Human Lightning Rods


<strong>Human Lightning Rods:</strong> Some folk claim to attract undue attention from electrical storms. Some even insist it's hereditary. But what does science have to say about individuals who incur the wrath of Thor upwards of six or seven times? In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Robert and Julie explore the world of human lightning strikes.

Robert Lamb: This episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind is brought to you by Audible.

Julie Douglas: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from HowStuffWorks.com.

Robert Lamb: Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name is Robert Lamb.

Julie Douglas: And I'm Julie Douglas.

Robert Lamb: And in our last episode that we recorded, we talked about watch stoppers, this idea that some people can magically stop watches just by wearing them, that they can walk under a street lamp and they'll set it off with their electromagnetic field. Well, in this episode, we're exploring a similar misnomer, this idea that some unique individuals are natural lightning rods.

Julie Douglas: Although I'm going to guess there are probably less people who think they are human lightning rods than watch stoppers.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, because it's one of those things like strike me once with lightning, shame on you, strike me seven times, well, maybe there's something weird going on with me.

Julie Douglas: It's true and we'll get into that. There's this idea that has been kicked around like could it be genetic, could lightning strikes be attracted to certain people? I'm guessing you guys know the answer to that but we'll discuss it in a bit more but let's talk about the anatomy of a bolt of lightning because this is really in and of itself a very cool thing.

Robert Lamb: Yes, lightning is very cool as anyone who has ever seen it can certainly attest and I would also wanna call back to our episode from Stuff to Blow Your Kids Mind where we talked about lightning but essentially you have this generated electrical charge and it needs to get to the earth.

Julie Douglas: It does. And think about what's going on weather wise. You have downdrafts and updrafts and they're all colliding.

Robert Lamb: Up?dogs, everything.

Julie Douglas: Up - now you're just putting yoga in it. They're colliding with unstable air and these particles collide. It might be particles of ice or rain and they cause electrical charges to separate so if you're thinking about this in terms of the cloud, if you've got the cloud in mind, think about those positive charges shooting high and then the negative charges hanging low within the cloud. And then the electrical imbalance kinda hangs in the air and intensifies within the cloud and then between the cloud and the ground. So most of the lightning that you see is cloud to cloud, it's just kinda playing with each other.

Robert Lamb: But then sometimes it makes that jump to the ground.

Julie Douglas: Again, because this upper portion of the storm cloud is positive and the lower portion is negative. Now the exact mechanics of this are sort of poorly understood but we do know that much and we know that as that charge increases, the field becomes more and more intense, so intense - this is really interesting, that the electrons at the earth's surface are repelled deeper into the earth by the strong negative charge at the lower portion of the cloud.

So that's when you get this cloud to ground lightning because you've got the repulsion of electrons causing the earth's surface to acquire a strong positive charge. This is quite a dance going on here in the atmosphere and this is when you see the cloud to the ground electricity happen and that strong electrical charge really serving as a conductive path and then the air serving as an insulator.

Robert Lamb: Right. Now, when lightning is traveling to the earth, it tends to be very sensible about things, it tends to be very economic and we can see that reflected in our basic understanding of what not to do during a lightning storm like what do they tell you not to do? Don't stand under a tall tree. Why, because a tall tree is more likely to be hit by lightning. Don't play golf during a lightning storm. In other words, don't stand up in a wide open area while raising a piece of metal over your head because you're susceptible to a lightning strike.

Julie Douglas: Right, why, because this flash of light, it heats the air around it to nearly 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, almost 28,000 Celsius and that is hotter than the surface of the sun and the scorching heat really forces the air to expand in an explosion of thunder. That is why you don't wanna wave around a golf club. So, yeah, as you said, as the charge nears the ground, something like a tall tree will send positive charges surging up it and that's why it connects so well with something really tall like a tree or a house, a telephone pole and then of course people, right? This is where it all comes down to.

Robert Lamb: Right, cows also.

Julie Douglas: Cows, yeah.

Robert Lamb: Frequently struck by lightning. But with humans, yes, humans do get struck by lightning and in many cases, there's not a lot of opportunity to test the theory that this individual is more susceptible to lightning because one good bolt can and will kill you in many cases.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, although a lot of people do survive it and we'll talk about this some more.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, a lot of survivors, but one will do it in the right circumstance.

Julie Douglas: It'll do it. In case you're wondering what's going on in the United States in terms of statistics, lightning researchers estimate that 22 million lightning flashes strike the ground each year and of course the majority of that is in Florida, which Central Florida has been called lightning alley and they have on average 12 flashes of lightning per square kilometer a year. This is a lot. And July is the most common month to get struck between the hours of noon to 6:00 p.m.

Robert Lamb: So what's going on here? Is Florida just cursed by God? Well, that's one interpretation.

Julie Douglas: No, no, it's all about weather, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: They have tons of it. And they have tons of moisture and warmth and you've got the ocean there and lo and behold you have sort of the perfect storm as you would say.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and you have a lot of people out golfing, boating, etc. so you have a lot of lightning, a lot of people putting themselves in a position to be hit by lightning. Put those two together, it's natural what's gonna occur.

Julie Douglas: And now so obviously we've talked about the tall objects, we've talked about power lines, we have talked about power lines but power lines, metal, all these things you would wanna stay away from. Most people think that includes cars but that is in fact the opposite. I car can actually protect you and I wanted to mention this just because we're kinda going through and debunking a couple of things.

Yes, a car is metal but what it does is it acts as sort of a Faraday cage for you and when I talk about a Faraday cage, I'm talking about something that is conducting the electrons over the surface but keeping the inside neutral so that's what a car is basically doing. It has nothing to do with rubber tires or you wearing rubber soles -

Robert Lamb: Or Crocks, yeah.

Julie Douglas: Crocks, yes - it's just basically that you are protected because of these electrons moving along the surface of the car and not on you.

Robert Lamb: And it's also worth pointing out when we talk about human lightning rods. Of course a lightning rod in essence is a rod that is erected on say a building with the understanding that hey we have a tall building in the middle of nowhere, lightning is gonna strike it so I'm going to have this rod here in place so that the lightning will strike this rod and that's grounded in such a way that it doesn't impact the rest of the building.

Julie Douglas: Right, and that's really important. When I talk about the Faraday cage or the car, you're talking about the path of it going into the ground and away from it so the car, obviously the path of lightning and electricity is running along the water or down the tires and into the ground.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, a bolt of lightning is a sensible dude. It wants to get where it's going. If you offer an alternate route that's a little more sensible, it'll take that instead.

Julie Douglas: So what did we learn so far right here in terms of being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Try not to visit Florida in the month of July and then decide to picnic on a golf course under a Cypress tree while entertaining your picnic guests by twirling a baton let's say.

Robert Lamb: Yes, and no golfing on a boat in the middle of a storm either. That's always a no, no.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, and try to stay away from a phone booth too because we're talking about lightning hitting the ground and traveling to that telephone booth and up the wires and if you happen to be in there holding the telephone, that is not a good situation.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, definitely worth thinking about it. The more and more that we end up burying our power lines and whatnot, it's easy to maybe see that booth and think oh, well, that's a place of safety but not so.

Julie Douglas: Another thing for mighty Thor's sake, try not to be of the male persuasion.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, now this is pretty interesting as well and I believe this is making the rounds very recently. The idea here is that 80 percent of individuals hit by lightning are men so and that's a pretty high percentage. When essentially we're talking about half of the species, if we were all getting hit equally, it would be about 50, but no, it's 80 so what are we to make of that?

Julie Douglas: That lightning hates men.

Robert Lamb: That lightning hates men?

Julie Douglas: Um-hum.

Robert Lamb: Well, so you could say all right, well this is the act of a wrathful God and knows that the men are worse and therefore are deserving of more lightning. There are some other crazier theories. The one you ran across had to do with proteins?

Julie Douglas: No, mineral something.

Robert Lamb: Minerals, yes.

Julie Douglas: I did not go into this too much.

Robert Lamb: Too much iron in your diet.

Julie Douglas: But it was something like the accumulation of minerals would make men more conductive. I abandoned this article by the way but yeah, there are a lot of different ideas.

Robert Lamb: Or some people will say oh, well men tend to be taller so maybe they're more likely to be hit by lightning but -

Julie Douglas: Well, actually there's some information out there that says try to make yourself as small as possible if you are out in a thunderstorm and you are the tallest thing out there.

Robert Lamb: I thought that was more like you wanna be submissive to an angry God so you're just sort of -

Julie Douglas: That too.

Robert Lamb: Slump a little bit because if you're proud and you're doing like chest out, you're just asking for it.

Julie Douglas: The war's gonna take you on. But no, I mean if you have an umbrella above your head which is an entirely different can of worms there with an umbrella but really anything that makes yourself taller. There's this idea too that men participate more in outdoor sports like fishing and golfing and therefore they are increasing their exposure times to storms and then there's an idea that men are taking more risks in these sorts of situations.

Robert Lamb: They're out there hunting down the food while the woman is back cooking it in the kitchen. Is that what you're saying?

Julie Douglas: With a golf club?

Robert Lamb: With a golf club - well, with the golf -

Julie Douglas: Maybe if you're in the mafia, yeah. No, I don't know, I mean see that there's a logic here that men are gonna get struck more than women because it'll say that you work on power lines. Most likely with the data we have available, you're probably a man.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and then also you get the idea too again that men are more of a risk taker but also a little stupider in that they don't wanna be seen as a wimp so it's like ah, well, I guess there's a lightning storm moving in, maybe we should go home and stop playing golf. Do you wanna be that guy or do you wanna be the guy that says oh, well the heck with that, God's not gonna stop this golf game and then you keep going. So the idea too is that men are more likely to be that foolhardy regarding their risks of lightning strike.

Julie Douglas: Well, I think a good example of work-related injuries and just a good example of someone being struck repeatedly and actually thinking that Thor might be after him is a guy by the name of Roy Cleveland Sullivan and I think we've actually mentioned him before. He was a forest ranger at the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and he was struck seven times, once while in the lookout tower in 1942, once while driving, while walking across his front yard, this was in 1970 -

Robert Lamb: Like that one was just, you know, it's different if you're at the top of a tower but dude was just like getting his mail or something.

Julie Douglas: Exactly. Standing in a ranger station, on patrol in the park, checking a campground and then fishing so after the fourth one, he is to have said that you have gotten very paranoid and began to think that some force was after him and I cannot blame him.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, because again, we tend to apply meaning to patterns and the crazier the pattern then well, the crazier the meaning we end up coming up with for it and once you're on lightning hit five or six, I can certainly understand it. Also, there's a biological toll to be taken so I mean lightning strikes can cause a host of physical ailments and some of them are neurological in nature.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, actually, let's take a quick break and when we get back, we're gonna talk a little bit more about that.

Robert Lamb: Hey, so you love to stream things obviously. You're streaming this podcast and I bet you love to stream some movies and some videos as well. So I am sure you are familiar of a little company called Netflix and a little something called Netflix Streaming. Well, if you haven't tried it out, now is your chance because as a new member and a Stuff to Blow Your Mind listener, you can get a free 30?day trial membership. All you have to do is go to Netflix.com/blowthemind and sign up and be sure to use that URL so that they'll know that we sent you and that way you can support our show while also getting to stream oh, like two or three dozen different Frankenstein movies.

Lightning, Frankenstein, there you go. That's all you need. So again, go to Netflix.com/blowthemind, sign up, use that URL, tell them we sent you and start streaming some lightning into your life.

Julie Douglas: All right, we're back and we're gonna talk about a little something called Keraunopathy and this is the pathology of lightning and a handful of specialists actually study the effects of lightning on living things. Again, there's probably not a lot of subjects that these specialists can look at because thankfully lightning strikes are fairly rare.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, like I don't know that there's a Keraunopathy clinic in my neighborhood. No.

Julie Douglas: No, no. Well, if you live in a super fancy neighborhood -

Robert Lamb: Maybe so, maybe so.

Julie Douglas: That's when you'd get your own -

Robert Lamb: Or maybe in Florida it's more likely but I was looking at the map showing where lightning strikes are likely to occur and Georgia was in the black on the map.

Julie Douglas: Blogger and Science Journalist Kyle Hill says that people being bags of electrolytes are better transmitters of electrical current than most ground is and many are injured by ground current each year as lightning surges up one leg that is closer to the strike and then down the one that's further away.

Robert Lamb: Oh.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, and that's just something to keep in mind because again, we're talking about lightning striking people and the reason it does what it does and the sort of effects that we have afterward. Dr. Elisabeth Gourbière of the Electricité de France, Service des Etudes Médicales, please don't write in, I know it's an awful pronunciation, in Frances, says that 70 percent of lightning survivors experience residual effects, most commonly affecting the brain and the neuropsychiatric, vision and hearing sections and that these effects can actually develop slowly and become apparent only much later.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and plus you're throwing in stuff like just post-traumatic stress syndrome as well. I mean just the experience of being struck by lightning is pretty intense.

Julie Douglas: Well, it is forever changing and it's not something that we think about all the time because again, it's rare, but you tend to think of people being struck by lightning and having these incredible abilities afterward because we have a couple examples of this.

Robert Lamb: Oh, yes, we've talked about it before, the individual who suddenly had a profound interest in piano music.

Julie Douglas: Right. And someone who had never played the piano before became a composer and actually a wonderful pianist. He was actually in a phone booth when he was struck by lightning by the way.

Robert Lamb: Ah, yes.

Julie Douglas: But really the most common symptoms that happen physically, you will suffer some burns but not a lot. You can get burns through the sweat that's vaporized by the lightning. Mentally the person may suffer from short-term memory loss, have difficulty mentally storing new information and accessing old information. They get tired very easily because their mental processes are being taxed. They're not really used to sort of running at the same speed that they were before.

Their personality can change, become very irritable and they often suffer irreparable nerve damage and this is something that, again, we don't think of with lightning strikes but this is stuff that will affect them in various ways depending on how they were struck and they often have chronic headaches, some of which are really debilitating and super intense.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, we're looking at some photos of what we call Lichtenberg figures and you see these on for instance cattle sometime that have been struck by lightning and then in this one particular instance on a human being who had been struck. And it's this crazy kind of like tree-like pattern like if you didn't know any better, you'd look at it and you'd think it was some sort of body art -

Julie Douglas: Yeah, I was gonna say it looks intentional.

Robert Lamb: Like for instance a tattoo, tribal kind of a thing.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, because it's sort of like a tree branching out and there is a beauty to it but I think that one of the things about the Lichtenberg figures is it shows you, it is evidence of how life altering being struck by lightning would be or having that sort of current run through your body. That's the sort of imprint that it can make sometimes.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's like you are marked by it.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, yeah.

Robert Lamb: In a very deep and profound sense. And of course you have individuals who claim - and this is even less likely, but you have individuals who claim that they have a genetic susceptibility to lightning strikes that it runs in the family. For instance, there was recently an episode of On Being, an interview with Author Kevin Kling, and Kling argued that or not, they didn't really seriously argue, but he claimed that lightning strikes run in his family.

Again, all the factors that go into it, you can ask questions like well, does your family tend to live in Florida? Does your family tend to climb things a lot? Are you a very outdoorsy family? Are you fishermen? You know there are all these other factors that go into it that really has nothing to do with a cursed family lineage or something in your genes that makes you especially susceptible to a lightning strike.

Julie Douglas: But you know, I was thinking about the ancestral memories episode then we talked about sometimes that you take on your family's history and you repeat it and if this becomes part of your family's mythology then you begin to, especially if you have a uncle or aunt or someone in the family that is marked like this, with this Lichtenberg figure, you can easily see how someone might begin to think this is something that is a curse on their family and not necessarily looking at it like well, we work out in the outdoors quite a bit and we live in Florida or various other factors that would make the likelihood even greater for this family to be struck.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, there's a great character in Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, the character named Blevins, and I think this is reflected in the film version as well but he claims to have this history of lightning strikes and there's this great bit where he's explaining it. He says, "It runs in my family. My granddaddy was killed in a mine bucket in West Virginia, it run down in the hole 180' to get him, couldn't even wait for him to get up to the top. They had to wet down the bucket to cool it before they could get him out of it, him and two other men, it fried them like bacon.

My daddy's older brother was blowed out of a derrick in the bastion field in the year 1904, cable rig with a wood derrick, but the lightning got him anyways and him not 19 years old. Great uncle on my mother's side, mother's side I said, got killed on a horse and it never singed a hair on that horse and it killed him graveyard dead. They had to cut his belt off of him where it welded the buckle shut and I got a cousin ain't but four years older than me and was struck down in his own yard coming from the barn and it paralyzed him all down one side and melted the fillings in his teeth and soldered his jaw shut."

Julie Douglas: That's persuasive, right?

Robert Lamb: That's persuasive, yeah.

Julie Douglas: All right, so you think that's persuasive but then all you have to do as we ever have to do when we try to get outside of ourselves is to look to space of course because there's something about space and lightning going on that makes Florida look like weak sauce okay. Scientists have actually observed lightning on Mars and Saturn before, right?

Robert Lamb: Yes, um-hum.

Julie Douglas: We know this. But what is nuts is that it can occur in the middle of space and it has done so to a force equaling a trillion lightning bolts. Okay, we're talking about an electrical surge, a trillion lightning bolts. This current was discovered near Galaxy 3C303 and it's thought to be the byproduct of a nearby massive black hole that is emitting huge amounts of magnetic energytude. It's the biggest burst of electric current ever detected in the universe.

Robert Lamb: That is just crazy because not only do you have a black hole in the scenario -

Julie Douglas: Right.

Robert Lamb: But you have the most enormous lightning bolt ever imagined occurring as well. I mean just amazing. I mean what can you even say about that?

Julie Douglas: That's drama.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, that is some drama.

Julie Douglas: All right, well, there you go.

Robert Lamb: All right, well, let's call the robot over and do some quick listener mail. All right, this one comes from a slightly older episode but listener Brinton Wright sentence says, "Good day Robert and Julie." Perhaps that means this is an Australian listener, but we shall find out. "Love your podcast. I'm slowly working my way through them and have just listened to the fire walking podcast.

Your mention of your sister putting her tongue on the car cigarette lighter made me smile as did a similar thing when I was a kid, just used my finger instead of my tongue and gave myself a nice burn on the tip of my finger that I successfully hid from my mom and dad, partially from embarrassment, mainly because I wasn't supposed to be playing in the car. But the real reason for my email is to mention a fire walking incident famous in my hometown of Adelaide, Australia. In 1992, our local AFL team, the Adelaide Crows, held a preseason training camp and they set up a fire walk, under supervision by a supposed expert."

Always bad when someone's a supposed expert in the retelling of the tale, he continues, "Only one player actually did the walk. Nigel Smart was his name and I'm sure you can find it on YouTube. After hours of psyching up as a team-bonding session, he did the walk and finished up with badly blistered feet, causing him to miss a trial game the following week. I know this is relating to an older podcast but I thought I would send a good day anyway. Cheers. Brinton."

Julie Douglas: Wow. Now I'm just imaging a football team queued up and ready like in uniform ready to go over these hot coals.

Robert Lamb: Well, but I think it also brings to mind the possibility of how you could really shake up the game. What if the entire field consisted of hot coals? And I'm not saying they have to play barefoot, though that would be cool as well, but then maybe it would just make the tackles more impressive. I don't know.

Julie Douglas: I don't know. Like I already think that it's a very intense, bone-shattering game. I'm not sure we need to put hot coals in it.

Robert Lamb: I think maybe we need hot coals and fire because inevitably things are gonna catch on fire. The ball is gonna be flaming. There's gonna be a smell of like roasting pig in the air. It's gonna be great. So hey, if you have something you would like to share with us about the idea of combining American football and hot coals together into one flaming sport, then we'd love to hear about that.

If you have thoughts on an older episode, great, if you have thoughts on this episode, have you ever been struck by lightning, and would you like to share that experience with us? We'd really love to hear your take on it. Do lightning strikes run in your family? Do you feel like you, yourself, are more susceptible to lightning strikes? All this is open for discussion so you can get in touch with us. You can find us on Facebook. You can find us on Tumblr. We are Stuff to Blow Your Mind on both of those and we also have a Twitter account and our handle there is blowthemind so give us a follow.

Julie Douglas: And you can always drop us a line at blowthemind@discovery.com.

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Duration: 24 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: lightning, psychology, weather