Optimist

This week: Tintin versus the foo fighters, climbing falls, and a very clever otter...

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Above: Fungus on Brownsea Island. A russula of some description, perhaps a Russula nobilis—the beechwood sickener—or Russula sanguinaria—the bloody brittlegill, which is mycorrhizal with pine. Manifestly not the fly agaric, as I’d been told.


Tintin Versus The Foo Fighters (not those ones)

💻 Read this story on my blog instead

Above: Panels from The Seven Crystal Balls by Hergé, Methuen English edition 1962

When I saw these panels in the Tintin adventure The Seven Crystal Balls, I confess to thinking, ‘Gah, I hate it when Tintin goes all sci-fi—I much prefer it when he’s fighting real baddies!’

As this particular bande dessinée was first published while Belgium was under Nazi occupation, I can understand why Hergé went for a vague, supernatural kind of an enemy, but still. Give me The Blue Lotus, with its vile business tycoons, opium wars and belligerent Japanese, any day.

At the end of my particular library edition, however, there was a section that explains to the reader the source of Hergé’s inspiration for the story. And I was astonished to read that the ball of lightning depicted in these fantastical panels hadn’t stretched Hergé’s imagination past breaking point.

Ball lightning is… real?

File:Ball lightning.png

Above: An engraving of ball lightning that Hergé might himself have seen (Wikipedia)

~

Although rare, ball lightning is well-attested throughout history. On Sunday 21 October 1638, during a violent thunderstorm, four people died and scores more were injured when ball lightning wreaked havoc through the parish church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor.

A ‘true revelation’ published at the time reported that:

The extraordinarie lightning came into the Church so flaming that the whole Church was presently filled with fire and smoke, the smell whereof was very loathsome, much like unto the scent of brimstone.

Some said they saw at first a great ball of fire come in at the window and passe thorough the Church, which so much affrighted the whole Congregation that the most part of them fell downe into their seates, and some upon their knees, some on their faces, and some one upon another, with a great cry of burning and scalding, they all giving up themselves for dead.

The revelation makes for delightfully grisly reading, particularly on the demise of one ‘Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds’:

his head was cloven, his skull rent into three peeces, and his braines throwne upon the ground whole, and the haire of his head, through the violence of the blow at first given him, did sticke fast unto the pillar or wall of the Church ; so that hee perished there most lamentably.

I know what you’re thinking: what is a ‘Warriner’? It’s someone who keeps rabbits. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re also thinking that Hergé let Tintin and Captain Haddock off lightly.

But you can’t go around blowing out the brains of your pen and ink creations when they’ve still got Incas to irritate— and not only in this wartime mystery, but also in its money-spinning sequel, The Prisoners of the Sun.

~

But can we really trust the ‘true revelation’ of 1638? Might it not have been embellished for popular effect? After all, this was the century of Shakespeare and nobody looks to his Antony and Cleopatra as a reliable source for the toxicology of the asp.

If you are wont to ascribe hysteria to the medieval denizens of Dartmoor, then perhaps you are more convinced by the reports of U.S. airforce pilots, who spotted ball lightning during the Second World War.

In a mission debriefing on the evening of November 27, 1944, Fritz Ringwald, the unit’s S-2 Intelligence Officer, stated that Meiers and Ed Schleuter had sighted a red ball of fire that appeared to chase them through a variety of high-speed manoeuvrers.

These meteorological freaks were not so rare that the pilots weren’t moved to give the terrifying phenomena a more colourful name. They called them foo fighters.

(Actually they called them fuckin’ foo fighters, but that kind of nomenclature won’t earn you twelve Grammys and four Brit Awards. Any excuse…)

~

But if even the U.S. airforce are too hysterical for you, then how about this couple from Gwinn in Michigan, whose home was invaded by ball lightning in the late 1980s while they were entertaining friends. How rude.

A bright blue and white sphere the size of a football, floated across the party room before imploding on the television set. As the hostess described:

It was just a very loud bang and—poof—it was gone. And everybody’s kind of standing there, staring at each other.

Slippery Nipples all round.

And if an ancient anecdote delivered by a camera-shy, cocktail-loving couple from the American midwest doesn’t convince you of the reality of ball lightning, then, frankly I don’t know what will.

Oh, actually, maybe I do—science!

~

During a thunderstorm on 5 August 2014, a red ball of fire 40 cm in diameter was witnessed entering an office through an open window at the local Water Conservancy Bureau in Xinjiang, Shanxi, China. The ball lasted for less than one second and then exploded loudly. Five computers in the room were damaged, which is a direct result of high-power microwaves.

That account is from a 2017 paper published by Hui Chun Wu from the Institute for Fusion Theory and Simulation at Zhejiang University in China. In the paper, Dr Wu proposed what he calls ‘a comprehensive theory for the phenomenon’ of ball lightning:

At the tip of a lightning stroke reaching the ground, a relativistic electron bunch can be produced, which in turn excites intense microwave radiation. The latter ionizes the local air and the radiation pressure evacuates the resulting plasma, forming a spherical plasma bubble that stably traps the radiation.

Huh?

Don’t panic: here’s a video demonstration of the effect and and an explanation of the theory, using a microwave oven and a grape.

In this video, a microwave gets trapped inside the ‘bubble’ of a grape and creates plasma. Fun. What Dr Wu is suggesting is that ball lightning is what happens when a microwave gets trapped inside a bubble of plasma. Epic.

Wait. What is plasma? According to the writer’s saviour, WordWeb, plasma is:

A fourth state of matter distinct from solid, liquid or gas and present in stars and fusion reactors; a gas becomes a plasma when it is heated until the atoms lose all their electrons, leaving a highly electrified collection of nuclei and free electrons.

Great. So we now have a theory of ball lightning that we kind of understand and that sciencifies the fantastic plotline of The Seven Crystal Balls. But Dr Wu has more revelations in store for us.

~

Dr Wu’s theory not only shows how ball lightning could pass through aeroplanes and glass windows, but might also give credence to the bloodboiling injuries of the poor Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds back in 1638:

Theoretical analysis reveals that rapid temperature rise leads to a thermoelastic expansion of tissue, which launches an acoustic wave travelling by the skull to the inner ear.

Enough to make a brain explode? Dr Wu confesses that he didn’t pump quite as much energy into his balls (err…) as a lightning strike, but does state:

In our theory, the microwave reaches ~1 J/cm2 for the ball formation, which is enough to induce both microwave hearing and nerve damage on witnesses.

~

So there you have it: an entirely plausible explanation for the ball lightning phenomena witnessed by Tintin et al. in Hergé’s thoroughly researched comic science book, The Seven Crystal Balls.

Hold on—what’s that you say? The rest of the plot depends on a ‘mystic liquid’ found in coca that puts people into instant comas and the use of voodoo spells to punish wrongdoers thousands of miles away? Oh for pity’s sake…


Falling profits for climbing

My local climbing centre, The Project in Poole, is back open—huzzah! There’s only one snag in the celebrations: because of the pandemic, they’re running at an unsustainable loss. Hm.

Government Covid-19 safety guidelines dictate that they can ‘only’ have 155 people climbing in the centre at any one time. Which would be totally fine, but climbing is dangerous enough as it is without adding a high risk of catching and spreading the virus.

Even before Covid-19, the capacity of the centre was ‘only’ around 150 people. I’ve been there when there’s been about 100 people fighting for wall space and I can tell you it is FULL. To be precise: it’s an elbows-out jostling bunfight. Not what you want in a global pandemic.

So, after boggling their minds at the fanciful government guidelines, the team running the centre got together and decided that 60 climbers could sensibly enjoy the walls while preserving a safe distance from others. 60—that’s less than half the government figure!

But this means that The Project is running at about 60 percent of their usual business—poof—there goes their profit margin.

So why are they open at all? The manager shrugs: ‘Well, at least we’re all back climbing, aren’t we?’ And he’s goddam right: there aren’t many other places still open for people to go and let off steam (and, in my case, dislocate their shoulders).

It made me wonder: how many thousands of small, community-minded businesses like The Project are running at a loss simply because the fabric of society is built on small businesses with small profit margins?

Unless we speak to the people running our favourite places, we might not realise what’s really going on because, superficially, ‘we’re all back climbing again’. But that’s plaster work over foundational cracks.

We need these places more than ever; let’s back them more than ever.


✒️ Recently…

🚴 Always available: the collected scribblings of my round Britain cycling adventures


Any more for any more?

  • Do you ever have to transcribe interviews, conferences, videos or Zoom calls? Yes? Then you could save a heck of a lot of time with Otter.ai, which uses AI to create an interactive transcript in a couple of minutes.

    This week it’s saved me hours of work by producing remarkably accurate transcripts of two 40-50 minute conference sessions, featuring eight different participants with accents from all over the world. Really impressive.

    Hit this referral link to get a 1-month Premium pass for free (and I think I get a free month too!)

  • According to a UBS report, between April and July this year, during the peak of the pandemic, the planet’s billionaires increased their wealth by over 27 percent. Here is a Guardian article about the story, but really the only sensible response is satire. As Andy Zaltzmann argues on The Bugle:

    The UBS report said that some billionaires have donated some of their increased wealth to help the fight against Covid. The report said that they’d identified 209 billionaires who’ve publically committed a total equalivalent to $7.2bn from March to June. So that’s around 10 percent of all billionaires who have committed to giving a bit of a shit. And they have pledged almost a hundredth of a percent of the collective billionaire wealth pot to the global cause. You simply can’t ask for more than that, can you?

  • My local hospital has run out of the particular agent needed to analyse the blood tests I had scheduled for next week. While it’s a shame that I now have an indeterminate wait to find out what my thyroid, B12 and folate levels are like after six months of veganism, my main reaction to this news is: fund the NHS.

  • I’ll leave you with this from historian Howard Zinn writing in The Nation, back in 2004:

    An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

    The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

    Thanks to B.G. for sending ray of sunshine that my way. Although, arguably, my main takeaway message was: we thought things were shit in 2004; we think things are shit now; we’ll probably always think things are shit. And that might be a good thing.


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CREDITS

Hello, I’m David Charles and I wrote this newsletter. I publish another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. I’m co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and also write for The Bike Project, the Center for International Forestry Research and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info.

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