scientific method also rests heavily on precedent, exploiting proven successes and avoiding risky unproven propositions. In order for it to assimilate such phenomena as the Marfa Lights, science requires a context in which they can be irrefutably attached to something else having solidly accepted precedent, and it demands that these be repeatably provable at any time a challenge arises. This calculated bias has caused science to err occasionally throughout history by failing to accept promptly what were eventually recognized to be important new developments, and these errors have been costly. But one must acknowledge the greater savings achieved through science's rejection of seemingly enticing novel notions that ultimately proved faulty. Those claiming an understanding of some important new concept must bear the entire responsibility to prove the proposition to formal science, and it is the role of science to demand a very high standard for such proof. Scientific skepticism directed toward peculiar and elusive phenomena such as the Marfa Lights is merely this principle in its routine application, and scientists do well to follow it. Science generally attaches modest significance to anecdotal evidence, meaning isolated accounts of observations that fall into no organized pattern. Again, this is not because scientists are unintrigued by anecdotal reports of strange experiences, but rather because they cannot proceed scientifically from them. Ball lightning is now commonly accepted as real while practically no hint of a reasonable understanding of it is known, yet little attention is paid to it by formal science. Why should this be, since an understanding of ball lightning could yield valuable new technologies? Because science now has little besides anecdotal evidence of a baffling phenomenon, which offers no useful basis for a systematic investigation and analysis. A very interesting similar circumstance prevailed about two hundred years ago. Numerous anecdotal reports of stones falling from the sky had at the time been amassed. But since nobody could demonstrate or predict such falling stones on demand, science generally discounted and disregarded the claims, again because science had no means to proceed methodically. Eventually, the meticulous work of a few dedicated investigators established an undeniable pattern of evidence ultimately yielding our modern understanding of meteorites. As a consequence of that work, today we understand far more about the creation and evolution of our solar system than we could ever know without it. The key to this progress was the reach beyond anecdotal reports to physical data that could be analyzed and pursued systematically. A more mundane but still extremely important factor contributing to scientific non-motivation has to do with economics. Scientists' careers, including their earning capacities, are measured by their ability to acquire funding for their projects. Scientists must compete with one another for any available funding, and grant decisions are often heavily based on individual reputation and track record. Naturally, this process biases funding selection toward those holding solid conservative images, and those who have most accurately predicted their previous results. Risk-taking is systematically discouraged, because a single mistake could effectively ruin a career, and a scientist who accepts very many risks is likely to fail and find a new line of work. Should this appear to be undesirable, could systematic rewards for failure improve things very much? I would not think so. At some point something will happen, probably due to the heroic efforts of one or several dedicated individuals, to open the study of phenomena such as ball lightning and the Marfa Lights to formal science. Until then, science can do little besides wait and observe. But scientific skepticism should not be seen as reluctance to confront perplexing problems. No group would be as delighted by emerging insights as scientists, who will aggressively tackle any promising new concept as soon as a systematic approach becomes available. Why are such observations so perplexing? It might be said that almost everything about the behavior of the Marfa Lights and ball lighting is perplexing. But from a scientific perspective, I believe two physical questions about the glowing, floating balls focus the issue. The first question asks how such small objects can be sufficiently powered to glow so brightly through sustained periods of many seconds or minutes. The second question concerns their apparent mechanical properties, such as bouncing along the ground. These questions are baffling because the glowing balls can by all accounts be composed of no material besides ordinary air. These objects usually appear to be no larger than a beach ball. Their overall power output can be roughly estimated from their apparent brightness as viewed from some direction, and applying an assumption that they radiate about evenly in all directions (supported by anecdotal accounts). Pursuing this analysis, one encounters difficulty identifying any plausible mechanism that might store the energies needed to power such luminescence in volumes of air so small. So one must then wonder whether power is somehow being supplied to the balls from an external source. This idea is of little help, since no plausible mechanism for such energy transmission is apparent, either. A solution to this central puzzle could provide the critical key leading to the complete explanation. These glowing balls appear somehow to be tightly contained. It is practically impossible to avoid the conclusion that something made of air and glowing with such brilliance is probably pretty hot, and must thereby involve elevated gas pressures relative to the ambient atmosphere. The balls are sometimes said to "bounce" along the ground or against other obstructions. I have interviewed a few seemingly reliable observers of such behavior, and I believe they meant to convey precisely that the glowing balls appeared to impact, deform momentarily and rebound, as though they were very lightweight, elastic bodies. (The word "bubble" has been used to illustrate the impression they left.) These objects are said to exhibit distinct external boundaries, and as previously noted, to emit mildly audible gaseous explosive sounds as they impact solid objects and vanish. These properties suggest a spontaneously self-contained gas plasmoid, which seems to elude modern field theory. If this reasoning is accurate, and if the field physics underlying the odd behavior were elucidated, a practical fusion power technology could conceivably follow, revolutionizing the world's economy and reordering all of modern life. Having seen the Marfa Lights myself, I can appreciate how they appear to defy the laws of physics. I cannot yet offer any explanation for the observations, but I doubt these peculiar glowing balls pose any serious threat to scientific theory. I expect a full explanation of the objects would expand science into uncharted places, with many beneficial consequences. So the Marfa Lights may offer an opportunity for creative work of potentially historic impact. How can we determine what's going on? To lay the groundwork for the Marfa Lights' scientific acceptance, some clear analytic assessment of their nature is required. Scientists will be much more interested to see physical measurement records than to hear subjective reports of individuals' perceptions and impressions. They will want raw data gathered by automated equipment, and they will want replication and control through the use of differing equipment over differing periods, in the presence and absence of apperances of any peculiar light phenomena. This will surely demand a lot of time and work. Of course, it is important to establish exactly what needs to be measured, and under which circumstances. There are many possibilities, but most would incur significant expense and effort, and probably would yield little or nothing of value. So at the outset it is probably wise to focus on inexpensive and easy means to gather clues that may help direct a more thorough investigation. It would be most useful to learn how to locate these light balls to optimize the placement of equipment. One must approach this question intuitively at first, hoping for good fortune while searching for insights. I relate above my working assumption that the Marfa Lights are an atmospheric electrical discharge phenomenon of some kind. Similar discharge phenomena are the aurora and lightning. The aurora is powered by the the solar wind, a very fast stream of interplanetary charged particles emitted by the sun. The exact power source of lightning is not yet clearly understood, but it appears due to ordinary meteorology, driven by sunlight and its effects on the water and land comprising the earth's surface. A highly speculative but conceivably possible source of energy is the geomagnetic field, which fluctuates unpredictably and inconsistently along the earth's surface. The source of the geomagnetic field and the causes of its fluctuations are not known, but it is known that when a magnetic field moves or varies in intensity it must radiate energy. A moving field as large as the geomagnetic field could surely distribute immense power at particular times and places, even if its motion is relatively small. As mentioned above, atmospherics are various natural electromagnetic radiation known to rise and propagate through the earth's atmosphere. A "whistler," for example, is an electromagnetic impulse generated by a lightning discharge that propagates mainly along geomagnetic field lines. Radio operators are familiar with noise signals generated by weather, and perhaps by the solar wind. Power engineers must design systems to protect against currents induced by the solar wind that can destroy large generators under certain conditions. Other sorts of electromagnetic signals appear to arise in the atmosphere through means not clearly understood at all. When an electrical engineer sees the Marfa Lights, she or he promptly presumes that the effect is caused by an alternating electrical field. This is because it resembles various other phenomena known to be driven by such fields. These "AC fields" resemble ordinary AC electrical power, in that they reverse their polarity many times a second at a regular rate. Natural atmospheric AC fields are obvious suspects for implication in the Marfa Lights, and many operate at audio sound frequencies. The technical shorthand designation for such signals is "VLF" for "Very Low Frequency." Human ears do not hear alternating electromagnetic fields, but such AC fields can be converted to audible sound by simple and inexpensive electronic devices that are portable, lightweight and flexible. These can be easily and cheaply employed to detect traces of potentially interesting signals by ear, which can be methodically explored later using bulkier and costlier equipment. Whistler sounds from a VLF receiver are easily identifiable by their oddness; they may resemble bullet ricochet sounds, for example. Other atmospheric emissions may yield sounds resembling chirping insects or birds, and many other kinds of odd sounding signals have been recorded. How are VLF receivers built? An alternating VLF signal induces corresponding electrical pulses in a simple looped wire held in the air. In principle, one could construct a looping wire and connect its two ends to a simple amplifier, and one would then have an VLF receiver. Luckily, it's almost as easy in practice. The only other component required is a coupling transformer between the loop antenna and the amplifier input, which removes unwanted signal frequencies and electrically matches the loop antenna to the amplifier input (which doesn't expect anything like a wire loop). The parts required are a length of wire to form a loop antenna (see below), a coupling transformer, a connector and an amplifier. The antenna wire carries no significant current, so almost any kind of insulated wire will suffice. I would select very small gauge stranded hookup wire to minimize weight and bulk without compromising much ease of construction. Radio Shack offers all kinds of wire, and all of the electronic parts needed. These are: Radio Shack Cat. No. 273-1380 -- Audio Output Transformer " " " " 274-288 -- Two-Conductor 1/8" (3.5 mm) Shielded Phone Plugs (2) (only one is needed) " " " " 277-1008C -- 200 mW Audio Amplifier-Speaker The "Audio Output Transformer" is actually used here for input. It's intended to connect amplifiers to speakers, but it serves our purpose quite well. The two loop antenna leads are connected to the two secondary (8 ohm) transformer leads, and the two primary (1K ohm) transformer leads are connected to the two phone plug contacts. If the transformer provides a center tap lead, it should be trimmed and sealed to avoid any short circuits. All connections should be soldered and insulated for electrical and mechanical integrity. Finally, the phone plug is placed in the amplifier input jack, and the amplifier operation is simple and intuitive. The antenna construction details offer the best opportunity for creativity in this project. Some lightweight, reasonably rigid form will be needed. I have used an inexpensive 12" diameter low plastic dish (designed to hold water for large flower pots) that I found at a hardware/houseware store. The receiver's sensitivity will depend on the size of the wire loop and the number of turns. The larger area enclosed by the wire loop, and the more turns in the loop, the greater the antenna sensitivity. The shape of the loop is not very important, but it should be roughly circular or square, and planar. Large loops are not very convenient for portable field use. The 12" diameter seven-turn loop that I built for my VLF receiver was fairly effective. It was not very sensitive, but it detected some distant signals, it presented no serious noise problems, and it was easy to carry. Experimentation to improve the loop antenna design could certainly improve performance, and I would appreciate hearing of notable results. The Radio Shack amplifier is equipped with a small audio speaker, which I have found to be quite useful in practice. I also tried earphones, which proved to be useful occasionally to discern subtle signal traits. However, I found the earphones to be generally much less convienent than the speaker for most of my activities while investigating the Marfa Lights. Either can be used, but the Radio Shack amplifier earphone jack is two-conductor (mono), and most earphone plugs are now three-conductor (stereo). When these two are used together the sound will be heard from only one earphone. To correct this, an adapter which can also be acquired from Radio Shack is needed. Physical construction of the device can be approached in many ways. I was in a rush to build a workable unit that could be easily shipped, so I just taped it together. The transformer and phone plug are held together using filament tape, and duct tape holds the wire loop and amplifier to the dish form. (The amplifier need not be physically mounted on the antenna form, but this seemed convenient for my purposes.) This construction has inspired engineer friends to crack jokes at my expense, but it works well enough that I have no trouble laughing right along with them. This VLF receiver is not sufficiently sensitive to detect atmospheric signals under ordinary conditions. Such signals are generally so faint near sea level that a far more complicated electronic circuit is needed for amplification and signal selection. However, anything capable of powering bright discharges in the atmosphere, perhaps such as the Marfa Lights, could be easily detected by even the simplest device. The VLF receiver I built as described above yielded very loud whistler sounds in the vicinity of the Marfa Lights during the time that they were visible, evidently from anomalously powerful signals. Should a pattern of correspondence emerge between whistlers of extraordinary magnitude and appearances of the Marfa Lights, it would be a very important development. Whistlers this powerful can be easily detected by devices no more complicated or expensive than the one described here. Does science really matter much? Many people perceive nothing of practical importance that science contributes to their lives. Nor are they impressed by appeals to the significance of our abstract comprehension of our world and universe. They commonly express their feelings of being fully satisfied to accept their familiar lives, which are so thoroughly permeated by benefits due to science that such expressed attitudes can provoke a smile. Few of us living in modern western culture can deny our debt to science for all the routine conveniences we commonly take for granted. Many individuals more readily appreciate the detrimental aspects of scientific advancement than its benefits which they accept and exploit. So for better or for worse, science just doesn't seem to matter much to the general population. We are all fortunate that this has yet to bring science to a complete halt. Some express the hope that the Marfa Lights will remain a mystery, perhaps as a symbol of one rare triumph of romance and wonder over the otherwise thorough domination of cold hard logic in our modern society. I am at once sympathetic toward this perception, and a little saddened by it. The sadness arises from my love for the wonder and mystery of science itself, and from my feeling that others may not share this appreciation. If the veil were swept away, and the Marfa Lights' secrets were exposed, would we become poorer for having lost the mystery, or would we rather become richer for our newly acquired knowledge? I believe we would become enriched not only by our potential new awareness, but also by the new and probably more intriguing mysteries that will almost surely lie beneath the next veil below. The Marfa Lights will remain mysterious, but the depth and significance of their mystery can unfold only through continuing investigation and discovery. Ultimately, we cannot choose whether to proceed, but only when and how to get on with it.

Copyright (C) 2001 Dr. Sten Odenwald