CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The mysterious twinkles called the Brown Mountain Lights, for centuries the subject of folklore, scientific intrigue and starry-eyed fascination, are headed for the great crossroads of fact and fiction: the Web.

And Appalachian State University astronomer Dan Caton, whose real work is studying binary stars, hopes to shed his distinction as the world’s foremost expert on something he’s never actually seen.

Caton plans to install a Webcam, a video camera that sends images to a Web site, in hopes of capturing the dots of light that dance across the dark hills on the Burke-Caldwell county line.

He reckons that 95 percent of the claimed Brown Mountain sightings are bogus. The few that interest him can’t readily be explained by headlights, campfires or stray light from stars.

He suspects a phenomenon called ball lightning, a moving, glowing gas that’s so poorly understood it can’t be produced in a laboratory. Earth lights, as they’re sometimes called, have been reported around the globe.

To investigate, Caton is turning to the technology that’s used for Web sites dedicated to viewing everything from celebrities to panda cubs.

He hopes to mount a solar-powered webcam on a tower at Wiseman’s View, which overlooks North Carolina’s yawning Linville Gorge wilderness. Brown Mountain is east of the gorge, about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte.

A transmitter would beam signals that would be relayed to a Web site that Caton bets would get plenty of hits from the public. Viewers would alert ASU to likely sightings.

At the least, Caton hopes, the setup would offer clues on when the lights most often appear. At best, he could use his astronomical equipment to learn what makes the light.

“Here’s something that physics hasn’t been able to explain,” he said, “and could possibly have some (practical) application.”

Because Wiseman’s View is within Pisgah National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service has to agree to the Webcam installation. The service wants to make sure the tree-height tower wouldn’t mar the view, said district ranger Joy Malone, but will probably OK Caton’s setup this month.

Written accounts of the lights date to 1771, but they’re said to have been part of Cherokee lore for centuries earlier. Some legends say the lights come from the spirits of Native American warriors slaughtered in battle. Others say they’re torches carried by the ghosts of grieving maidens.

A 1913 Observer account described fiery red lights, first seen by members of the Morganton Fishing Club, that are “still baffling all investigators.”

In 1922, a U.S. Geological Survey study dismissed theories ranging from marsh gas to moonshine stills. It concluded that headlights, stationary lights and brush fires caused the sightings.

Current theories range from UFOs to a form of gas known as plasma that responds to electromagnetic fields.


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