Chasing the Min Min Light

What is the source of the Australian outback's mysterious channel country jack o' lantern?

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Ancient Mysteries, General Science, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #133
December 23, 2008
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It's a hot night out here in the Australian outback. We're about 40 miles east of the tiny village of Boulia, near the site of an old ghost town called Min Min that doesn't even exist anymore. They call this part of western Queensland the channel country, a flat expanse of flood plains and creeks and dry washes that almost never flow. Stand on a high point and you can see to the horizon in every direction. And if you're lucky, on a night like this, you might see the region's most infamous denizen: The Min Min Light.

Sometimes it's an orange speck, sometimes it's a big white ball. Sometimes it's close and sometimes it follows you, sometimes it just hovers away out in the distance. Some say it's just a tall tale, and others say they've seen it with their own eyes. It's been called a ghost light, a spirit orb, and in later years, all manner of scientific sounding natural phenomena. But it's real and it's there, and only a lucky few will see it, but see it they do, and have for the better part of two centuries. We can go all the way back to 1838 to find the earliest known written account of the Min Min Light. It comes from T. Horton James' book, Six Months in South Australia:

A group of explorers were camped in the Ovens River region of eastern Victoria, when they saw a fire a little way off. Some of them rode off to investigate, but it was about three hours before they returned, and had seen neither fire, bushrangers, nor travelers. They rode boldly up to the spot where the fire, as they thought, was burning, but it was as far off as when they started. In short, it turned out to be an ignis fatuus, or jack-a-lantern, and kept them upwards of an hour trotting on in the vain pursuit, 'till by some sudden flickering and paleness, it confirmed them in its unsubstantial nature, and they returned rather mortified to bed...

It was a full century before the best known Min Min Light encounter was published in a 1937 issue of Australia's late Walkabout magazine. Rancher Henry Lamond told of an adventure that happened to him 25 years earlier:

...I did not leave the head station until about 2 am, expecting to get to Slasher's well before daylight… 8 or 10 miles out on the downs I saw the headlight of a car coming straight for me. Cars, though they were not common, were not rare. I took note of the thing, singing and trotting as I rode, and I even estimated the strength of the approaching light by the way it picked out individual hairs in the mare's mane.

Suddenly I realized it was not a car light — it remained in one bulbous ball instead of dividing into the 2 headlights, which it should have done as it came closer; it was too green-glary for an acetylene light; it floated too high for any car; there was something eerie about it.

The light came on, floating as airily as a bubble, moving with comparative slowness ... I should estimate now that it was moving at about 10 mph and anything from 5 to 10 feet above the ground ... Its size, I would say, at an approximate guess, would be about that of a new-risen moon. That light and I passed each other, going in opposite directions. I kept an eye on it while it was passing, and I'd say it was about 200 yards off when suddenly it just faded and died away. It did not go out with a snap -its vanishing was more like the gradual fading of the wires in an electric bulb.

As long as people have been witnessing the light, they've been trying to figure out what it is. Author Mark Moravec came up with five possible explanations for the Min Min Light in his article Strange Illuminations: Min Min Lights: Australian Ghost Light Stories:

  1. Misidentifications of natural phenomena such as wind-blown mists; phosphorescence in marshes; spontaneous neuronal discharges in the visual field; clusters of luminescent insects; light refraction effects; ball lightning or other electric discharge.
  2. An unknown natural phenomenon involving low-level air oscillations; or ionization in geophysically-generated electrical fields.
  3. Psychokinetic or poltergeist effects unconsciously produced by an individual.
  4. Non-physical apparitions/ghosts.
  5. Small, physical UFOs ("remote-control probes").

These nominations are all quite fanciful, and would be difficult to test. But they're not without historical basis. In a 1955 issue of Walkabout, writer Ernestine Hill found plausible cause for a ghost light in the history of Min Min:

So many were its crimes and murders of kerosene and brimstone, that in righteous anger they burnt it to the ground. The place was stories and desolation- but the dead men would not be forgotten on their stoney plain. Just as a rider was passing by, out of that graveyard came the biggest Jack-O'-Lantern in Australia!

Most intriguing to the scientific mind, though, are the suggestions that some interesting natural wonder is responsible for the lights. Regular Skeptoid listeners might remember our episode about The Marfa Lights in Texas, a similar phenomenon. Piezoelectric effects have been proposed as an explanation for each. The piezoelectric effect is observed in certain crystals that change shape when an electrical current is applied to them, making them useful for such applications as the tiny sound element in a beeping digital watch. The effect also works in reverse: Apply mechanical force to the crystal and it produces an electrical current. A few naturally occurring minerals exhibit this effect, namely some types of quartz, topaz, and tourmaline structures. The idea is that geologic forces within the rock, either tectonic or thermal, create these piezoelectric charges. But there have always been two problems with this hypothesis: First, the effect is a weak electrical voltage, not light; and second, the voltage is measurable only on the crystal itself, it is not projected up into the air in the form of a glowing orb. At least, no such effect has ever been observed or predicted by calculation.

However, an article published in the journal Nature in 2006 by authors Eddingsaas and Suslick described a newly discovered form of mechanoluminescence, light from mechanical force. Scientists have known about mechanoluminescence for centuries, since it was first observed as sparks when scraping lumps of sugar. Eddingsaas and Suslick found that shockwaves of acoustic cavitation in a mechanically aggravated crystal slurry produced light much brighter than mechanical crushing alone. Very cool, but also a poor explanation for the Min Min Light. Neither crystal slurries nor sufficient mechanical aggravation are present at the Min Min site, and even if they were, the light is produced immediately at the source of the acoustic cavitation, and not projected up into the air in the form of a floating ball.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Optical science has produced a far better candidate for our mystery ghost light, one that is reproducible and that fully accounts for the observations. Professor Jack Pettigrew, writing in the journal Clinical and Experimental Optometry, described The Min Min Light and the Fata Morgana. You may remember the Fata Morgana mirage from our discussion of the Marfa Lights. Named for King Arthur's sister Morgana, who was said to be able to levitate objects, a Fata Morgana mirage is one type of superior mirage. In a superior mirage, the object is seen above its actual position, for example above the horizon, when in fact the object is far away and hidden below the horizon. Fata Morgana mirages are caused by thermal inversion layers in the atmosphere. They are fairly common in the arctic regions where temperature inversions are endemic. Often the ocean water temperature, hovering right around freezing, is warmer than the air directly above it, which can be well below freezing. A line of sight stretching along this gradient toward the horizon can easily become distorted, bending light like a fiber optic cable. Arctic islands that are low lying and below the horizon are often seen floating in the air above the horizon, inverted or doubled or stretched into tall blocky mesas.

Pettigrew found that Australia's channel country naturally creates ideal conditions for superior mirages. All of the hollows and ravines trap warm air, and on a cool evening following a hot day, the conditions are virtually certain to take place. Pettigrew and six observers parked a car with its headlights on, drove ten kilometers away past intervening high ground and out of the line of sight, and presto, the headlights were visible as a Min Min Light. The following morning they took photographs of a distant mountain range distorted by the Fata Morgana, that gradually faded away to its actual position below the horizon as the conditions dispersed.

As long as there have been people around to observe the Min Min Light, there have been people around to build campfires or have lanterns in the window dozens and perhaps hundreds of kilometers away. What about Henry Lamond's account of the light passing him? Well, who knows. Our memories often exaggerate remarkable events. Perhaps his trail curved away and created that perception, perhaps the story was improved in the retelling, there's no way to know.

But whether you choose to regard the Min Min Light as an optical artifact, as the ghost of a cowboy shot in an outback saloon, as a piezoelectric light beacon or as a remote controlled alien probe, there's no doubt that stories like the channel country jack o' lantern make our world ever more intriguing.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Eddingsaas, Nathan C., Suslick, Kenneth S. "Mechanoluminescence: Light from sonication of crystal slurries." Nature. 9 Nov. 2006, 444 (7116): 163.

Holden, Alan, Morrison, Phylis. Crystals and Crystal Growing. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982. 225-234.

James, Thomas Horton. Six Months in South Australia: With some account of Port Philip and Portland Bay in Australia. London: J. Cross, 1838. 201-202.

Lamond, Henry. "The Min-Min Light." Walkabout. 1 Apr. 1937, Volume 3, Number 6: 76-77.

Moravec, Mark. "Strange Illuminations: Min Min Lights Australian Ghost Stories." Fabula. 21 May 2003, Volume 44, Number 1: 2-24.

Pettigrew, John D. "The Min Min light and the Fata Morgana An optical account of a mysterious Australian phenomenon." Clinical and Experimental Optometry. 1 Mar. 2003, Volume 86, Number 2: 109-120.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Chasing the Min Min Light." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 23 Dec 2008. Web. 23 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4133>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 26 comments

When travelling from Brisbane to Mt Isa in 1974 my sister, parents and myself were coming late into Boulia when a bright white light starting travelling next to us. If we slowed down it did as well, if we went faster it did as well. It lasted for about 10-15 mins. It was a beautiful and strange experience. But definately not frightening.

Hazel, Brisbane
October 06, 2011 6:42pm

I had the fun experience of seeing one of these reverse mirages. I was hiking the coast just north of the Golden Gate Bridge when I looked out the the Farralon islands. Small islands off the coast often hidden by haze. I looked over at them on my hike and I had no idea how to figure out what I was looking at. The islands had become tall mesas instead of low mounds. After a few moments of my brain spitting out all sorts of very un plausible explanations, I finally settled on some sort of atmospheric illusion.
15 minutes further into my hike and they had returned to normal, but not before I snapped a few bad cell phone pics for posterity.

Jon, Mill Valley/California
December 01, 2011 7:16pm

In 1991 myself and my colleague were driving between Aramac and Barcaldine on quite a large property. We are both university trained biologist and while travelling between properties a orange light appeared around 100m behind us. it followed us for nearly 20min before we stopped on the side of the road. It then stopped and moved from one side of the road to the other. We then turned around to move towards it but it continued to stay 100m from us no matter speed we went. This went on for nearly and hour before it finally disappeared. People can say what they like but this min min light would always stay ~100m from us no matter if we were stopped or travelling 100km per hour. As biologists we are trained to in facts but this blew us away.

Craig, Brisbane
June 06, 2012 2:06am

Interestingly, there’s a video which seems to show something like the Fata Morgana mirage in THE IMPOSSIBLE SAILING MACHINE article in the Skeptoid Issue #333. The vehicles moving down the road in the background appear to be around twice their real height at the start of the video. They are less distorted towards the end of the video.

Barry O'Connell, boc@earthcare.com.au
October 23, 2012 4:30pm

The great Australian Outback is a place of wonder and no more wonderous than the many people there who like to spin a good yarn..

http://www.ntnews.com.au/

John Blackhall, Wonthaggi
October 25, 2012 1:28pm

We were just travelling down to Melbourne went west by mistake from Brisbane and were travelling along the Road from Mitchell to St George Qld. We were followed by whats seems the min min light for over an hour. It was not head lights, but one single light shaped like a diamond which appeared sometimes further behind and just hovered in the back ground. It was real we all saw it and it was weird and scary.

Jillian Biggar, Brisbane
December 29, 2012 2:57pm

Just FYI Brian, no need to publish:

* the stories of the Min Min go rather further back than a mere 200 years!

* please note that it is reported all over Australia, mainly from QLD to VIC, in a 'band' if you will, extending from the Gulf south, but not as far east as the Divide (as far as I'm aware), but I've read of it being spotted as far west as the Nullabor; and a similar phenomenon has been reported in the Dandenong Ranges of Melbourne (VIC), though this purplish not greenish.

* another point of interest is that the Aborigine peoples of Australia invariably associate the Min Min with evil ~ an evil being or presence (and contrary to popular belief, the Aborigine tradition of oral-history demands an absolute lack of embellishment -- the ancient stories are considered sacred & are not to be embellished nor amended). While I don't subscribe to the doctrine of evil, it is interesting that they don't ascribe this phenomenon to a spirit, as they do so much of their mythology, but rather to something quite tangible. I think this difference in itself makes it at least worthy of special note.

* and finally, the movement ascribed to the Min Min by witnesses precludes the possibility of a mirage -- it's reported to 'dance' past, beside & even around one, & obviously mirages can't do that; and while reported at all hours of the day & night, it's apparently primarily seen at night, & there are reports that it's seen more on very dark, moonless nights than otherwise.

RDF, Victoria, Australia
January 20, 2013 8:01am

This morning on ABC radio (Adelaide 891 kHz) I listened to an observer's intriguing account of a single Min Min light, so decided to investigate further.

I agree with RDF's 4th point (above). I'm surprised Pettigrew's mirage explanation is being given some weight in Australia, because it doesn't explain the lights being observed at short range, even passing by the observers. Other explanations are needed.

The Min Min light seems to be a Will O' the Wisp, although that phenomenon is lacking in scientific explanations as well. Note some Italian scientists may be getting close; see "On the track of the will-o'-the-wisp"; Garlaschelli and Boschetti (2013).

Matt Pickett, Adelaide SA
January 11, 2014 5:32pm

I am always curious as to how people are able to deliver such accurate estimates of both size AND distance for an unknown point of light in the dark.

I wonder if these human theodolites could give me an estimate on the size and distance of the moon, seeing as they have likely seen it many times.

Brendan, Ontario
January 12, 2014 3:55am

"I am always curious as to how people are able to deliver such accurate estimates of both size AND distance for an unknown point of light in the dark."
- Brendan, Ontario

That's EXACTLY how I feel!
I posted something similar in another article about "ufos".

You probably all heard it before:
"It was half a mile away and 300 feet in diameter!!"

How the "heck" does he know if he couldn't identify the thing in the first place??

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
March 06, 2014 11:34am

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