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University of Mississippi

Lightening Research Featured in Discovery Magazine

The efforts of two University of Mississippi physicists to understand the fundamental nature of lightning was included in the March issue of Discover magazine.

Tom Marshall, professor of physics and astronomy, and Maribeth Stolzenburg, research associate professor of physics and astronomy, discuss their work on lightning physics in the article written by Dava Sobel. Sobel is a science writer whom they met when she spoke at the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College fall convocation in September 2009, which was sponsored in part by the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

In the article, Marshall and Stolzenburg relate how they planned to capture the entire life cycle of a lightning flash by linking their detectors with four other types of sensors. They hope the data will eventually shape a general theory of lightning behavior.

Sobel was with the two researchers for three days of a seven-week data acquisition trip to the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This site is ideal because it has one of the highest summertime lightning flash rates in the country, and because NASA has several permanent lightning sensors that are useful for the experiment.

Sobel did a great job of capturing the team’s scientific objectives and the day-to-day collection routines, Marshall said.

Three University of Mississippi graduate students, Sumedhe Karunarathne and Nadeeka Karunarathne, both of Sri Lanka, and Lauren Vickers of Henderson, Ky., were also featured in the article.  In the photo, two flat plane antennas are installed at the NASA Kennedy Space Center site to measure the electric field charge caused by each lightning flash.  The yellow metal box holds a computer to record the data and two automobile batteries to power the computer and antennas for about 13 hours, which is the time of data collection.  The antennas record the change in electric field that occurs each one-millionth of a second (or one-tenth of a millionth of a second in some cases), which leads to 500,000 to 1,000,000 data points per instrument for each flash.

“Last summer we had 9 antennas operating at 5 locations, usually as pairs as in this picture,” said Marshall.  “The change in electric field seen at several antennas allows us to estimate the electric charge moved by the flash and the distance it is moved each millionth of a second.”

“A lot of excellent research is being done at UM that is worthy of inclusion in science magazines like Discover; such articles help Mississippians see that UM research is competitive on the national level,” he said.

This type of exposure not only expands readers’ knowledge about the topic but also gives them a glimpse into how science works, Stolzenburg said.

“I think it’s always a nice feeling to learn that someone is interested in the science you do and thinks it is worth trying to describe to others,” Stolzenburg said. “In this case, the audience of Discover magazine is much broader than the science journals we publish our work in, so it was especially good to have such a wonderful writer telling a bit about our investigations into lightning physics.”

The article is available at