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The Best Virtual Lightshow You'll Ever (Not) See
Light pillars, diamond dust and sun dogs ahoy. Who knew?
Please excuse me the week’s absence here - I had to go away and get a chunk of paying-the-bills work done, and it took much longer than expected. (I’ll never learn.)
Bizarrely, while I was away, this newsletter exploded. There are now so many more of you here than before (the warmest of welcomes to you) - making me wonder if the best thing I could do to grow Everything Is Amazing is to not actually write it! A crushing thought. Anyway, more on all that shortly.
Before we crack on with today’s wonderment, a callback to a previous topic this season. Remember the weird optical phenomenon called a fata morgana? I was recently wandering back home here in Scotland after doing my shopping, and out to sea across the Firth of Clyde, off the tip of the isle of Arran…wait, is that…could that be…?
It was a bitterly cold day down near the ground, so that certainly fit. And sure enough, when I checked the same spot a few days later after the skies had cleared and the temperature had climbed a few degrees, nothing was visible off the end of Arran. So I’m calling it. That’s my first sighting.
Then a few days later, on another savagely frosty morning, I noticed the buildings up the coast were sitting atop inverted copies of themselves, in that telltale way I remembered from researching the fata morgana newsletter:
So that’s twice in the same week. What are the chances?
Answer: probably pretty good! I bet I’ve seen these before - I just haven’t known what I’m looking at. I could have missed them happening in front of me dozens of times. I reckon this is really about attention, and why the Protege Effect is such an amazing way to focus it.
(Want to truly learn a thing? Challenge yourself to explain it to others, and your fear of looking like a blithering idiot will nail it into your brain. Hooray for the power of strategically terrifying yourself!)
Today, staying with Weird Things Happening In The Sky, here’s something exceedingly odd that happened above Glasgow earlier this year.
One day in earlier January, city resident Steph Nixon took this photo. What the hell…? Some kind of mass celebration with multicoloured spotlights? A critical footie game? Nope, nothing scheduled. So - what was it?
When Steph’s tweet went viral, replies quickly filled up with animated GIFs from War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Star Trek and Rick and Morty. The further it got retweeted, the more imaginative the explanations became:
“Ah, this is a phenomenon not seen for a while now. It's called 'virtuous auroras' . Happens when an overwhelming feeling is inside a group of people.”
I saw nothing about this Twitter kerfuffle at the time, despite living less than 40 miles away. I also didn’t see anything in the sky when I went for my early evening walks.
But that’s not surprising. It’s very hard to see something that isn’t actually there.
One snowy winter’s night four years ago, photographer David Bell saw a similar thing - multicoloured towers of light emerging from the fog outside his window in Pinedale, Wyoming. He grabbed his coat and a tripod for his camera, crunched out into the snow and took this mesmerisingly beautiful image:
Just astounding, right?
Alas, if only these beams of light actually existed.
Or how about this sight, captured by Timothy Elzinga in Northern Ontario, also in 2017?
Nope. They don’t exist either.
Okay, I’m even annoying myself now. How can something regularly seen by thousands, maybe millions of people worldwide, including multiple people stood in the same place at the same time, be described as “not existing”? And how can it not be there if it shows up on film? What is this, an episode of Most Haunted?
Last week I posted some of these images in a Twitter thread, which started with this tweet:
It went massively, absurdly viral, in a way nothing I’ve posted on Twitter has ever done before - and I started getting yelled at.
“Of course it exists!”
“You’re stupid. Get off the internet.”
“They’re light pillars, like rainbows. There, saved you a click because these [sic] guy is a pedantic newslettering idiot pushing clickbait coz he doesn't have a life.”
This withering irritation may be part of why it was so widely shared - in which case, I guess I am indeed guilty of using clickbait tactics, aka. “rile everyone up with an outrageous statement.” I guess I’m one of those people! Who knew?
(Possible answer: everyone but me.)
But there’s a scientific argument here to back up my ludicrous-seeming claim - and a deeper scientific truth hinted at, which can be extremely uncomfortable to sit with.
Here it is:
All the people on all sides of this argument are correct. These pillars of light, simultaneously and without any contradiction, do and do not exist.
Here’s the bizarre science that backs this up.
When you think you see one of those pillars of light, you’re actually seeing something like this.
As it gets colder, water in the air turns to ice crystals, which can hover near to the ground in glittering clouds with the beautiful nickname of diamond dust. The majority of these crystals are hexagonal, with a flat, reflective surface on both sides - and as they slowly drift towards the ground, most of them align themselves horizontally.
Enter a distant light source (the bulb in the above diagram). A street-light, a neon sign, a spotlight at a football stadium. Any light bright enough to travel miles, until it glints off those ice crystals in the air, and reflects down into your eyes…
Because of the way these reflections work, the light reflecting at just the right angle to hit your retinas is from crystals suspended more or less at the same distance from you (roughly halfway between your eyes and the distant light source) - but at different altitudes, like different storeys in the same house.
The illusion this creates - see the dotted lines above - is that of a column of light, hovering near or above the original source of light on the ground. It’s like how the light from a real object being bent by cold air into a fata morgana creates a superior mirage, making our brains assume we’re seeing a ship floating in the air - when what we’re really seeing is light behaving in a way we’re so profoundly not used to seeing that it plays a trick on our minds.
A light pillar exists because it’s a very real optical phenomenon you can see, presumably along with any species capable of seeing in the same visual spectrum we do. Dogs, for example. (I think dogs would much prefer light pillars as alternatives to fireworks.)
And it’s similarly real because it’s made of very real photons - well, as much as photons can be considered real. If you want to start a fight between two physicists, this might be a good topic to steer them onto.
Yet it’s also not real because it’s not there. It’s virtual. There is no pillar hanging in the sky, as anyone standing anywhere else will attest, including the people directly underneath “it”. You might as well say a rainbow is real (which of course it is, but also isn’t).
When I tried to introduce the science in these terms, it’s fair to say it didn’t sit well with a lot of people:
A lot of this may be down to my failings as a communicator / my shameless clickbaiting. But I think it’s also because an optical illusion is a False Dilemma (which I wrote about here) - the limiting fallacy that forces us to choose between two options when there are credible arguments for both being right.
These kinds of situations crop up in modern science all the time: for example, the staggering oddness of wave-particle duality, which Einstein explained like this:
It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.
Accepting this kind of down-to-the-bone uncertainty is really damn hard. Our minds aren’t cut out for it.
But, rather disturbingly, it may be how everything is actually wired up. It’s like the fabric of existence itself is refusing to come up with any hard answers and is, as Jonny Miller would say, just sitting comfortably with all the questions.
(A common reason some folk don’t like the idea of hard science is that they worry it’ll explain everything in depressingly mechanical terms & rob the world of all its mystery. The reality: it might go in the other direction, and show that everything is so bafflingly non-intuitive to human minds that we’ll never be able to get our heads round it!)
OK. Backing away from this yawning abyss of theoretical lunacy, let’s return to the very real/unreal world of light pillars.
Hey, aren’t they just like those halos you sometimes see around the sun? Isn’t that the same principle?
Bang on, sunshine.
A parhelion, better known as a sundog, is a light pillar in a different form: reflections from ice crystals creating an illusory structure hanging in the air that can only be seen from one viewpoint. And I have it on good authority that experiencing these things in person is just overwhelming.
Take this whopper that followed my friend Antonia across a mountainside in 2015:
(Can you see the glitter of the ice-crystals hanging in the air? Fabulous.)
And staying with the Sun, and adding in the Moon:
So, it may be getting bitterly cold out there right now for those of us in Northerly parts. And when the holidays arrive, it may feel like a good idea to stay in bed, or sit swaddled in fleecey things by the fire, at least until the sun is as close to overhead as it gets at the moment. Every day may feel like Crappy Netflix Movie 1, Outdoors 0…
But ‘tis the season of deep optical weirdness - and as the temperature plummets, you might see something that’ll remind you that the real world is far stranger than it looks (and occasionally looks far stranger than it actually is).
Brave the cold, keep your eyes open, and you might see something impossible. Wouldn’t that be a thing to finish the year with?