Does ball lightning really exist?

Czar Nicholas II reportedly saw a floating orb of lightning during a church service as a child.
Czar Nicholas II reportedly saw a floating orb of lightning during a church service as a child.
General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

­When you rub your socked feet on the carpet and zap yourse­lf on a doorknob, you're experiencing static electricity. Lightning is static electricity but on a scale your socks could never produce: It's three times hotter than the surface of the sun and could power a 100-watt bulb for more than three months [source: National Lightning Safety Institute]. Lightning has long fascinated people, motivating them to create myths about its origin and inspiring legendary experiments with electricity.

While we're all familiar with lightning, it's estimated that between one in 30 and one in 150 people around the world believe they have seen balls of lightning hovering over the ground, floating through walls and even killing people [source: National Geographic]. Stories of these glowing spheres go as far back as the Middle Ages, maybe even as far back as the Ancient Greeks. However, a recorded case didn't occur until the 18th century when Georg Richmann, a pioneer in research on electricity, was killed by what's believed to have been ball lightning.

Perhaps one of the most famous ball lightning sightings was by a young Czar Nicholas, grandson to Czar Alexander II, who witnessed a flaming orb during a church service in the 19th century. But even sightings by tsars left people skeptical. Were these balls actually lightning? Perhaps otherworldly phenomena? The skepticism began to wane in 1963 when a group of scientists flying from New York to Washington, D.C., witnessed a blazing orb drift down the aisle and disappear through the rear of the plane. Looking to explain what they saw, research began.

Do fiery balls that melt glass, hover over the ground and float through walls really exist? Let's find out more about the phenomenon of ball lightning and the possible explanations for it.