Red sprites, elves and other great balls of fire

September 17, 2004

This volume claims to cover "all aspects of lightning... in a style which will be accessible to the technical non-expert". It is aimed at a broad audience, including electrical engineers, physicists, meteorologists, foresters and architects. The authors are two electrical engineers, Vladimir Rakov and Martin Uman, who have been at the forefront of lightning research for many years.

The book is divided into 20 chapters, about three-quarters of which resemble those in Uman's The Lightning Discharge (1987). That book was hard to read because each chapter was devoted to a separate lightning process (preliminary breakdown, stepped leader, return stroke, dart leader and so on); observations and interpretation were intermingled; and each chapter built on a previous one.

In this book, observations are grouped in the early chapters, with the minimum of theoretical interpretation, so a newcomer can more easily pick up the thread and begin reading the chapter that interests him or her.

Chapter 12, "Modeling of lightning processes", pulls all the theory together in a concise manner, picking out the critical observations from the previous chapters to test theories. These theories are intelligibly presented in order, from intimate "physics" models of short sections of lightning channel to broad overall "engineering" models of complete lightning.

Next come chapters covering engineering aspects of lightning, reminiscent of the applied chapters in the second volume of R. H. Golde's Lightning (1977). These cover aspects of radio noise (for those in telecommunications), chemistry of the atmosphere (for environmentalists), locating systems (for meteorologists), damage and protection (for civil engineers and architects) and hazards to living beings.

Chapter 14 offers an interesting look at the recently discovered electrical discharges above the cloud tops that have been observed from planes ("blue starters", "red sprites", "elves" and so on). A final chapter provides detailed accounts of the strange phenomena of ball lightning and bead lightning.

This volume is a closely written, wide-ranging work presented in a large, attractive format, but its emphasis is on delivering technical information rather than visual impact. The illustrations (more than 300, almost all in black and white) do not dominate and are carefully chosen.

References, which total more than 6,000, are collected at the end of each chapter, and these account for about a quarter of the book's pages. A bibliography of about 180 titles is provided, along with an extensive index. The literature appears to be complete up to about 2000-01.

The book serves several purposes well. It is sufficiently detailed and referenced to be useful for researchers working in lightning areas who want to see the complete picture. I could not find any errors bar a couple of minor allocation mistakes in the ball lightning section. The clear and concise summaries in the later chapters will benefit professionals who want to understand aspects of lightning that affect their practice. The general scientific reader will find this book to be generally an easy read if the heavy modelling section is skipped.

As well as being desirable for university libraries, despite its price, Lightning: Physics and Effects is sufficiently complete and universal to be an attractive buy for a public library.

John Abrahamson is associate professor of chemical and process engineering, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Lightning: Physics and Effects

Author - Vladimir A. Rakov and Martin A. Uman
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 687
Price - £160.00
ISBN - 0 521 583 6

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