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Lightning x-rays imaged for the first time [Video]

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SAN FRANCISCO—The first 30 pixels of information ever recorded of a lightning bolt in the x-ray spectrum was presented as a video December 14 here at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.


Despite being a common weather occurrence, lightning is still poorly understood as a natural phenomenon. Scientists are not sure what triggers a lightning bolt, how it moves down to the ground and how it strikes objects, said Joseph Dwyer, a physicist at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, during a press conference. Also unclear is how lightning emits x-rays and even gamma rays. The association of this highly energetic radiation with lightning was only discovered a decade or so ago.

To catch lightning in the act, Dwyer and his team built a dedicated x-ray detector. The size of a refrigerator, the device is a pinhole camera with 30 x-ray sensors arranged in a beehive pattern, and capable of capturing 10 million frames per second. The team launched small rockets into clouds to trigger lightning, and recorded the results for the first time this summer. "This is actually what Superman would see" if he watched lightning with his x-ray vision, Dwyer said.

The video shows pixels of x-rays lighting up along the path of the lightning—which propagates at one-sixth of the speed of light—as well as photons in the gamma ray spectrum. In the video, some of the gamma rays show up to the sides of the lightning’s path because they can zip right through the camera’s steel shielding, and thus they are not focused by the pinhole, Dwyer said.


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  1. 1. jtdwyer 4:51 pm 12/15/2010

    This is really excellent fundamental science by Joseph Dwyer, a leading researcher in the production of experimental lightning.

    BTW, I am not Joseph Dwyer or any known relation, or a qualified physicist, but then I wouldn’t have made the Superman/X-ray vision ‘joke’…

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  2. 2. daveklingler 12:17 pm 12/16/2010

    Wow. I just read other articles (like the one in Science News), and I’m amazed and chagrined at how far Scientific American has fallen as a source for news on science. Even the AP coverage is better. I’m very sad.

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  3. 3. wolfhunter84 2:06 pm 12/16/2010

    This is very interesting to me. i was struck by lightning july 10th 2010 and i have really been interested in trying to find out how i survived a direct hit.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 5:11 pm 12/16/2010

    A quick search revealed a small but I think helpful site that includes contact info for an international support group – looks like a good source of info:

    Best wishes to you in your recovery.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 6:50 pm 12/16/2010

    This may seem like a stupid suggestion, but I recommend you discuss a Lovaza prescription of at least 1 gram daily with your doctor. I think it may significantly help with low risk.

    I happened to be prescribed Lovaza (Omega-3 fatty acids) to lower triglyceride levels, coincidentally following an extended period of chemo. Within 2 weeks I noticed a dramatic restoration of prior intellectual abilities that I hadn’t even noticed diminishing. I still take 2G Lovaza for triglycerides, but I suspect that after about a month any preexisting damage has been repaired, requiring no further treatment.

    It turns out that Omega-3 may facilitate repair of damaged myelin protein sheaths insulting neuronal axon connections. ref.:

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  6. 6. Huladog 12:24 pm 12/22/2010

    Although off topic, and interesting potential relationship between Omega-3 and myelin. I suffer from RRMS and wonder if there have been any links in the instance of MS. If there is perhaps, in some yet to be understood way, it would shed some light on my desire for salmon. Of course, it could turn out to be another shark cartilage claim.

    With relation to the story, it would be interesting to look to see if there is any indication in living matter of higher genetic abnormalities in locations that received a large number of strikes compared to those which to not. A starting question could be, "Do trees show more effects from x-ray and gamma radiation in high lightening strike areas than in similar species in low strike areas?"

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