St. Elmo’s Fire

The fourth state of matter

Championed in song most notably by Brian Eno and John Parr, St. Elmo’s fire is not a literal fire at all, but plasma, the fourth state of matter, distinct from solids, liquids, and gases. A cousin of ball lightning, ignis fatuus (will-o’-the-wisp, friar’s lantern), and mountaintop luminescence (MTL)—although a separate and distinct phenomenon—St. Elmo’s fire takes the form of a hissing, incandescent discharge, usually bluish-purple or white in color, whose lifespan is only a few minutes while it “dances” along the tip of pointed projections during or immediately following/preceding thunderstorms. Pointed projections include, but are not limited to, church steeples, aircraft wings, the mastheads of ships, chimneys, the horns of cattle, and even blades of grass. It only occurs under such volatile conditions because it takes an atmospheric electrical-field potential strength of approximately 1,000 volts per centimeter in order for it to appear. (In contrast, during fair weather, the electrical-field strength is only about 1 volt per centimeter.)

It is also termed a corposant, from the Spanish cuerpo santo, or “holy body.” The Greeks called it Castor and Pollux when it appeared in its rare dual-jet form. Despite what Billy tells Jules in the eponymous motion picture, there was a St. Elmo: the occurrence got its popular name from Mediterranean sailors in the fourth century C. E. who saw its appearance as a sign from St. Elmo né Erasmus, their patron saint. (Feast day, June 2nd.)

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Michael Schiavo

Michael Schiavo is a poet whose work (poetic and otherwise) has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tin House, Unpleasant Event Schedule, can we have our ball back?, and Small Spiral Notebook, among other fine publications. He lives in Connecticut.

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