Tintin versus the foo fighters (not those ones)

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?

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

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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.

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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…)


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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!

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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 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.

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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.

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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…

The Meteorological Secret of Comedy

The secret of comedy, they say, is timing. This is such a well-known truism, that it has, in its fame, become false.

The only remaining secret of comedy is the weather.

Like a meteorologist, comedians (by which I mean anyone attempting to make another person laugh, whether professionally or not) see the world around them in topographies of pressure.

They are constantly monitoring the world around them for areas of rising pressure that they can lance like cloudbursts with their wit.

The well-timed release of such pressure is what makes people laugh.

Ah – timing!

Yes, timing, although no longer much of a secret, is still important to comedy.

Lance too early and there is no pressure to release; lance too late and all kinds of things might go wrong. In stand-up, the audience might have got bored with the preamble; in conversation, they might have moved on to a different subject; in conflict, they might have got too wound up and become closed off to a comic intervention.

Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the atmosphere can turn pretty sour.

That’s why the BBC won’t let us have a plot-line about a missing stylist – even though she wasn’t missing at all, but on holiday. They don’t want to risk the atmosphere turning sour.

Part of reading the meteorological chart of conversation is knowing not only when and where pressure is building, but also whether to lance that pressure at all.

Not all human interaction is served by comedy. There is a reason why lawyer and stand-up are separate professions. It’s not that the lawyer can’t use comedy, nor the stand-up evidence and argument, but each will favour the discourse style of their field.

You may spot the perfect moment to lance the pressure in a tense negotiation over the custody of your children during divorce proceedings; that does not mean that the judge will look favourably upon a hilarious reference to his wig.

On the plus side, you will know almost instantaneously that you have misread the comic moment. If you are sensitive without being precious, you use this failure to calibrate your instruments.

What are your instruments? Simply: your eyes and your ears. But more on that next week.