Spiritual lights: Phase control

by Hans Egebo

A while ago, I read an account of somebody who felt she was being contacted by a spirit, more precisely by the spirit of a recently deceased acquaintance, a young man we can call John. Several times when her husband worked late, she would be sitting in bed reading, and the lights would start, not exactly blinking, but dimming and brightening in a regular way. One night, it was extraordinarily marked, and she called out: “Is that you, John?”. After this, the lights dimmed strongly three times in rapid succession, then went out entirely.

In her probably sensitive condition, grieving the recent, tragic death of a young friend, the lady interpreted this as a spiritualistic experience. However, as we shall see, there is a more mundane explanation which, even without taking a stand for or against spirits, looks far more probable.

The Grid

The power that drives your lights and other appliances is AC, alternating current. This means that the voltage changes polarity constantly; if you live in the United States, it may do this 60 times a second, in Europe and many other places, it will be 50 times a second. The reasons for this arrangement are many, but we need not concern ourselves about that here. Suffice to say that the alternating current is generated directly by the power generators, the frequency being determined by the rotational speed of those generators.

If you were supplied with power from a small powerplant with a single generator, the story could end right here, but only few of us are; most people, and certainly all city dwellers, are supplied with electrical power from a vast power grid, which is fed by many powerplants, each with many generators. Those of you who have fiddled a little with electrical circuits (or listened a little in school) will know that whereas DC (direct current) sources, such as batteries, can be connected together for more power with relative ease, AC sources are more tricky.

To connect two AC sources, like two powerplants, to the same power grid, you need to synchronize them: Not only must they generate exactly the same frequency (50 or 60 Hz), but they must be in phase too, otherwise violent things may happen. There are technical ways of synchronizing AC generators, and in fact your power company is doing it all the time; as power drain on the grid changes from minute to minute, power is rerouted, power plants are engaged and disengaged as needed. Normally, this is a glitch-free, automatic operation. But, as always, errors happen:

Blinking lights

From time to time, something slips, and a power station is connected to the grid without being perfectly synchronized, so the power from it goes in and out of phase with that from the other power stations. Then you will see your lights waxing and vaning softly in a regular fashion. At the same time, A LOT of power is surging through the wires between the power stations. If some synchronization equipment is faulty somewhere, this may happen on several occasions, often at the same time of the evening, because the load on the grid follows a daily pattern, so shifting stations in or out happens on a fairly repetitive schedule. Now, two things can happen: Either the engineers get around to correcting the error eventually. Or else, it might get worse, like one fine evening, in stead of getting into sync, the faulty system goes entirely out of sync. This will be seen as a few quick and marked blinks, followed by the tripping of a circuit breaker somewhere, blacking you out. Does the sequence sound familiar to you? It does to me.

What about spirits, then?

OK, so there is a mundane explanation, but couldn’t a spirit do the same? Well, I don’t know anything about spirits, but I do know something about physics, and I can tell you what it would take. When a load (the lamps in your house) is connected to a power source (the power grid), a current flows. This current is determined by the resistance of the load and the voltage of the power supply. If a spirit were to change that (in order to dim your lights), it might do three things:

  1. Change the resistance in your lamps. We do not know of any method of doing this in a casual way, and changes in resistance value have not been observed to change without physical cause. If they did, precious little of the electronics around us would ever function.
  2. Change the voltage from the power plant. Actually, it would need to influence the entire grid. This would require some awesome power and would trigger alarms going off all over the power grid.
  3. Divert the power somewhere else. This would involve somehow diverting thousands of watts somewhere else.

Again, I don’t know what spirits can do, provided they exist, but if John’s spirit wanted to contact this lady, it would have been a whole lot easier for it to give her a ring on the phone, write fiery letters on the wall, or something like that.

Editor’s note: Two weeks before this article was published, Northern America experienced the biggest black-out ever. More than 50 million people were affected, with the whole of New York City being out of power for more than a day. No ghosts were reported.