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The most awesome 26 seconds of my day

April 30, 2009
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It’s amazing to watch the path of the lightning as it branches and diffuses through random paths, until finally one of its “fingers” finds the ground.  Immediately, all other paths are forgotten as massive amounts of electrical current rush from the cloud to the ground.

It’s a bit like a huge reservoir of freshly-melted water forming branching rivers and streams that run downhill searching for the ocean.  When one branch finally meets the ocean, all the other little streams dry up and a strong river is formed.  This analogy is actually a very precise one.  A thunderstorm cloud is a “huge reservoir” of electric charge, and the ground is like an enormous “ocean” of charge to which it can flow.

Below is a picture of a very similar thing happening in plastic instead of air.

Electrical breakdown in a piece of acrylic.

Electrical breakdown in a piece of acrylic.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill Alvarado permalink
    May 1, 2009 3:32 pm

    WoOOO! That is so cool!

  2. Lee permalink
    May 2, 2009 12:17 am

    When watching the video, I noticed that the branching takes several frames to occur, whereas the “strike” occurs instantaneously (at least given the camera’s finite time interval). Do you think this has to do with the diffusive nature of the branching versus the ballistic nature of strike? Or is it really a representation of the speed at which a gas can be ionized compared to the speed of the electrons once they are in the ionized gas?

    • gravityandlevity permalink*
      May 2, 2009 11:45 am

      Good question. I’m guessing it’s mainly due to the “random walk” nature of the branching vs. the “directed walk” nature of the strike. I don’t see a reason why ionizing the air should slow things down considerably.

      • Lee permalink
        May 2, 2009 7:55 pm

        I was thinking that for the diffusive walk, while you are ionizing the gas, you have to strip the electrons off of the atoms, whereas when you create the main strike you are just “pushing” the ions and electrons already created. Ionizing a gas is going to cost a lot more energy than just pushing the already separated ions and electrons. The idea that came to my mind was the comparison of incandescent versus fluorescent bulbs – I am guessing that the reason why fluorescent bulbs take long to “light up” is that they have to ionize the gas inside of them first. Though I think both answers may play a role.

  3. bhavick permalink
    May 13, 2009 6:12 am

    nice dude keep up the good work

  4. June 30, 2009 11:05 am

    Very nice blog. Please keep on posting.

  5. January 6, 2011 1:07 pm

    the path that the lightning is taking is possibly a fractal shape!

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