Stumping the Best Scientists for 50 Years: Physicists Solve a Lightning Mystery

Lightning Storm City

Lightning is a natural phenomenon that occurs during thunderstorms when the discharge of electricity in the atmosphere causes a bright flash of light. It is usually accompanied by thunder, which is the sound produced by the expansion of rapidly heated air caused by the discharge of electricity. Lightning is caused by the buildup of positive and negative charges within a cloud or between a cloud and the ground. When the differences in these charges become too great, a discharge of electricity occurs, which can manifest as lightning.

Approximately 8.6 million lightning strikes take place each day all over the planet, each moving at a speed of more than 320,000 kilometers per hour and generating a tremendous amount of electricity.

Have you ever wondered why lightning zigzags? Scientists have argued over the reasons why lightning zigzags and how it is related to the thundercloud above for the last 50 years.

There hasn’t been a definitive explanation until now, with a University of South Australia (UniSA) plasma physicist publishing a landmark paper that solves both mysteries.

Dr. John Lowke, former CSIRO scientist and now a UniSA Adjunct Research Professor, says the physics of lightning has stumped the best scientific minds for decades.

“There are a few textbooks on lightning, but none have explained how the zig-zags (called steps) form, why the electrically conducting column connecting the steps with the cloud remains dark, and how lightning can travel over kilometers,” Dr. Lowke says.

The answer? Singlet-delta metastable oxygen molecules.

Basically, lightning happens when electrons hit oxygen molecules with enough energy to create high-energy singlet delta oxygen molecules. After colliding with the molecules, the “detached” electrons form a highly conducting step – initially luminous – that redistribute the electric field, causing successive steps.

The conducting column connecting the step to the cloud remains dark when electrons attach to neutral oxygen molecules, followed by an immediate detachment of the electrons by singlet delta molecules.

Why is this important?

“We need to understand how lightning is initiated so we can work out how to better protect buildings, airplanes, skyscrapers, valuable churches, and people,” Dr. Lowke says.

While it is rare for humans to be hit by lightning, buildings are hit many times, especially tall and isolated ones (the Empire State Building is hit about 25 times each year).

The solution to protecting structures from lightning strikes has remained the same for hundreds of years.

A lightning rod invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1752 is basically a thick fencing wire that is attached to the top of a building and connected to the ground. It is designed to attract lightning and earth the electric charge, saving the building from being damaged.

“These Franklin rods are required for all buildings and churches today, but the uncertain factor is how many are needed on each structure,” Dr. Lowke says.

There are also hundreds of structures that are currently not protected, including shelter sheds in parks, often made from galvanized iron, and supported by wooden posts.

This could change with new Australian lightning protection standards recommending that these roofs be earthed. Dr. Lowke was a committee member of Standards Australia recommending this change.

“Improving lightning protection is so important now due to more extreme weather events from climate change. Also, while the development of environmentally-friendly composite materials in aircraft is improving fuel efficiency, these materials significantly increase the risk of damage from lightning, so we need to look at additional protection measures.

“The more we know about how lightning occurs, the better informed we will be in designing our built environment,” Dr. Lowke says.

Reference: “Toward a theory of ‘stepped-leaders’ in lightning” by John J. Lowke and Endre J. Szili, 13 December 2022, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics.
DOI: 10.1088/1361-6463/aca103

18 Comments on "Stumping the Best Scientists for 50 Years: Physicists Solve a Lightning Mystery"

  1. Your simplistic description of how lightening rods work is flawed. Yes, if struck they WOULD conduct the massive energy of a strike to ground, but be destroyed in the process of shunting that much current to ground.

    Instead, they actually drain the charge from the air slowly – or in the case of the glass ball type, create a blocking charge. That is why they have a very sharp point.

  2. “Improving lightning protection is so important now due to more extreme weather events from climate change.”

    Even assuming, for the sake of the argument, that climate change is causing “more extreme weather,” it is a huge leap to imply the unsupported claim that lightning is becoming more frequent or more powerful. It seems to be a rationalization for the research, rather than an actual demonstrated need.

  3. Need to check your units, speed of lightning is 300,000 km/s not hour.

    • From google:

      ” While the flashes we see as a result of a lightning strike travel at the speed of light (670,000,000 mph) an actual lightning strike travels at a comparatively gentle 270,000 mph.”

  4. Wrong. Rainwater, pure water, does not conduct electricity. This is why you don’t see lightning in the rain only in front of it

  5. Very Wrong. Rainwater, pure water, does not conduct electricity. This is why you don’t see lightning in the rain only in front of it

  6. Everybody’s wrong. Lightning is caused by fairies. MAGA!

    • Yeah thats right, kitty, meow MEOW……..fairies that wear boots (the rubber provides insulation) duh.

  7. Particles of higher charge jump to clouds of lower charge (great lightening( as nature and a balance, when there’s enough power electricity crosses the air insulator and connects to nuclear electromagnetic earth ground, like an arc welder. We also energize earth water tables with ground rods from homes and businesses. The line farm house is more likely to get hit than the neighborhood with energized water tables. Maybe that has something to do with attraction as good like to go to low. Maybe


    A few tried to whack everyone with virses randomly, it was f anyone from the government to the mob to the reich to the cops to the military, they tried to kill every wasp nest, I can’t believe people trying to kill everyone with a smoking gun aren’t on crosses in for sale churches, spread the plastic Jimmy we don’t have a showing for a month. How many people are going to be quadrapalegic in five years from clots from vrsuses or the needle? How many cops are already hit? Let a biological agent go in a cop shop and some dudes named Tony and Johnny are going to get to work on you in a warehouse, for a really long time, but do this to them all and nothing…
    I thought after that Munich was going to be a drop in the bucket

    They wanted to eliminate competition and control their infrastructures replacing all with powerless yes men, even everyone in every government

    Try compassion and a 6500 percent more successful agenda by a train full of synthetics, for less money

    How to fix the world easy and make money

    Why make more sick people for money make SpaceX jobs changing diapers isn’t a dream job

    Most people don’t want to be here anyway, even with no food

    The problem is that the world is really smart, those that want to live forever run it and think everyone else wants to live forever too. 45-65 prevent of the planet would say thanks for a synthetic opioid drink and finally get to get out of this existence. The world would only be full of people that actually want to be here, and everyone in the world would have two houses, two cars, two cows, with ice cream on top and oil to last the planet.

    For overpopulation the problem is there’s no good way to go for those who want, 65 prevent of this planet has been waiting all their life to go, they’re forced to be here, and we overpopulate because it means you get 60 percent of someone else’s income in child $upport, kids mean money and multiple partners and children

    Don’t make available a fentanyl euthanasia drink by the 10,000 gallon vat and the 65 percent of the planet that world say thanks won’t get to go yet, but might even replicate after some bad one night stands, and you won’t more than double available resources, or you will keep 1M in insurance and state aid money never paid out, and social security they paid into, to the end you create some cool jobs for people and dispensaries and no more crime, and everyone in the world that remains will be people that actually want to be here without botch job suicide attempts for a worse existence, and everyone in the world would have two houses, two cars, an oil supplies to last the planet, and they could have a cow, with ice cream on top, unless they eat the cow, then they need another one

    Just saying..

    Or get an ass graft on your face when they keep trying and you get black fungus necrotizing your facial tissue, why f up your face, f up someone else’s face, why get a facial? Get a massage

    Drpa publicly leaked their 2016 weapons contract with EC0LIGHTlbs for CVID, Bostonlabs has a cvd ocrmn rebuild which takes out 80 percent of the mice…

    Make euthanasia

    1/3 off the world population starving may reach 2/3. Dump ocean water into dry rivers with ocean fish, have an ocean river, desal at farms, steam distiller at the kitchen sink, disinfected and salt free

    Collect America’s lawn mower clippings for more cattle, new jobs. Instead we export corn and beef and have a storage and import meat from other countries

    They tried to make viruses to eliminate half the world, they are unsuccessful, wait till a mobster has to get an ass graft on his face from some black fungus sprayed, unreal. 65 percent of the world would say thanks for a synthetic opioid euthanasia drink by the 10,000 gallon vat, I could have done agenda 21 better 8 years ago

    If you won’t be compassionate to the majority, nor will the the ruling minority to all. To them it is a matter of choice: Theirs

    Soon your cities will be without water, unless you hire people for US currency which costs the same to print as unemployment without a future and pump desalinated water from the ocean into river systems

    we’re not being drawn to the sun,

    There’s two black holes on the surface, whatever was gravitationally drawn to the core went there, and the overall gravity of the sun increased but it got hotter but we’re moving away and angry solar flares and CMEs are coming after us for leaving

    Heat pushes clouds causing flooding on other parts of this planet while coronal mass ejection and solar flares from magnetic connections from the sun to the earth are increasing. One day maybe it will arc weld this iron ball if we don’t cross elliptical orbit line with the moon. Tell NASA about the moon and a year and a half later they make Moonfall. They should make a euthanasia for everyone who wants to go, or be stuck to endure the future even if you don’t want to be here at all???

    With the moon it’d be a tsunami one way and a volcano the other, the future of our relationship with the sun is a different issue


    65 percent of the planet would take a synthetic opioid drink by the 10,000 gallon vat and say thanks,

    1/3 off the world is starving to death, 5 percent need bones they can’t or don’t want to get replaced, 5 percent need organs they can’t or don’t want to get replaced, 5 percent are terminally ill 5 percent chronic pain, 5-10 percent never wanted to be here anyway, and everyone else will have a peaceful way to go when they want. There’s no good way to go, some are 18 and 0 and going through death and not actually dying is not fun, some attempts are violent to go through. Instead of making a euthanasia available to everyone who wants to go they kill .08 percent of the world population in two years. Everyone was the target. I would have helped the 65 percent go 8 yrs ago.

    They’re getting a dime putting people through suffering instead of a dollar in creating good

    There needs to be a peaceful easy way for everyone when they want to go. Guy saves 1M in state aid, paid 600k in social security, doesn’t have to die every day, just gets to leave before suffering. The guy with the kids gets 800 k from Uncle Sam in life insurance he never signed up for and Uncle Sam keeps the other 800k. Free euthanasia. Cut inflation by more than half, more than doubled available resources. Have a job by a company which pays all the taxes and picks up grass clippings M-S to take it to fields now with cows on it, 4x your US cattle with lawn mower clippings from every years, save 2500 on property taxes and make sure your clippings are out in your neighborhood on Tuesdays

    Pump desalinated water from ocean wave current into river systems ASAP. It costs the same to print unemployment and section 8 as it fits a job with a paycheck that won’t even take your house away

    Here’s your check if you love your neighbors and don’t want to leave your free housing, and here’s your bigger check if you want to rent on the private market

    More confusing paint corporations pay all the taxes making useful cool jobs like a mint company your paper actually goes somewhere and a quarter turns back into a dollar, a king starts a bread company which will never go out of business and pays all the taxes and everyone’s got a good job and lives well

    Dig out 10 ‘ of river bed and cast and set two 10′ pipelines to being Atlantic ocean water to every house, use steam distiller for salt free disinfected water at the kitchen sink, dump waste water into sealed pipelines. It took a turn 2 years to dig out 10’ of riverbed, everyone could be back to work working in every town and we’d be at with new infrastructure. Don’t put salt in your water, have more salt for more roads in the winter.
    Send salt water straight to homes, they’ll use a distiller for their few gallons of driving and cooking water and they’re off toilet to tap loop. Use electrolysis for energy from salt water. At the very least, feed rivers with desal water immediately to quickly overcome drought shortages, no problem

    Make a grass and corn crop that grows in ocean water hybrid with say, oceanic grass root structures, best genetic corn crop growing in salt water in Texas and Arizona while you solar desalinate more oxygen and hydrogen into the air in a 24/7/365 grow season with ocean water and no weeds growing in salt water crops or lawns, fill your swimming pool with ocean water and water your lawn with salt water, don’t put salt in your what salt water put it in the roads, use a small steam distiller made of glass and stainless to get disinfected and salt water free water for cooking and drinking, maybe an ocean let for your pool, were have to deal with ocean water rise, how about a Dolphin?

    Make more indoor fish farms, clean fish into a flash freezer, people eat fish, kid makes 90 k a year running fishing equipment not $9 an hour people eat well

    People could be cremated visible to the public and the smoke can be required in a gallon of water and the ashes and cement combined and people can be made into a concrete cast or flower pot. Otherwise, if they get cremated, without a filter, or dissolved in alkyld they go down a drain?

    And they had that place giving fake ashes and selling bodies

    Maybe you could make a wireless Tesla satellite bridge (like when you touch a Tesla ball and the current comes towards you, though you are in the millivolts) to draw CMEs from the sun to say, Mars, maybe a draw in a vacuum will cause a shift, like when a siphon starts firing, maybe it’s not possible to stop the earth from frying, but either be fun to make a vacuum electromagnet lines glass universe model spinning g on a multi axis, just enough to toss, not create a external centrifugal (reverse) ‘gravity machine’

    Only on this planet are you forced to exist by the people that want you gone and say they want to reduce world’s population by half, I’d say it’s irony but that’s why people want to leave earth and go to Mars, they secretly secretly want to steal the iron , shh don’t tell anyone

  8. Tall buildings being struck many times a year? And no attempts to HARVEST those electrons? Duh? Free power going to waste all over the planet, and the best we can do is “faith” in heat engine tech like fission and fusion. Make fire; boil water; make steam; drive steam turbine….Ugh

  9. Nearly everything nearly all Universitys postulate is wrong. Between the flawed theory of adamistic electrons, to the flawed theory on gravity, the base for all the “research” is wrong. Thus description of how building protected lighting rods work is wrong, as Bruce stated. Assertion that climate change (with human influence I assume) is real, combined with staments that lightning strikes are more powerful and more frequent now are all wrong. The reason for stepped lightning here described is also wrong. People who can’t describe how or why a magnet works, or light travels are trying to describe why electrostatic charge from magnetic forces move the way they do. Smh

  10. Brilliant work by Dr John Lowke, I remember John talking to us about Lightning over lunch at the CSIRO Lindfield. Scientists are amazing people, dedicated in their pursuits.

  11. Electrical reactions always follows the path of least resistance…its actually a air pattern of conductive circuits you see..even at high voltages

  12. You are are a bunch of morions.

  13. The know it all peanut gallery going wild.

  14. I’m working on collecting “harvesting” lightening

    • Wasn’t Nikola Tesla trying to figure out how to harness lightning for cheap powerful electrical energy? Many thought he was eccentric or out of his mind during his era. Perhaps he was a mind that was ahead of his time. I wonder what he would think or say if he were alive today.

  15. Everyone is right and wrong…
    So get over it. I’m sure he knows how light waves travel and gravity is wrong, if you use the three rules of magnets then you can explain the laws perfectly fine. And engineers are trying to make thinga more profitable while physicists are trying to explain things more correctly. That’s the reason for multiple explanations of simple things.

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