Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hello, Lamppost, What'cha Knowin'?

As someone who is a frequent pedestrian in suburban areas--and at night--I have often had the experience of walking past a streetlight only to have it suddenly go off. In fact, there was a period a year or so ago when this happened rather frequently; it seemed like every time I walked past a streetlight, it would go out. And it's a something I have experienced for many years.

This "phenomenon" has been reported by others, as well, and all sorts of explanations have been offered for it, the most common of which involves something to do with one's own body causing what some experts (and, yes, it is shocking to learn that there are actually experts in this) refer to as "street light interference." That is, the human body emits some sort of energy field (static electricity, some say) that makes the light go out. I would imagine that any force or field (or force field) that could affect a lightbulb as high up as a streetlight would probably fry the computer I am sitting at, as well as any electric or electronic device in whatever room I was in--not to mention the mobile phone and iPod I would be carrying on my person at the time the streetlight went out. Now, granted, the ability to shoot out vast quantities of electricity would be very cool, but, well, I will just have to resign myself to the fact that that is not going to happen. Alas.

I mention this because there is an article on this phenomenon in the latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (frustratingly, they don't post their current articles online), but there is an online edition of a short book on the topic found here (link opens a PDF). In a nutshell, and not surprisingly, so-called "streetlight interference" is likely the result of mechanical problems with the lamp combined with the tendency for people to notice things that are out of the ordinary; that is, we are more likely to notice the one or two times that a streetlight goes out than we are to notice the hundred or more times we pass a streetlight and it stays on. (Heck, around here, I'm happy just to notice any streetlights at all.)

As for the experience I had for a period where several streetlights in the neighborhood would all turn off as I passed them...well, I figured (and the SI article confirms this), all the lamps in a given neighborhood were probably installed at the same time and ergo the bulbs--with some degree of variation, and maybe a few that were broken by other factors--would all start to go on the blink (as it were, and which is typical behavior for dying lightbulbs of the type used in streetlights) at roughly the same time.

Supporting my theory was the fact that around the same time, I noticed that the streetlight outside my front window also had a tendency to turn on and off. I knew it couldn't be me, because the lamps inside the house were fine. But then, after a few nights of this, one afternoon I noticed some workmen from the City out front changing the bulb. The lamp hasn't gone off since--nor have any of the other streetlamps in the neighborhood. That appeared to solve that.

So I guess my fantasies of having some kind of superpower will have to remain just that. Maybe I will write a comic book about a superhero who has the power to turn streetlights off. I'm not sure how effective that would be for defeating the forces of evil, but it seems there are more than enough superheroes out there conquering the forces of evil. Now conquering the forces of public works, that's something else...

No comments: