Approaching a Mystery: A Shaft of Shade and Lightning Over the Ocean

Lightning off the coast of South Carolina 24 July 2012 (Copyright Ross Peters 2012)

I have become so used to getting immediate responses. I bet you have too.

So when I looked at this picture in the moments after I took it earlier this week using “Instagram” and my iPhone, I wanted an instant answer to the shaded column dissecting the middle of the photograph, yet instead the mystery just deepened. While I may yet get a clear and simple answer to what caused it, to date no believable answer has come in from anyone who has seen it (though my nine year old daughter did hypothesize that it was related to an alien space-ship).

Here’s how the mystery became more mysterious: I assumed it was an effect caused by the camera itself, yet when my wife and brother-in-law joined me on balcony to see some of the lightning now moving far out to sea, they both gasped at the same time after a flash in the same area. Both of them reported seeing the same shaded shaft with their naked eyes.

Additionally, when I tried to get another shot of the lightning, I kept seeing the shaft on the screen of my phone (unfortunately I never did get another picture of a lightning strike).

As we looked more closely at the photograph, we noted several other details that confounded us further:

  • The shaft comes down from the clouds, not from the top of the photograph. In fact the top border of the shaft is ragged making it appear that it dropped from under the clouds. Given the fact that the shaft goes to the bottom of the picture, it seems strange that it does not go to the top of it.
  • The right edge of the shaft has two lines, so there is a sliver of a more lightly shaded area. To me this seems to give it a kind of dimensionality.

I am certain someone will fill me in on this (Please help!), and the answer will definitely be more pedestrian than an alien space-ship. However, seeing it has brought to mind for me how uncomfortable it now feels not to have an immediate answer. The hegemony of Google and assorted search engines gives us access to a universe of answers that would have required phone calls to experts, trips to libraries, or extended stays at institutions of higher education. This blog entry is not a rant against our easy access to information, but rather it is a recognition that we are becoming less and less comfortable with not having every mystery explained in the moments right after we identify it.

As a teacher I sense that we should be doing a better and better job of equipping students to extend investigation and to sustain inquiry. This will require better questions and imaginative uses of class time in order to fend off instincts to provide a quick answers. The real problems of the world demand that we don’t mislead our students into thinking that we can find peace in the middle east or even the explanation of a shaded shaft of shade in a photograph from the first page of a google search.

6 thoughts on “Approaching a Mystery: A Shaft of Shade and Lightning Over the Ocean

  1. Celene Barros July 27, 2012 / 8:16 am

    You should send this astonishing picture to the news broadcasters and weather specialists. Absolutely stunning.

  2. bill clarkson July 27, 2012 / 8:44 am

    I am really looking forward to the answers you receive on this one; and what if there is no answer?

  3. John July 27, 2012 / 5:12 pm

    I think the shaft you see there is an artifact from how the iPhone and many digital cameras take pictures. The iPhone doesn’t have a shutter per se, instead, it captures an image line by line, and this can produce some very interesting effects, especially when compared to what we are used to seeing with cameras that operate with shutters. Here’s a gallery of other images that show this effect, and you can find lots more by searching for “rolling shutter effect”. It’s a great image, and further proof that you don’t need expensive photo equipment to catch captivating shots.

  4. Brandi July 28, 2012 / 2:59 am

    Where the foreground and background come together, there seems to be a dark ribbon. It looks as if there was land in the distance, or a platform, and that object was a built item. It also makes sense with it not going to the top and having dimension. Not knowing where exactly you were and what direction you were looking, it is hard to rule out that the lighting did not just illuminate a distant structure (perhaps a rig or a barrier built for some weather related purpose). It is also impossible to find out if there is a structure without that information. It looks like it would have to be massive but that may be a trick of the light and water. I at least find it more likely that a real object was somehow emphasized by the photo effects than that something not there at all could be seen, not just by the camera but also by your wife and brother-in-law.

  5. Riccardo July 28, 2012 / 9:02 pm

    Margo, the preceding comments are extremely clear. They also serve to answer the challenge you pose, “As a teacher I sense that we should be doing a better and better job of equipping students to extend investigation and to sustain inquiry.” Taking a course on concepual physics, without the terror of numbers that bog so many inquisitive and creative minds, youngsters learn that light behaves in ways at times just as strange as adolescents. At times acting like a wave; at others, like a particle, it defracts and refracts and slows down and speeds up selectively by color. The wonders of nature are but a question away from discovery by those who have the time and curiosity to ask them. Like you!

  6. bllbrwn423 July 30, 2012 / 9:58 am

    Extend and sustain–indeed. Thank you for those verbs in the context of work with students. I cannot solve the mystery of the shaft, but I will say that I am reading an essay by Wendell Berry, called “Poetry and Place” from his book STANDING BY WORDS. In this (extended and sustained) essay he begins by comparing Dante and Milton, specifically the former’s humble acceptance of mystery and the latter’s indecorous attempt to capture the voice of the divine. I am intrigued by his analysis, and your cultural comment about easy answers reminds me of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s