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Nuclear & Plasma Sciences Society

Distinguished Lectures

Dr. J. Pace VanDevender

Vice President Emeritus Sandia National Laboratories APS Fellow AAAS Fellow IEEE Senior Member


Ball Lightning--New Physics, New Energy Source, or Just Good Entertainment?

Ball lightning is a natural phenomenon characterized by a glowing ball of light that lasts for 1 to more than 1000 s. Although laboratory experiments have produced glowing balls of light that fade in <1 s after external power is removed, energetic ball lightning is not understood. A seminal event that illuminates the fundamental nature of ball lightning is needed to advance our understanding. The extreme ball lightning event of August 6, 1868, in County Donegal, Ireland, was extensively reported to the Royal Society by M. Fitzgerald and may be such a seminal event. It lasted for 20 minutes and excavated a total of ~100,000 kg of water saturated peat. We found and characterized the site; the geomorphology and carbon dating support the account by M. Fitzgerald. The excavation is inconsistent with chemical, nuclear, or electrostatic forces but is consistent with magnetic induction by a ~1-MHz electromagnetic field. The results suggest that energetic ball lightning is detectable at great distances by its unusual electromagnetic emissions. About fifty 1 to >1000-s bursts of electromagnetic energy between 3 MHz and 350 MHz were recorded with the FORTE satellite in October of 1997 and are not consistent with known sources. In 2008, we found similar signals on the ground in the low RF background of Antarctica. We are currently building a four-station, software-radio-based, GPS-synchronized sensor system to identify the origin of the FORTE emissions near earth and move the research beyond glowing balls of light.


photo of Dr. J. Pace VanDevender

Dr. J. Pace VanDevender earned a Ph.D. in Physics from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, England, in 1974, where he was a Marshall Scholar; an M.A. in Physics from Dartmouth College in 1971; and a B.A. in Physics from Vanderbilt University in 1969.

He joined Sandia National Laboratories in 1974 as a Member of the Technical Staff. In 1978, he was appointed Division Supervisor of the Pulsed Power Research Division; in 1982, he became Manager of the Fusion Research Department; and in 1984, he became Director of Pulsed Power Sciences, accountable for work in fusion, directed-energy weapons, nuclear-weapon-effects simulation, and commercial applications of pulsed power. He was awarded the Department of Energyπs Lawrence Award for Physics in 1991.

After a brief transition as Director of Corporate Communications in 1993, he became Director, National Industrial Alliances Center. He pioneered the Prosperity Games, which are derived from executive-level war games and extended through research on how people make decisions at each level of a complex organization, to explore the potential of industry-government partnerships in the context of the global economy. In 1995, he incorporated Prosperity Institute to offer Prosperity Games and served as President, while on a Tech Transfer Leave of Absence from Sandia.

In 1998, he returned to Sandia as the Director of Strategic Sciences to work on science policy and strategy and became Chief Information Officer (CIO). In 2002, he became Executive Staff Director, responsible for Issues Management, Strategic Planning, Congressional Relations, Quality, Performance Assurance, the Ombuds, Corporate Investigations, and support of the President and Executive Vice President.

In 2003, he became Sandia’s Chief Technical Officer; Vice President of the Science, Technology, and Engineering Strategic Management Unit; Vice President of the Science, Technology and Partnerships Division; and Chief Scientist of the Nuclear Weapons Program. He retired from Sandia in 2005 to devote more time to physics research and continues to serve Sandia and the nation as Vice President Emeritus.

Dr. VanDevender is a Fellow in the American Physical Society; a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science; a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Omicron Delta Kappa, and Sigma Xi; and a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. He serves on the Board of the various scientific and economic development organizations.

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