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By (September 1, 2008) One Comment

Out of the Blue:
A History of Lightning, Science, Superstition, and Amazing Stories of Survival

By John S. Friedman
Delacorte Press, 2008

It’s one of the cherished chestnuts of sci-fi: Earth as a planetary paradise much sought-after by aliens from far more dismal worlds (the hardiness of this chestnut can be seen in the fact that it was the motivation for the aliens in 2000’s blockbuster hit movie Independence Day). And in terms of simple geophysicality, it couldn’t be more wrong.

Have you taken a look at what Earth is actually like? First, we’re a water world; if you’re terrestrial, there’s hardly anywhere for you to live. And all that water’s not peaceful at all: storm systems the size of small moons sweep across some part its surface – and not every decade or few decades, but every day. The planetary surface – at sea and on land – is racked with active seismic disturbances, not infrequently of sufficient force to violently reshape everything in a hundred mile radius. There are spewing volcanic vents under every ocean and on every continent. And even if you find some out-of-the-way corner of the planet where you’re not much bothered by these things, what do you find? An insect population that is literally numerically limitless and almost uniformly carnivorous. Several extremely ferocious variety of mega-fauna, most of which are also carnivorous. A vast unseen bestiary of opportunistic bacteria and viruses. And human beings, who are no bed of roses.

Any alien with a brain would take one look at all that and head straight for Mars.

The morning newspaper tends to confirm this view. Pages routinely fill with reports of terrifying natural disasters: villages (including those of the rare and reclusive Prius-worshippers) swept away by mudslides or gutted by wildfires; storm-driven tidal surges engulfing coastal communities; earthquakes and scorching heat waves afflicting thousands. And of all these outsized natural phenomena, surely there is one that stands apart, one more viscerally unsettling than all the rest: lightning.

Landslides and earthquakes strike whole regions; tornadoes sweep through entire neighborhoods; heat and famine can bankrupt large portions of countries. But only lightning can strike you, personally. It’s the most intimate of all natural catastrophes, and John Friedman, in his new book Out of the Blue, takes readers on a quick, breezy tour of its history, its cultural significance to humans, and a little of its physical complexity. Little children can draw a lightning bolt almost before they can read, but it turns out even modern science has yet to delve the full depths of its mysteries. William Gilbert, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s physicians, coined the term ‘electric’ in his book De Magnete in 1600, referring to the attractive properties of such materials as amber and glass when they’re rubbed, but he no more understood it than did the ancient Sumerians and Assyrians who made sacrifices to sky-gods out of fear. Lightning is the ultimate symbol not only of instability but quick instability; its devastation is over in the blink of an eye. It’s surely no coincidence that those lightning-wielding sky-gods are always the ones most noted for their volatile natures: Jupiter is the most dangerously unpredictable denizen of Mount Olympus; Shango, the Yoruban lightning-god, is also the god of crossroads. Uncertainty is synonymous with lightning, and although Friedman doesn’t dwell overlong on mythology, he doesn’t need to: there’s plenty of uncertainty to go around in 21st century meteorology.

The basic physics of the thing are fairly simple: electrons irresistibly flow from where they are to where they are not. Areas with a paucity of electrons are said to be positively charged, and those with an abundance are negatively charged (if you find the terminology confusing, Friedman points out, blame Benjamin Franklin: he invented it). The Earth itself is an infinite generator of electrons, and there is an endless interaction between those electrons and the ones coursing through the atmosphere. That interaction is lightning, and if watched from orbit, the dark silhouette of the planet flashes almost constantly with its light. The frequency is staggering:

Estimated 1.2 billion flashes of lightning occur around the planet every year – Rwanda has the most, the poles report the least – the US has 25 million lightning flashes a year, with Florida leading the pack – lightning causes about 10,000 fires in the US every year and causes about $5 billion in annual damages.

A typical bolt of lightning is 25,000 feet long and four times hotter than the surface of the sun – 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit for a fraction of a second. The technicalities of these bolts are mind-bogglingly complex (miniscule changes in the electron charge of innumerable pockets of air dictate the unique zigzag pattern of each strike) and visually counterintuitive, since it’s the connection-completing electron surge from the Earth that generates the heat and light of a lightning strike, not the surge to the ground, which is what we all think we see. Friedman details all this in the easy, clear-headed style that typifies the whole book:

As the storm cloud moves, the area of positively charged electrons on the ground moves with it, like a shadow. When sufficient negative and positive charges gather, the electrons probe for an easy path to the ground. Twisting and turning through minor variations in the content and conductivity of the air, the electrons finally reach the earth in the form of an electrical discharge – a lightning bolt.

Fork lightning

Necessarily in a popular study like Out of the Blue, the scope broadens from the science to the culture of lightning, and here Friedman’s successes are less unequivocal and occasionally more frustrating. Enthusiasts of all stripes will find the urge to nitpick (it was Luke Cage, Power Man, for instance, who was the first black superhero to have his own comic book title, not the electricity-hurling Black Lightning), and completists will wonder at the absence of many notable lightning-related events (amazingly, there’s no mention of Pompey Strabo, the father of Pompey the Great, who was killed outright by a stroke of lightning in front of ten thousand legionaries, each and every one of whom thought it electrons well spent, Pompey Strabo being something of a tyrant). Such uneven patches are par for the course in books such as this one and can be taken in stride; far more disturbing is the space Friedman gives to the tiny weird subculture of ‘stormchasers’ who use technology to track the path of thunderstorms and then pile in their vans and head straight for the heart of those storms. These ‘chasers’ are a determinedly demented lot, and Friedman has spent so long absorbing their various war stories (and self-aggrandizing mythologies) that he sometimes comes across as wholly approving of an activity he ought to deplore. Despite how many pages are devoted to them, stormchasers never come off well in Friedman’s book – readers end up disliking their geek-macho self-delusion, although at times Friedman himself seems taken in:

Part of the satisfaction of chasing is understanding the dynamics of the storm. You’re at the right point in time and space out in the middle of the prairie and there’s nobody else around. You made the good forecast and everybody else is two states away. The sky gets dark, the prairie grass blows, and you’re in fat city, as the chaser say. There’s maybe two thousand miles of atmosphere driving this system.

Which might start to sound iconoclastic and free-wheeling if sentiments just like those weren’t spoken by ‘chasers’ in Friedman’s book who took innocent civilians with them on their trek to fat city, like the chaser in Out of the Blue who brings his teenage daughter into the heart of a massive storm in which both of them look likely to die. About the time where the daughter is screaming “Daddy, I don’t want to die!” the reader will lose whatever sympathy he might have had for these lunatics, and it’s questionable how much space they deserve in a book about a natural phenomenon that does, after all, kill lots of people every year. “One statistician” Friedman writes, “estimates that 24,000 people are killed by lightning every year, with ten times that number injured, although deaths have decreased in all countries with the technology to predict storms.”

Sheet lightning

Another fascinating and frustrating part of Friedman’s book centers on that incredible add-on: ten times that number injured. There are many interviews with lightning-strike survivors in Out of the Blue, including those somewhat sad individuals familiar to talk-show audiences and viewers of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” the multiple-strike survivors, so-called “human lightning rods.” The physiological reasons why some people seem to get hit by lightning more than others are still as murky as are some of the finer points of lightning itself – not all these people have ‘duh-factor’ jobs like forest rangers or high steel construction workers; there’s almost certainly an element of their body chemistry that tips the scales for those electron-streams looking to travel, but medical science may be some time figuring out what it is (Friedman is unblinking in reporting the ridicule many lightning victims experience at the hands of the medical community).

If there were an iron-content to excessive credulity, we might have a likely suspect. Virtually all of the strike-survivors Friedman interviews share this trait in common. Amazingly, many of them experienced a confirmation or deepening of their religious faith as a result of being struck – over and over in Friedman’s interviews, people will say “God isn’t finished with them yet,” or “God must have a plan for me” (none of the people Friedman interviews seem to accomplish anything of note with their lives, except talking about their lightning experiences with literally everybody they meet), or, most bizarrely of all, “God was with me that day” (to which the impudent reader yearns to respond, “Yes, He was: He was trying His level best to kill you”). Many of these people espouse a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” philosophy, and Friedman is too considerate an interviewer to point out that these people themselves – with their burned torsos, their collapsed muscles, their dragging feet and curled hands – are living testaments to the fact that plenty of what doesn’t kill you makes you much, much weaker.

Then again, some element of this credulity might very well be a physiological side-effect of getting hit by that much electricity in a fraction of a second. Friedman talks to some of the leading lightning experts in the world (it’s a tight-knit community, he finds), and the composite picture that emerges from these talks is that of a phenomenon that continues to surprise. New twists to lightning storms have been observed and given whimsical names (sprites, blue jets, and even elves – standing for Emissions of Light and Very Low Frequency Perturbations from Electromagnetic Pulse Sources, just in case you were wondering if any of these lightning experts somehow managed not to be nerds), but the mechanics behind their origin and function are still unknown.

Even lightning’s ultimate role in the creation of life on Earth is unknown. When you run a strong electrical current through a soup of hydrogen, ammonia, and water vapor much like that which characterized the Earth’s surface for its first billion years of existence, amino acids sometimes form – and amino acids are the building-blocks of life. Lightning is one of the few natural phenomena observed to happen on other planets in the solar system, and it was certainly flashing on Earth all those billions of years ago; did one or several errant strikes start the whole chain of life? We may never know, but it’s fun to watch Friedman speculate.

What we do know are some basic safety precautions to protect yourself from all but the most determined lightning-strike. Don’t stand in doorways or near windows. If caught in the open, hunker down into a squat with your head lowered. Don’t take shelter under a tree (as we’ve seen, it’s an optical illusion that the danger is coming down from above; if there’s a circuit being completed, it’s happening under your feet). As Friedman’s research shows, even when issuing dire warnings, scientists tend to be nerdy, but at least on this point their intentions are good:

Each June, National Lightning Safety Awareness Week is sponsored by a number of concerned organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) , the National Weather Service, Little League, the PGA Golf Tour, and Struckbylightning.org, an advocacy group for lightning safety and education, which maintains a database of lightning strikes worldwide. It was founded by survivor Michael Utley. Among its catchy slogans are: Don’t be lame! End the game! Don’t be a fool! Get out of the pool!

A photo purportedly of ball lightning, taken in 1987 in Nagano, Japan

There is much more in Out of the Blue (the mysteries of “ball lightning,” for instance, or gruesome tales of fricasseed Boy Scouts), and all of it is presented with a brio and a faith in the reader’s intelligence that makes Friedman’s book the best one out there on the subject written for a non-specialist audience. There is so much of interest here about the most terrifying of all nature’s many terrifying manifestations that once you’ve read Out of the Blue you may pause in your next thunderstorm and regale your friends with a little-known fact or two … before fleeing in abject terror along with everybody else, that is.
Terry Soderquist lives in Lewiston, Maine. This is his first published work.