Science and art combine to explode a myth

Posted by pt91 at Oct 18, 2011 01:21 PM |
Red Sprites: Monday 31st October at 6.30pm, University of Leicester

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 18 October 2011

‘Red Sprites’, once dismissed by airline pilots as UFOs, will feature in a talk by Canadian-born multimedia artist and film-maker Peter McLeish at the next meeting of the Leicester Physics Centre on Monday 31st October at 6.30pm in Lecture Theatre 1, Ken Edwards Building on the main University of Leicester campus.

For over a century, there had been reports of strange lights in the night sky during thunderstorms.   Now, Red sprites are known to be upper atmospheric optical phenomenon associated with thunderstorms.

The blink of an eye lasts 250 milliseconds, sprites often last only ten milliseconds. Despite nearly a century of anecdotal reports, most scientists did not believe in sprites until the first images were captured in 1989 on a low-light camera videotape.   Then, from 1990 to 1994 the space shuttle obtained twenty more images.

One researcher is recorded as saying it was as if Biology had suddenly ‘discovered a new human body part’.   Since the original discovery many other sightings have been recorded in the thin air around thunderstorms.

Since 2001, the artist Peter McLeish, who is affiliated with FMA Research Inc, USA, has been involved in a collaboration based on Red Sprites with American scientist Walter A Lyons, who subsequently received a United States National Science Foundation grant for this work.

Peter McLeish created the artwork for Lyons’ film ‘The Hundred Year Hunt for Red Sprites’ as well as the companion-six minute film, ‘Lightning’s Angels’.  

Since 2002, both films have been presented at major international science conferences and festivals all over the world. 

Peter McLeish’s continued research subsequently led him to an additional collaboration with Dr Colin Price from the Department of Geophysics and Planetary Science, Tel Aviv University, who was working on sprite research from a ground station with the ill-fated crew of the Columbia in 2003.

Since 2007, Peter has been working on a new project titled Polaris Terrarum about the Polar Regions.

The Leicester Physics Centre is sponsored by the Institute of Physics and hosted by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester.

It presents a series of physics-based evening lectures with the aim of promoting the wonder of science to the public. People of all ages are welcome to attend and schools are encouraged to participate. Lectures focus on interdisciplinary activities between the different sciences, as well as science and the arts.

Peter McLeish’s talk, ‘A New Phenomenon called Red Sprites’ will take place in Lecture Theatre 1, Ken Edwards Building on the main University of Leicester campus on Monday 31st October at 6.30pm.   The talk is open to the public free of charge, but by prior booking only through the website

Notes to Editors: More information follows on Peter McLeish, Walter A Lyons and the two films, ‘The Hundred Year Hunt for Red Sprites’ and Lightning’s Angels’. 

Further details on the lecture and the Leicester Physics Centre are available from Dr Darren Wright, Reader, Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Leicester,


Further information on Peter McLeish’s work is available from:


Peter McLeish is a painter /multi-media artist / filmmaker with a Masters of Fine Arts degree. He has received grants and other support from the Canadian and/or Quebec Governments between -1991 to 2010.  

Peter has been developing work and research on science-based themes since the late 1990's. His work has been featured in The Royal Astronomical Society and the Natural History Museum in London, the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, United Kingdom, and at many international museums and centres around the world, including Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Scandinavia and Argentina.

Walter A Lyons was President of the American Meteorological Society (2005), President of the United States National Council of Industrial Meteorologists (2007-08) and is current President of FMA Research Inc - Sky-Fire Productions (Colorado, USA). 

The Hundred Year Hunt For The Red Sprite’ is a 42-minute film documenting one of the most unexpected scientific findings in the atmosphere during the late 20th century.

For over a century, people, including well-respected scientists, had reported seeing strange lights in the night sky during thunderstorms. But it was not until a ‘happy accident’ in 1989 that the first such event was captured on a low-light camera’s video tape.

One researcher exclaimed it was as if Biology had just suddenly discovered a new human body part. Since then, an entire ‘zoo’ of luminous creatures have been found in the thin air above thunderstorms. Similar discoveries are still being made.

This film shows how the public can become engaged in the search for new thunderstorm related electrical phenomena. It also discusses aspects of astronomy, space science and meteorology. 

Lightning’s Angels’ is a six-minute film that combines digitally enhanced oil paintings of a Sprite in various states of transformation which cannot be seen with cameras. This film is accompanied with the song MISERERE from the CD STATE OF GRACE by Paul Schwartz featuring the Joyful Company of Singers.

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