St. Elmo’s Fire

I boarded the Kings’ ship; now in the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement; sometime I’d divide
And burn in many places; on the topmast
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly
Then meet and join.

The Tempest (Act I, Scene 2)
William Shakespeare

I just saw the coolest thing ever. 

It was stormy again on Lake Champlain, so even though I should have been working on my new MG historical after the kids went to bed tonight, I was out on my sun porch trying to take pictures of lightning.

About two minutes after I took this picture (in which I caught the cool purple glow but missed the bolt), a distinct glow appeared at the top of the mast of my neighbor’s sailboat.  About two seconds later, a huge, zig-zaggity bolt of lightning came down and, if it didn’t hit the sailboat directly, came awfully close.

The glow was what sailors used to call St. Elmo’s Fire.  It was plasma — gas whose molecules were ripped apart by high voltage to create a glowing soup of protons and electrons.  It’s basically the same thing that happens inside the tube of a neon sign to make it light up.  But tonight, it happened at the tip of my neighbor’s sailboat mast.  While I was sitting on the porch watching. 

I’ve seen this phenomenon before at the Boston Museum of Science Lightning Show.  They have a Van de Graaff generator there that produces an indoor lightning storm, and sure enough, we saw that static-like, sparky glow before the lightning zapped in the Hall of Electricity. 

To see it in the museum was fascinating and thought-provoking. 

To see it in nature was awesome and humbling. 

And just so darn cool.

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