Physics: Mysteries of Ball Lightning Revealed in Long-Sought Quantum Material 'Skyrmion'

Scientists have finally succeeded in producing a strange phenomenon they've been hunting for more than 50 years now. Called a Shankar skyrmion, it's a knot of matter looped together by twisted magnetic fields that, just like a giant tangle of yarn, often only gets tighter when you pull on a string.

When the team of scientists created this weird structure in a quantum material, they realized it looked awfully familiar: Now they think its secrets might help explain a dramatically long-lived type of lightning. That's all according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances, which outlines the new discovery and its possible implications.

An artist's conception of a skyrmion. Heikka Valja

"The biggest moment was when we realized we got the same electromagnetic fields as predicted for ball lightning," co-author Mikko Möttönen, a quantum computing researcher at Aalto University in Finland, told Gizmodo. "We didn't aim for that. But wow."

Möttönen and his colleagues started with a Bose-Einstein condensate, an incredibly weird state of matter beyond the traditional solid, liquid and gas. To make a Bose-Einstein condensate, scientists take rubidium gas and cool it way down to just above absolute zero, but in such a way that it doesn't freeze solid like orderly ice. Instead, it becomes a wacky mess of particles all in the same quantum state.

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Then, the team applied a loopy magnetic field, which successfully knotted the quantum gas to produce the skyrmion in three dimensions. And by looking closely at the skyrmion, they were able to study its magnetic field—which they realized was exactly what happens in ball lightning.

That's a strange form of lightning that forms knots of light that can last several seconds (a normal lightning strike is over in tens of microseconds). Scientists have been suspicious for a while now that ball lightning was built by magnet fields, but didn't have much proof. The skyrmion work isn't proof either, but it suggests they're on the right track.