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Sep 02, 2004
What's in a  Name?

When fleeting electrical phenomena above thunderstorms were first discovered in the late 1980's, they were called "upward lightning" because that's what they appeared to be. But the physicists who studied it were afraid that the name was too suggestive and could offer false leads. It may have sounded dangerously close to the "electric currents in space" that astronomers have tried to avoid for over a century. So they decided instead to give the phenomena new names, based on something that could never distract the research. They chose whimsical mythical names -- sprites, elves, gnomes, pixies and trolls.

It's funny the way people think. By applying mythical names to the phenomena, they have connected to the oldest human records of electricity in space--the thunderbolts of Zeus, the spears of Odin, the lightning weapon of Tlaloc, the firebreathing dragon and many more. The mythology of every culture on Earth is filled with celestial gods who use the thunderbolt as their weapon. Its association with "thunderstones," or meteorites, can verify that the thunderbolt of myth was no ordinary lightning.

The thunderbolts flew when the planetary gods of old were closer than we see them today. The mythical paradise was transformed into the world of today. The apocalyptic events formed a culture-defining memory at the dawn of civilization. We are still gripped by their ten- thousand-year-old echoes, which reappear in our scientific nomenclature.

What if we follow the connections between the flashing lights we see above thunderstorms and the ancient mythology with which they have been unconsciously associated? What discoveries will we make about archetypal memories and our human past? Will we see in the sprites of today a reflection of the images that astonished our ancestors?


David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Amy Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Mel Acheson, Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane,   Walter Radtke, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Michael Armstrong

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