The Myth of Lightning

Lightning has frightened and mystified people since the days of our ancestors. The Romans believed that Jove, the king of the gods, used lightning to punish wrongdoers and change the outcome of wars. His favorite bird was the eagle, and the eagle was said to carry his thunderbolts of wrath. A similar notion was common in other cultures. Native American cultures spoke of a '"thunderbird" responsible for thunder and lightning. It was said that, as the thunderbird winked its eyes, flashes of lightning would burst from them. When lightning peeled bark off of a tree, it was taken as a sign of the bird's razor sharp claws. In south Africa, people believed that the "Umpundulo" -- also a thunderbird -- also peeled bark from trees. The bird's bright feathers were said to produce lightning -- while the flapping of its enormous wings created the thunder. Today we understand lightning but there are still many myths and folklore which has carried over from yesteryears.

It's a relatively modern myth that lightning never strikes the same spot twice -- it's also not true. Lightning can strike the same place again and again -- especially if that place features something like a high radio antenna perched on top of a mountain. In spite of time lapse video showing places like the Empire State building getting struck repeatedly, the myth still carries on!

Another idea about lightning I sometimes hear is that it makes grass and other plants greener because it is good for them. Lightning does help produce a form of nitrogen that is useful for growing plants. What happens is that lightning causes oxygen and nitrogen to combine and form nitrogen oxide, a key ingredient in many fertilizers. However, it doesn't produce enough to make a difference. Any nitrogen oxide formed would be blown thousands of kilometers away, and would take days to actually wash down to the ground. Whatever help the nitrogen oxides is, happens much farther away, and after a storm. If your grass is greener after a thunderstorm, we're told it may be due to the extra rain and quick return of sunshine.

One of the most interesting myths about lightning is the topic of ball lightning. Thousands of people have seen these luminous spheres, but their reports are variable and often incomplete and for a very long time, no one took such reports seriously. Scientists have been reluctant to study something so controversial. But in recent years, scientists have become convinced that ball lightning is real.

Researchers have proposed many theories to explain ball lightning, but none of them explain all the reports. One theory says that ball lightning is a plasma -- a very hot, electrically charged gas -- trapped inside a closed magnetic field Ball lightning can hurt people. There have been reports of ultra-violet and radiation burns -- and even some deaths when the balls exploded near people. But it doesn't happen very often.

Lightning is very beautiful, and also very dangerous. It speeds to the ground at 100 kilometers per second. The air around a lightning bolt gets hotter than the surface of the sun. People are killed and injured every year from lightning. What precautions can be taken during a thunderstorm? Stay indoors, away from windows, and avoid contact with telephones, metal pipes and electrical wires. If you must be outside, get in your car with the windows rolled up! Don't stand under a single tree. If you have no other cover, lay on the ground, or crouch with your arms around your knees to minimize your contact with the ground.


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