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Famously, Benjamin Franklin was one of the first people to investigate how lightning is triggered. Somehow the motions of air, cloud droplets, and precipitation at that altitude, ice particles conspire to separate positive from negative charge at the scale of individual molecules.
It seems that ice particles acquire electrical charge as they collide, rather as rubbing can induce static electricity, and that somehow smaller ice particles tend to become positively charged while larger ones become negatively charged. As the small particles are carried upwards by convection currents, the larger ones sink under gravity, and so their opposite charges get separated, creating an electrical field.
A lightning strike discharges this field. One idea is that they are triggered by cosmic rays streaming into the atmosphere from space.
Out-of-this-world idea Cosmic rays — mostly protons and electrons — pervade the universe, being produced in awesomely energetic astrophysical processes like supernovae, and they are constantly raining down on Earth.
If a cosmic ray collides with an air molecule, this can kick out a spray of fundamental particles and fragments of nuclei. Those in turn interact with other molecules, ionising them and generating a shower of electrons.
InRussian scientist Alexander Gurevich and his coworkers in Moscow suggested a way in which cosmic rays could be lightning seeds. If the cosmic-ray theory is right, the avalanche of electrons should also generate radio waves, which would be detectable from the ground. Three years ago, Joseph Dwyer of the Florida Institute of Technology began trying to detect such radio signals from thunderstorms, as well as using arrays of particle detectors to look for the showers of particles predicted from cosmic-ray collisions.
The Russian pre-eminence in this field of the electrical physics of the atmosphere dates from the cold-war Soviet era. They have asked whether the flux of high-energy cosmic-rays, with their accompanying runaway electron avalanches, is sufficient to boost the conductivity of air and cause a lightning strike.
To do that, the researchers have worked through the equations describing the chances of cosmic-ray collisions, the rate of electron production and the electric fields this induces.
The equations are too complicated to be solved by hand, but a computer can crunch through the numbers. However, all is not lost. As well as the particle cascades caused by collisions of high-energy cosmic rays, the atmosphere can also be electrified by the effects of cosmic rays with lower energy, which are more plentiful.
When these collide with air molecules, the result is nothing like as catastrophic: But a gradual build-up of such ionised particles within a thundercloud could, according to these calculations, eventually produce a strong enough electrical field to permit a lightning discharge.
That possibility has yet to be investigated in detail. But Dwyer and colleagues think that it leaves an avenue still open for cosmic rays to lie at the origin of lightning bolts.
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