But meanwhile, Dwyer has teamed up with Leonid Babich and his colleagues at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov to delve further into the theory of Gurevich’s idea. (The Russian pre-eminence in this field of the electrical physics of the atmosphere dates from the cold-war Soviet era.) They have asked whether the flux of high-energy cosmic-rays, with their accompanying runaway electron avalanches, is sufficient to boost the conductivity of air and cause a lightning strike.
To do that, the researchers have worked through the equations describing the chances of cosmic-ray collisions, the rate of electron production and the electric fields this induces. The equations are too complicated to be solved by hand, but a computer can crunch through the numbers. And the results don’t look good for Gurevich’s hypothesis: runaway electron avalanches produced by cosmic-ray showers just don’t seem capable of producing electrical breakdown of air and lightning discharge.
However, all is not lost. As well as the particle cascades caused by collisions of high-energy cosmic rays, the atmosphere can also be electrified by the effects of cosmic rays with lower energy, which are more plentiful. When these collide with air molecules, the result is nothing like as catastrophic: they simply ionise the molecules. But a gradual build-up of such ionised particles within a thundercloud could, according to these calculations, eventually produce a strong enough electrical field to permit a lightning discharge.
That possibility has yet to be investigated in detail. But Dwyer and colleagues think that it leaves an avenue still open for cosmic rays to lie at the origin of lightning bolts.