Myths and Truths About Lightning

That stunning flash and loud bang. Temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. For thousands of years, lightning has sparked our imagination.

The ancient Greeks dreamed of lightning bolts hurled by the mighty Zeus. Lightning gave life to Dr. Frankenstein's creation. And lightning fueled Marty McFly's time-traveling car in the movie "Back to the Future."

But myths about lightning aren't confined to science fiction or ancient mythology. As the modern day saying goes, "lightning never strikes twice."

"It can. It does," said Paul Williams. "And it happened to me."

When Lightning Strikes Twice

Williams was 12 when he was first struck by lightning. He was camping with his Boy Scout troop when a thunderstorm blew through their campsite. He was in a tent with another camper when, "before we knew it we were kind of thrown onto the ground." Williams was lucky; the strike wasn't fatal.

"It didn't burn us," he said, "but it gave us kind of rubber legs. You couldn't stand up. It just kind of collapsed your legs."

He and his friends recovered quickly, but years later, lightning, it seemed, came looking for him again. He'd been sailing on the Potomac and had docked in calm weather at a friend's house.

"All of a sudden a wind picked up. We were on the porch. And we saw the boat starting to rock. So we knew we had to come down and tie it down," Williams said. "We did not see any lightning or thunder, or we wouldn't have run out there. And it was literally the first bolt that came out of the sky happened to land right between us."

For the second time in his life, Williams was struck by lightning. He blacked out and fell on his back.

"I woke up and all I could see was a gray sky," Williams said, "and it had knocked out my hearing. So everything was completely silent. And I didn't have any feeling in my body. I didn't know what to think. I really didn't know if I was alive or dead."

Williams' friends carried him, dazed, inside the house.

"I couldn't talk," he said. "For several seconds, all the way from the dock into the house, I just kind of was like a rag doll."

His hearing came back but he had blistering burns from his legs to his shoulders. He continues to suffer problems with his short-term memory.

"I have to keep my wallet and my keys in the exact same place or I'll have no idea where they are," he said.

He still keeps the tattered swimming trunks he was wearing when he was struck. He said they are "literally in shreds … as though a bear claw had taken its swipe right across the front."

It's merely bad luck that lightning struck Williams twice, but it's no coincidence that tall structures get struck all the time. That's because taller objects provide the shortest path from the cloud to the ground. So lightning does strike the same place twice. In fact, the Empire State Building is struck by lightning an average of 23 times a year.

And there's more bad news for men like Williams: Lightning strikes men four times more often than women. This isn't because men actually attract the lightning, but rather because men tend to spend more time outdoors than women do.

Lightning: Fact and Fiction

Nationwide, lightning kills about 100 people every year, but it kills more people in Florida than any other state because of the state's frequent thunderstorms. That makes it the perfect place for scientists like Martin Uman to study lightning.

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