On Sprites and Reality

Anomalous phenomena are often ignored before they are deemed deserving of scientific investigation.
Feb 9, 2023

On Sprites and Reality

One night in November 1885, a sailor named T. MacKenzie was observing the sky from a ship that was headed out of the port of Kingston, Jamaica. A bank of thunderclouds drew over the horizon, and from the ship, Mackenzie could observe the sky both above and below the storm. He saw “brilliant flashes of light… bursting forth, sometimes tinged with prismatic hues,” which would “shoot vertically upward,” ascending “to a considerable altitude” and “resembling rockets.”

About twenty years later and across the world in Australia, a man named Everett would see a similar display of colored lightning that went from the top of the clouds and into the sky above. He noted that this inverted lightning made no sound. In 1945, again in Australia but in an airplane over its northwest coast, a pilot saw purple beams shoot up from the tops of storm clouds and break apart in the atmosphere, resembling the roots of a tree.

We know what MacKenzie, Everett and the pilot saw because each of them told meteorologists. The meteorologists in turn recorded the accounts as anomalies, peripheral oddities without explanation. The meteorologists paid little attention to the stories of bizarre lights. Within their scientific frameworks, colorful, upside-down lightning storms did not exist.

Philosopher, historian and physicist Thomas Kuhn described the effect of rigid scientific frameworks  in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When presented with phenomena that fall outside of the accepted frame of knowledge, most scientists will ignore that phenomena. Broadly speaking, when scientists don’t expect to see something, they don’t see it.

It can take years for the mainstream to pay attention to anomalous data. C.T.R. Wilson, a Scottish meteorologist, argued for the existence of inverted, upper atmosphere lightning as early as 1925. It took over sixty years and extraordinary evidence for other meteorologists to consider his arguments. 

In July 1989, John Winckler, a physicist at the University of Minnesota and his research partner Robert Franz were setting up a camera for a research rocket. Their camera footage happened to catch what they described as an “upward lightning flash” from the top of a distant storm cloud. The pair copied and distributed the tape. The footage found its way to a NASA launch center in Alabama, where, just a few weeks earlier, a researcher named Otha Vaughan had noticed a streak of light above a storm cloud in a video captured by a space shuttle. 

According to a NASA account, Vaughan had initially dismissed the “streak” as video noise, an artifact by the camera. But after seeing  Winckler and Franz’s evidence, Vaughan and other researchers went over the shuttle tape again, and then looked at the tapes of another  hundred lightning storms filmed from space. They found three more instances of upward lightning. That upward lightning came to be accepted into scientific frameworks, and were aptly named “sprites.” 

Image: First color image of a sprite. It was obtained during a 1994 NASA/University of Alaska aircraft campaign to study sprites.The event was captured using an intensified color TV camera. The red color was subsequently determined to be from nitrogen fluorescent emissions excited by a lightning stroke in the underlying thunderstorm.

Sprites are – as many observers accurately described them long before the official 1989 discovery –  blasts of colorful electricity that shoot from thunderclouds to the upper atmosphere. When large enough and high enough, say 30 kilometers long at 50 kilometers above the earth, the sprites are red and can occur beneath massive red rings called “elves.” Together, sprites and elves take the appearance of ethereal, red jellyfish, and can appear larger than mountains.

NASA researchers have found that the flash of a sprite can be as short as 10 milliseconds. Crucially, this speed means that sprites can come and go before the human mind can form a concrete impression of the object. However, once the scientists understood the concept of the sprite, and could anticipate seeing one, they were able to see it. 

Perhaps this sudden ability to see is an example of confirmation bias, or an inadvertent vindication of the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. Either way, once the scientists had a concept of what they might see… they saw it.

In the years since the official 1989 discovery, research on sprites accelerated. We have now learned an immense amount about sprites and elves. We’ve learned that the electrical structures of Earth’s atmosphere are more complex and dynamic than we had imagined. We’ve learned that “transient luminous events,” the preferred term for sprites, elves and similar phenomena, are fairly common. We’ve learned, as surely countless observers of the sky had said, that under certain circumstances, one can see these TLEs from the ground.  

What was an anomaly, largely ignored, is now accepted and considered normal. 


Image: A red sprite (indicated by white arrow) above a thunderstorm was captured by members of Expedition 44 Crew aboard the International Space Station on Aug. 10, 2015. Credits: NASA

Under Kuhn’s theory, science constructs large and powerful models of reality. Those models are imperfect. Over time, anomalies accumulate and threaten the validity of the model. For a while, scientists either don’t see the anomalies, or they outright ignore them. Sometimes, as seems to be the case with sprites and elves, the scientists are able to perceive and comprehend anomalies as new data points, and incorporate the data into a consistent model of reality. 

In other situations, the anomalies are too great, and the model has to be  scrapped entirely in favor of a larger, more powerful paradigm of reality. When humanity’s centuries-old geocentric vision of the cosmos began to fail, astronomers swapped the Sun for the Earth as the center of the universe. Years later, astronomers again had to update and expand the framework, envisaging our planet and star at the edge of a galaxy of 100 thousand million stars, in turn surrounded by as many as two trillion more galaxies.

When it comes to today’s UAPs, we do not know what they are. Are they the sort of anomaly that will force us to re-imagine our understanding of reality and the universe? Or, as we’ve done with sprites and elves, will we ultimately be able to work UAP into what we already know to be true about technology, science, and physics? 

The only way to find out is to stay open-minded,  collect the best evidence possible, and embrace the challenge of the unknown.


Red Sprites, Upward Lightning, and VLF Perturbations. Craig J. Roger. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1029/1999RG900006

Header image: High above storm clouds, a crimson flash appears. It’s a sprite—one of the least-understood electrical phenomena in Earth’s upper atmosphere. From NASA Tweet: https://twitter.com/NASA/status/1585386405433380870?s=20&t=DVuLvbnQxImpDBGvUzS8pA

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