Way back in 1752, Benjamin Franklin set out to discover the truth about lightning. The inventor, statesman and bon vivant fashioned a kite from a large silk handkerchief stretched across a pair of sticks and directed via a metal wire attached to a piece of twine with a key dangling from it. He then went on a kite-flying expedition in the middle of a thunderstorm [sources: History, The Electric Ben Franklin].
Or did he? While the story of how Franklin discovered electricity in the atmosphere has come under question in the two-and-a-half centuries since his little experiment is said to have happened, what we do know is that he helped to greatly improve our understanding of how both lightning and electricity work.
Describing the shock he received when his knuckles touched the key of the kite, Franklin determined that lightning is a natural electric discharge. While this discovery has been hailed as one of the world's great early scientific achievements, there remain some limits on our understanding of why lightning happens, where it strikes and what the right thing to do is when a thunderstorm hits (hint: do not go fly a kite).
The story of Franklin and the kite is just one myth about lightning. Many pieces of wisdom handed down from our parents are now considered out of date or were just plain wrong to begin with. Which are the 10 biggest lightning myths out there? We'll start with one that became a proverb.
This one sounds great, especially when used to describe events that aren't likely to happen again, like the Chicago Cubs making it back to the World Series. The problem is that it's just not true. Lightning strikes many places repeatedly.
The Empire State Building, for example, was once used as a lightning laboratory because of its knack for collecting a natural, atmospheric bolt of electricity. That long metal rod pointing up from the top isn't just for Godzilla to clean his ears with -- the 1,454-foot (444-meter) skyscraper's designed to take lightning hits. The building is struck by lightning anywhere from 25 to 100 times a year, depending on whom you talk to, and took three separate strikes in one night in the spring of 2011. That's because lightning tends to be attracted to the tallest point in a particular area, leaving the Empire State Building to duke it out with the nearby Chrysler Building and 432 Park when storm clouds roll in over midtown Manhattan [sources: NOAA, NYC.gov, Heussner].
Worse, tall buildings actually help generate lighting because, during a thunderstorm, objects on the ground have an electric charge that is opposite to the one charge in the cloud. While most lightning moves from the cloud down to the ground, occasionally, it can move up from tall buildings and antenna when electric charges in the clouds change rapidly.
Sounds like the beginning of a Fleetwood Mac song. Nothing puts a damper on a day in the great outdoors quite like a steady rain. Whether you're taking in a game the ballpark, having a swim in the lake or hiking in the woods, when the sky opens up and starts pouring, we know it's time to find the nearest shelter. What most people don't understand, though, is that they can be at risk of being struck by lightning even when it's still dry out.
Lightning often hits as far as 3 miles (5 kilometers) outside of a thunderstorm, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Experts have even come up with some nifty names to explain the unexpected phenomenon. Bolts from the Blue, for instance, are lightning flashes that typically come out of the back of a thunderstorm. This type of lightning strikes from generally clear skies, as far as 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the nearest rain cloud [sources: National Weather Service]. Anvil lightning, meanwhile, arcs away from the center of a storm, striking the ground as far as 50 miles (80 kilometers) away [sources: National Weather Service, Chicago Tribune].
The decision to walk around in public with those big, colorful Beats by Dre headphones – or some knock-off version – says a lot about a person: "I like to physically bump into people on the street because I can't hear anything that's going on around me," for instance, or "I could have been an air traffic controller had I just applied myself in high school." While wearing the headphones – particularly while nodding your head vigorously and singing or rapping along on the train or bus – will certainly earn you the scorn of others, it won't make you a stronger candidate for being struck by lightning.
That's because it's height that matters. As the Empire State Building shows, the closer to the sky you are, the more likely a bolt or three will come your way. So if you're less than 100 feet (30 meters) above the ground, you can crank up the hits and gyrate down the street to your heart's content [source: Robinson]. Just, you know, try not to gyrate into anyone else.
The headphone cable might even help you in a lightning strike as it could divert the current away from your heart [source: Robinson]. You'll still get some major burns though, so don't let this minor benefit keep you from seeking shelter during a thunderstorm.
No, the 30/30 rule isn't the one about waiting half an hour before swimming after you eat. It also doesn't refer to the idea that anything you drop on the floor is still safe to eat if you pick it up within 30 seconds. The "rule" is similar, however, in that it's one of those pieces of advice that sounds sort of right and is easier to just pass along as accurate rather than investigating whether that's actually the case.
The rule is that you should start counting after you see a lightning flash. If you hear thunder in less than 30 seconds, lightning is sufficiently close that you should swiftly proceed indoors. Then wait at least 30 minutes until the storm ends to go back outside [source: Aleccia].
These days, experts say forget the counting. Those bolts from the blue and anvil lightning are difficult to anticipate. Instead, just go inside – or at least find a covered structure to hunker down under – at the first sound of thunder. Waiting 30 minutes after the storm is finished is still a good idea [source: Aleccia].
As far as covered structures go, a car is a completely reasonable and relatively safe place to seek refuge during a storm. Most vehicles, save those you might find rotting on cinder blocks in your neighbor Randy's unkempt front lawn, also sit on a set of rubber tires. Make no mistake, though: The tires are not what make a car a good shelter. The same thing goes for that old wives' tale about the rubber on the soles of your sneakers protecting you from being electrocuted in a thunderstorm.
The truth is that the couple of inches of rubber on a car's tires – and even less on those Adidas – isn't going to stop you from being struck by lightning. What makes a car a decent place to hide is that it's covered on all sides. So be sure to close the doors, roll up the windows and latch up the sun roof in the event of a storm. It will keep your ride dry and could save you from being lit up like a human Christmas tree. This also means that motorbikes and convertibles are lousy places to be, even though they have rubber wheels [source: NOAA].
A home, building or other structure with four walls and a roof is better than a vehicle for riding out a storm because of the physical protection that it provides. That doesn't mean, however, that you're completely safe from lighting once your foot crosses the doorway. In fact, you should step as far away from the door – and any windows – as possible. These and other openings provide a space for lightning to invade the structure [source: NOAA].
It's also a very good idea to steer clear of anything inside the building that conducts electricity, such as landline phones, and electrical appliances. Because surge protectors don't protect against lightning strikes, try to unplug devices like televisions, computers and anything else attached to a cord. Even indoor plumbing and metal window and door frames are lightning conductors that can raise safety hazards during a storm. So if dark clouds and thunderclaps have forced you to cut that jog around the neighborhood short, you're just going to have to wait until it's over before you hit the shower [source: NOAA].
Some folks just look like they have lightning in them. When the late, great music icon James Brown leapt to the stage during his life as a performer, he danced like a man who'd been struck by lightning and was experiencing an electric charge from his head down to his shuffling feet. Same goes for businessman and reality TV impresario, Donald Trump, who's perhaps best known for the rodent skin taped to the top of his head. People would be forgiven for taking that hairpiece as the mark of a man who wasn't able to find shelter quickly enough during a lightning storm.
All of this is to say that looks can be deceiving. If you personally watch someone get struck by lightning, it may be only natural to assume that he or she is carrying an electric charge. In actuality, even a human body that's been zapped by a bolt from out of the sky doesn't store electricity. Although a lightning strike can cause cardiac arrest, burns and nerve damage, most victims are able to survive if they get the necessary medical attention. That may include CPR [source: NOAA].
"Greased Lightning" is the name of a song from the musical "Grease." It's also a colorful way to describe something that's really fast. "Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was like greased lightning when he won the gold medal in the 200-meter finals in London," would be one way to use the term properly. "Nic Cage's fall from Academy Award-winning star to some strange approximation of a mid-'90s Al Pacino after a five-day meth bender was like greased lightning" would be another.
It works because lighting usually flashes in an instant. If there were some way to grease it up, that would make lightning even faster. And people love to exaggerate in speech. Just to be clear, there's no such thing as greased lightning. The term was first used in the 19th century English newspaper with the very long name of The Boston, Lincoln, Louth & Spalding Herald. An 1833 article included the sentence,"He spoke as quick as 'greased lightning'" [source: Phrase Finder].
Being caught outside in a storm can be a little unnerving. It shouldn't be surprising if some people simply find themselves unable to decide what to do, so they curl up in the fetal position and start weeping. The good news is that this is actually pretty close to what the experts suggest.
Gone are the days when the prevailing wisdom was that lying flat on the ground was the safest way to weather a lightning storm outdoors. Nowadays, the best bet is to curl into what the pros call a "lightning crouch." Squat down with your feet together and tuck your head toward your knees with your hands covering your ears. When lightning strikes open ground, it can send an electric current as far as 100 feet (30 meters) across the surface. That could mean trouble if you're sprawled out with your chest in the dirt. The crouch positon allows you to stay low while touching the ground as little as possible [source: NOAA]. Note that this position is no substitute for hightailing it indoors during a storm, but if you're truly trapped outside, it's better than lying flat.
Back to old Ben Franklin's kite flying expedition: Maybe it didn't happen. Skeptics point to the lack of hard evidence backing up Franklin's version of the experiment. There were no witnesses, only vague accounts from Franklin himself. When NASA scientist Tom Tucker tried to recreate the experiment using the same materials to build the kite that would have been available in Franklin's day, he couldn't get the darned thing to fly. Even if he had been able to get it off the ground, Tucker argues that it would have never soared high enough to attract an electric bolt from the sky [source: Matthews].
That, of course, doesn't mean that the theory Franklin set out to prove is inaccurate. It could mean, however, that the story behind what we know about lightning and electricity today is as much as a myth as the idea that lightning never strikes the same place twice.
"Could' is the key word here. Franklin defenders maintain that the kite story is genuine, arguing that recreating the experiment turns on difficult-to-control variables like kite-flying dynamics and how damp the materials are [source: Schiffer].
Perhaps lightning doesn't strike the same kite twice.
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Author's Note: 10 Myths About Lightning
I lived in Tampa, Florida, for about 18 months back in 2007 or so. The inventively named Tampa Bay Area is considered the lightning capital of North America, thanks to the tens of thousands of sky-to-ground flashes the region sees every year. This, as far as I know, is the most interesting thing that Tampa has going for itself.
More Great Links
- Aleccia, Jonel. "Debunked: 5 Lightning Myths that Can Kill You." NBC News. June 20, 2014 (March 8, 2015) http://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/debunked-5-lightning-myths-could-kill-you-n135971
- Chicago Tribune. "Anvil Lightning: A cloud-to-ground lightning bolt that..." May 10, 2002 (March 8, 2015) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2002-05-10/news/0205100255_1_skies-ground-strike
- Dictionary.com. "greased lightning." 2007 (March 9, 2015) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/greased+lightning
- Heussner, Ki Mae. "Lightning Strikes Twice: Empire State Building Video Goes Viral." ABC News. April 14, 2011 (March 8, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/lightning-strikes-empire-state-building-times-row-video/story?id=13374451
- History. "This Day in History: Franklin flies kite during thunderstorm." (March 8, 2015) http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/franklin-flies-kite-during-thunderstorm
- Huffington Post. "6 Things You Never Knew About the Empire State Building." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nycom/empire-state-building_b_3923030.html
- Matthews, Robert. "Ben Franklin 'faked kite experiment.'" Telegraph. June 1, 2003 (March 9, 2015) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/3308983/Benjamin-Franklin-faked-kite-experiment.html
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "Top-10 Myths of Lightning Safety." (March 8, 2015) http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/hnx/LightningMyths-1.pdf
- National Weather Service (NWS). "Bolts from the Blue." (March 8, 2015) http://www.crh.noaa.gov/pub/ltg/crh_boltblue.php
- NYC.gov. "NYC Hazards: Thunderstorms and Lightning." (March 8, 2015) http://www.nyc.gov/html/oem/html/hazards/weather_thunder.shtml
- Phrase Finder. "Greased Lightning" (March 8, 2015) http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/greased-lightning.html
- Robinson, Dan. "MYTH: Ipods, Walkmans and headphones will attract lightning and/or make lightning strike injuries worse." Storm Highway. (March 8, 2015) http://stormhighway.com/ipodlightning.php
- Schiffer, Michael. "Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax (review)." Technology and Culture. October 2004 (March 9, 2015) https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/technology_and_culture/v045/45.4schiffer.pdf
- The Electric Ben Franklin. "Franklin and his Electric Kite." USHistory.org. (March 8, 2015) http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/info/kite.htm
- World Wide Words. "Lightning in a bottle." (March 9, 2015) http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-lig1.htm