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“Lichtenberg figures are branching, tree-like or fern-like patterns that are created by high voltage discharges along the surface, or inside, electrical insulators (dielectrics).” ~From Bert Hickman’s Captured Lightening website
A Lichtenberg figure is made by forcing electrons into a dielectric material (an electrical insulator), usually acrylic, by passing it under electron beam (think: 4 story tall, HIGH VOLTAGE, TV Tube) where the electrons are captured within the acrylic. You then “trigger” it by hitting it with a sharp object; the shock wave causes the dielectric to fail, and the trapped electrons rush toward the trigger point (and ground) – in about 100 nanoseconds. You hear a sharp SNAP, and see a bright flash, and the electron discharge trails are burned (and sometimes fractured) into the dielectric material.
You can place a mask of lead or other dense material over the acrylic to prevent electrons from collecting under those areas; some of the most spectacular figures were made using 2 masks, one for each side, and the acrylic has to be passed under the beam twice – when triggered, the discharge pattern jumps between the 2 layers, and form a 3D pattern within the acrylic.
Todd Johnson triggering a Lichtenberg at Fermilab:
Bert Hickman triggering several large Lichtenbergs: