In the Land of Lightning

By George Johnson | February 27, 2013 3:10 pm

Tim Samaras’s trailer. Photo by George Johnson

During the past three years, while I was doing almost nothing but researching and writing my book about the science of cancer, I was happy to be pulled away for two unexpected diversions: a magazine assignment that sent me to an archaeological site in India (the story has not yet appeared) and another that had me chasing the majestic thunderstorms that, late every summer, sweep across the Southwest. I was riding shotgun with Tim Samaras, an engineer and explosives expert who was intent on capturing an image never before recorded: the moment when an upstroke of charged particles, rising from the ground, meets with a downstroke from the sky and produces a flash of lightning.

This happens far too quickly for even the fastest commercial highspeed cameras (the kind used for time lapse photography), so Samaras was hauling around a customized relic (it weighed nearly a ton) that had been used long ago to film above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada. At its heart was a mirror mounted at the center of a turbine, which is propelled at high velocities with jets of helium or compressed air. As the mirror is spinning, it bounces light from the camera lens across a row of 82 small cameras loaded with a strip of 35-millimeter film. Samaras had retrofitted the cameras with electronic sensors and the result was a machine, the Kahuna, theoretically capable of recording a million frames per second.

“Chasing Lightning” appeared last summer in National Geographic magazine, and this week The Open Notebook, an excellent website about the craft of science writing, published a look behind the scenes describing how the story came to be. It was fun to relive the saga. Best of all was the chance to post two excerpts from earlier drafts that, during the many rounds of editing, ended up on the cutting room floor. The first involved a visit to a mountain top lightning observatory in southern New Mexico. The second, about a day spent at a desolate spot called The Lightning Field, is short enough that I will post it below:

Toward the end of lightning season, I drove to the village of Quemado, N.M., where small white letters stenciled on an old storefront window identified the office for The Lightning Field: an enormous installation of “land art” consisting of 400 pointed stainless steel poles arranged in a grid measuring a mile on one side and a kilometer on the other. Just after I arrived, Robert Weathers, a local rancher who moonlights for the Dia Art Foundation in New York, met me and four other visitors in the parking lot for a ride to the site. I half expected to be blindfolded. Dia, which commissioned the project by Walter De Maria in 1977, does its best to keep the location private and the experience austere. From May through October a maximum of six people a day pay as much as $250 each to spend a night in an old log cabin on The Lightning Field’s northern edge.

There was a rumble of thunder as we left Quemado, and I asked Weathers how often a pole is struck by lightning and must be replaced. “Some years two or three. Some years none at all.” He didn’t talk much during the 45-minute drive except to say that he grew up nearby in Pie Town and was part of the crew that built The Lightning Field according to De Maria’s specifications. Spaced 220 feet apart, the poles were precisely cut so that the tips line up to form a plane. As De Maria put it, you could rest an enormous piece of glass on top.

As I walked among the rows, watching them converge and diverge in a slow rhythm, I thought how invigorating it is that there are still earthly phenomena like lightning that we don’t quite understand. Sometimes scientific theories seem a little like De Maria’s huge sculpture — grids of regularity we try to impose on nature. But nature never quite fits.

By the time I reached the southwest corner of the grid, a storm was moving off Alegres Mountain and heading toward the Lightning Field. Walking faster now I followed a diagonal of poles back toward the cabin. Soon it was raining hard and my shoes were heavy with thick platforms of mud. Just as I reached the back porch, there was a flash right above me and thunder just seconds later. But De Maria’s poles appeared to be unscathed. A few hours later they glowed red in the sunset, eerie and still. It rained quietly all night, but there were no more heavenly voltages. The sky was a big gray short circuit.

The Lightning Field. Photo by George Johnson

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Fire in the Mind

Whether a subtle new pattern shows up in an experiment on the Higgs boson, an epidemiological report about a suspected cancer cluster, or a double-blind trial purporting to demonstrate ESP, it can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish between what we see and what we think we see. "Fire in the Mind" takes a look at the big questions behind today’s science news.

About George Johnson

George Johnson writes about science for the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, Slate, and other publications. His nine books include The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (August 2013), The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, A Shortcut Through Time, and Fire in the Mind. He is a winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award and has twice been a finalist for the Royal Society science book prize. Co-founder and director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, he can be found on the Web at talaya.net. Twitter @byGeorgeJohnson.

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