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No. 11: Summer 1980

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Ignis Fatuus Ignorance

A.A. Mills, a British scientist, has had the courage to research will-o'-wisps, those greatly neglected luminous phenomena frequenting marshy places. His literature search confirms the reality of these cold flames, though they seem to be reported only rarely in modern times. Actually, today's science tends to laugh off will-o'-the-wisps as old wive's tales or as misidentifications of St. Elmo's Fire or Ball Lightning. At the best, will-o'-the-wisps are considered simply the spontaneous ignition of marsh gas -- a trivial phenomenon not worth wasting time on.

Mills' study, however, shows this condescending attitude to be far off the mark. He has experimented with marsh gases, even constructing his own controlled "swamp," and has been unable to duplicate the established characteristics of will-o'-the-wisps; ie., spontaneous ignition, cold blue flames, no significant odor, etc. The marsh gas theory does not seem to hold water, despite many chemical variations.

(Mills, A.A.; "Will-O'the-Wisp," Chemistry in Britain, 16:69, February 1980.)

Reference. All manner of eerie lowlevel noctural lights are cataloged at GLN1 in Lightning, Auroras. Ordering information and description here.

From Science Frontiers #11, Summer 1980. 1980-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987