I hope you can help me with this one--most of my friends think I'm crazy. I am convinced my physical presence has the ability to make streetlights burn out. On an average night walking through a parking lot, at least one or two streetlights will go out when I approach, then regain their luminous state after I have passed. Could there be some sort of electrochemical imbalance in my body that causes this to happen? Am I surrounded by some strange magnetic field? This happens only with streetlights, not with lights in my home or public buildings. Is there a scientific explanation, am I looney, or do I just pay too much attention to streetlights? --Matthew Davis, San Jose, California; similarly from Neal Duncan, Washington, D.C.
Nothing personal, Matthew, but our default explanation for things like this is that you are looney. However, on investigation (we had little Ed bring it up on talk radio), we are starting to think there's more to this than meets the eye.
When the sodium-vapor bulbs commonly used in streetlights start to go bad, they "cycle"--go on and off repeatedly. Cecil is having a hard time getting the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board to agree on what happens, but apparently the bulb overheats, goes out, cools down, then relights. If you're walking past when this happens and you're the neurotic type, you think it's your fault. This surely accounts for most of the reports we've gotten about this over the years.
But maybe not all. While making one of his periodic reports to the nation on the Mara Tapp show on WBEZ radio in Chicago, little Ed mentioned your letter, figuring he might get a few calls from, as he indelicately put it, "the looney-tune quadrant of the listening audience." As usual he got no help from Tapp, who thought he was making the whole thing up. Also as usual though, the lines lit up with listeners saying the same thing had happened to them. One caller, saying there was a 12-step program for streetlight snuffers, pointedly told Tapp it was common for people to be in denial about this. So there.
And then there was a call from Joe. Joe claimed that when he and a friend walked down a street in Chicago once, eight or nine of the dozen or so streetlights they passed went out as they approached, then relighted after they'd gone by. While subsequent forays into the city have not been so unenlightening, Joe says he will sometimes put out two or three lights in the course of a stroll. Though he can't do so at will. Hmm, said little Ed.
We are not about to say we believe in bodily emanations. No doubt it is all just coincidence. Or maybe Joe is lying, crazy, or under the influence. (He sounded OK, but on the phone you can't tell if your source's eyes are dilated.)
But we never rule anything out, especially if we can get a column out of it. We checked with several electrical-engineering types, who professed bafflement. Deficient hypotheses include:
Joe is somehow triggering the photocell that causes street lamps to switch on and off. But Chicago street lamps don't have individual photocells. The photocell is in a master electrical box that controls 25 or 30 lights.
Joe is causing the bulb to vibrate loose. Supposedly if you hit the pole in the right spot the luminaire (the part with the bulb) will whip back and forth so sharply that the bulb loses contact. But Joe says he doesn't hit the poles, periodically drop a box of anvils, or anything like that.
Seeing as how we're not making much progress, we're faced with several choices: (1) Give up in frustration. We'd sooner die. (2) Conduct six weeks of in-depth investigation. Right. Like we get paid by the hour for this. (3) Fob the job off on the Teeming Millions. The very thing. We invite reports from persons who believe they douse more streetlights than can be explained by mere happenstance. We are particularly interested in hearing from people who can do this at will, without the aid of wire cutters, slingshots, etc. Include phone number or e-mail Ed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps nothing will come of this. But you never know.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.