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SOFIA students on ground floor of lightning research

Barry McNamara
12/09/2011
Thanks to physics professor Chris Fasano and the students he worked with during Monmouth College’s SOFIA program, that five-letter acronym has taken on another meaning.

SOFIA, which began in 2010 as one of the college’s seven new academic initiatives, stands for Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activity. However, Fasano’s crew could also interpret it to mean “Several Official Fulminologists In Attendance.”

Fulminology is the study of lightning and, according to Fasano, there is still much to learn.

“People think that scientists have lightning figured out,” he said. “But no, they don’t have it figured out at all.”

An entry in a Wikipedia article on lightning supports Fasano: “How lightning initially forms is still a matter of debate.”

“This is like the wild west,” said Fasano of lightning research. “It’s wide open. That makes it perfect for undergraduates to study. The problems are accessible.”

Six students were named on a poster that was presented last month at the Prairie Section Meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) at the University of Northern Iowa. A founding member of the newest APS geographic section, Fasano has taken students to the meeting for each of its three years. He was accompanied by department colleagues Ashwani Kumar and Tim Stiles and by 12 students.

Four of those students were named on the lightning poster: seniors Brittany Shannon and Nick Jacobs and freshmen Emily Bell and Nick Olson, who both participated in SOFIA as Midwest Scholars. Also named on the poster were May graduate Adam Keller, who worked with Fasano last year, and senior Zach Monti.

“In the past 15 years or so, it’s been discovered that lightning produces bursts of X-rays when it strikes,” said Fasano. “So this is a very new development, and people are trying to measure those X-rays. We really don’t understand how lightning works, and that is especially true with these terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. Does all lightning emit X-rays? No, but some does. … This is an exciting time in the field. If you could find a way to measure the X-rays, you could publish that research in a highly-respected journal.”

As an indication of the radiation that some lightning can produce, Fasano related a story about a severe thunderstorm in Japan. When the lightning struck near a nuclear reactor, it set off radiation alarms.

Last summer, Fasano attended the 2011 Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flash Workshop at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, and he was struck by the many types of scientists who were curious about the subject.

“You had people involved in atmospheric science, nuclear physics, particle physics, electrical engineers and even computer programmers,” he said. “It’s pretty unusual for all of those people to be involved in the same project.”

Monmouth’s initial contribution to lightning research is developing detection packages that can be used by area schools. The packages would be placed on rooftops – including the roof of the college’s Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center and, when completed, the new Center for Science and Business – and measurements would be taken during storms of the barometric pressure, temperature and relative humidity, among other things.

“What are the conditions that lead to these gamma-ray flashes?” asked Fasano. “We don’t know the answers. So we want to get students involved – not just our own, but others – and have them collect data and hope for the best.”

Fasano is writing a grant to the National Science Foundation that he hopes will allow the college to build 10-15 detection packages.

“A lot of the sensor work is done on the packages, and the computer programming is done,” he said. “What we’re working on is packaging it all so it survives the elements. It turns out that’s a very crucial part of the equation.”

Unfortunately, the SOFIA students were unable to collect any observational data during their three weeks on campus in August, which came during a long dry spell in western Illinois.

In addition to the measurement data that Fasano and his students hope to collect, he added, “There’s a lot of interest now in predicting where and when lightning will strike and its frequency. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is interested in it to better protect our soldiers, and such forecasting ability would also better protect other people, such as golfers. … Characterizing severe storms better turns out to be really hard work, really subtle. We’re discovering things we didn’t know were there and things you’d think we’d already know, but we don’t.”

Benjamin Franklin famously tied a key to a kite string in 1752, but for the next 150 years, the study of lightning didn’t progress much. That changed with the advent of power lines and related equipment at the beginning of the 20th century and the need to understand how lightning would affect it. Now, more than 100 years later, interest in lightning has been revived. Who knows? The next great fulminologist might be a current MC physics student.