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Ride the Lightning

John Belz researchJohn Belz, Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy, became interested in cosmic rays in the late 1990s.

“There was an interesting, unsolved problem at that time,” said Belz. “Cosmic rays were observed with energies greater than predicted – something we hadn’t expected to see. Eventually the problem was resolved by Utah’s High Resolution ‘Fly’s Eye’ detector.” The “Fly's Eye” detector was an ultra-high energy cosmic ray observatory located in the west desert of Utah from 1997 to 2006.

Today the Telescope Array Surface Detector (TA), a 700 square kilometer observatory in Utah’s west desert, near Delta, has replaced the “Fly’s Eye” and detects high-energy particles that constantly collide with the Earth’s atmosphere from space. 

Belz now serves as principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-funded Telescope Array Lightning Project, which uses data from the TA as well as a set of lightning detection instruments. His research focuses on lightning and gamma rays – the highest energy light waves on the electromagnetic spectrum – and he and his colleagues are trying to understand the mechanism by which the flash in lightning is initiated. 

“As common as atmospheric lightning is,” said Belz, “we don’t completely understand how it works. The practical application of our research is that it may help us better understand how gamma rays are produced and the nature of lightning and the lightning initiation process.”

This summer the team deployed new detectors at the Telescope Array site, including a radio interferometer, that will help scientists see in greater detail how the gamma rays are produced at the beginning of the lightning flash.

Belz will present a “Science at Breakfast” lecture on Thursday, September 20, in downtown Salt Lake. In his talk, “Gamma Rays and the Origins of Lightning,” he’ll explain what we know about lightning and discuss the importance of the Telescope Array Lightning Project. Call Jeff Martin, (801) 581-4852,, for more information.

John Belz research

Last Updated: 9/4/18