Our playful scientists

Sprites, elves, trolls, gnomes, and pixies!

From the NYT Science Times yesterday (9/30), “On the Hunt for a Sprite on a Midsummer’s Night” [oh, the rhyme; science writing has tons of language play] by Sandra Blakeslee, beginning:

Armed with sensitive cameras and radio telescopes, [Thomas] Ashcraft hunts for sprites — majestic emanations of light that flash for an instant high above the thunderheads, appearing in the shapes of red glowing jellyfish, carrots, angels, broccoli, or mandrake roots with blue dangly tendrils. (Weather buffs call the tall, skinny ones “diet sprites.”) No two are alike.

And they are huge — tens of miles wide and 30 miles from top to bottom. But because they appear and vanish in a split-second, the naked eye tends to perceive them only as momentary flashes of light. It takes a high-speed camera to capture them in detail.

On the names:

People had called sprites rocket lightning, upward lightning, cloud-to-stratosphere lightning, and even cloud-to-space lightning, [Walter Lyons, a former president of the American Meteorological Society] said. To avoid implying that anyone knew their physical mechanisms, the strange lights were given the fanciful name sprites, inspired by the mysterious and fleeting characters populating Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

… In years of observation, researchers have uncovered a fairyland of mysterious objects related to sprites:

■ Luminous regions, called elves, that span hundreds of miles at the base of the ionosphere, some 55 miles above the earth.

■ Faint halos just above the sprites.

■ Red jets from the tops of clouds called trolls.

■ Small white spikes of light called gnomes and tiny points of light called pixies.

■ Fans of lights, called blue jets, that shoot 25 to 30 miles out of cloud tops.

■ And perhaps spookiest of all, gigantic jets of upward lighting that morph into blue “flames” before turning red as they reach the edge of space.

One Response to “Our playful scientists”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The “diet sprites” are an especially felicitous bit of ornamentation.

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