Of science and sand; misled to learning

An interesting day: misled by a ‘scientist’ who did not check their sources, put back on track by a ‘speculative fiction author’ and amazed by the workings of nature and of man in several fields of interest.

A page on facebook shared someone else’s picture and suggested it depicted a formation caused by a lightning strike; it didn’t:

That is not fulgurite It is a sand castle

That is not fulgurite It is a sand castle

I am no scientist (although I have dabbled in science at a university level), but I do think twice before passing others work or statements along, just on the off chance that they might have no idea what they are on about. In this social media driven world it is very easy to just click ‘share’ and add to the massive misinformation flow. Even if errors are picked up the information has already passed on to others and the mistake is made again, ad infinitum.

After finding out that the formation to which Milky Way Scientists incorrectly referred, was fulgurite I was able to make my own investigations. It is wonderful how social media allows others to expand on misinformation by adding factual details to the tale, both confusing and assuring viewers that the original item is, indeed, correct. A person commenting on the post contributed a concise explanation of something not portrayed in the picture at all.

Remembering that I was, at this time, quite unaware that my supposedly scientific friends were mistaken, I pursued a deeper knowledge of this phenomenon. I had never heard of it before and was quite awe struck. The picture was quite incredible if it depicted a natural occurence. Could this be an example of natures instant glass sculpture?

As for these rather unique sand castles, sandcastlematt has a great set of photos on flickr and even a step-by-step picture tutorial on how to create them.

Having solved the problem of the misinformed share, I continued my search as I had no idea what fulgurite actually was.

Googling, as a stating place, I came across Michael Offutt’s blog post “Who could have predicted that Sweet Home Alabama would make fiction writers obsess over fulgurite for more than a decade”. Very unscientific way to gain knowledge, but an interesting and thought provoking post anyway – with a link to the full video of Sweet Home Alabama, just in case you are into that sort of thing. I watched the first two minutes, until the lightning struck…maybe one rainy day I’ll watch the rest. While I’m digressing, the casting of a girl to play a young ‘Reece Witherspoon’ is fantastic. She has the right quirky expressions.

However, this particular rainy day was spent on activities other than watching romantic comedy. I went to Wikipedea (I did say I am no scientist) and, after getting an idea of the basic ‘what is’ of fulgurite, scrolled to the bibliography and began looking at some of the source material. Not only did I find out what a fulgurite is – natures glass sculpture, indeed – but I also found some interesting lightning facts and even discovered that humans (artists and scientists, mostly) are harnessing lightning to do a little DIY fulgurite creation. Very cool stuff.

To begin, here is the Wikipedia description of fulgurite:

Fulgurites (from the Latin fulgur meaning thunderbolt) are a variety of the mineraloid lechatelierite. They are natural hollow glass tubes formed in quartzose sand, silica, or soil by lightning strikes.[1] They are formed when lightning with a temperature of at least 1,800 °C (3,270 °F) instantaneously melts silica on a conductive surface and fuses grains together; the fulgurite tube is the cooled product.[2] This process occurs over a period of around one second,[3] and leaves evidence of the lightning path and its dispersion over the surface.[4] They are sometimes referred to as petrified lightning.

Here are some pictures of this amazing, naturally occurring, phenomenon:

white fulgurite

hollow fulgurite

world record fulgurite

These fairly fragile structures usually occur below the ground (certainly unlike that supposedly huge thing spiking out of the beach sand in that first misguided post). They have been excavated and preserved and are even used in jewellery. I have not included pics of jewellery here as I was doubtful that some of these pics were examples of natural occurring items, or even fulgurite, at all. Unsure, so I reserve my opinion.

What I did find out was the lengths some people go to to make their own fulgurite pieces. Especially, an artist, Allan McCollum joined with scientists to create one such piece. This piece was then copied by moulding and an exhibit of thousands of identical pieces was displayed. The original fulgurite was created in Florida during a joint effort between the artist and the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing.

Allan McCollum THE EVENT - Petrified Lightning from Central Florida

Allan McCollum THE EVENT – Petrified Lightning from Central Florida

Man-made Fulgurite

Man-made Fulgurite. This one was created by passing electic current through a barrel of sand. http://www.usfcam.usf.edu/CAM/exhibitions/1998_12_McCollum/supplemental_didactics/33.Regina.pdf

To find out more about this project and the comprehensive published articles that accompanied it, click here for a list of links provided by Allan McCollum.

Effect of lightning on grass at golf courseI found this on Page 18 of a pdf named LIGHTNING IN ACTION
by F. BARROWS COLTON. You might like to peruse the rest of the article, too.

On a related topic, the picture above shows another special effect created by lightning.

What a powerful source of energy and cause for fear, delight and awe lightning is.

There are tales of DIY fulgurites for the layman, but I can’t support the notion of leaving rods around in storms unless the whole project is supervised and innocent people are not likely to accidentally wander into the zone. There would definitely be consequences and dangers for anyone attempting this in suburbia. At best, these ideas would be best left for the desolate desert, not your local dunes, so I feel no need to provide links.

So, at the end of the day, I am thankful for the information and the misinformation received for, without it, I would never have learned all the amazing things I learned today. If I go by the old adage that we should learn something new every day, I could probably have a few days off learning now as I have learned enough today.

Update 3rd July 2013: I am glad that I wrote this post as it has helped to clear up misinformation on the other side of the globe. Welcome to new friends who have visited to assure themselves that, “That is not fulgurite. That is a sand castle”. I hope some have also learned with me or been motivated to find out more. All misinformation cannot be undone, but anything that slows the spread, at least.

Living and learning together is what it is all about.

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