There have been several thunderstorms the past week and thunder means lightning. I know lightning is caused by imbalances between storm clouds and the ground, or within the clouds themselves, but part of me is still the child who was fascinated and frightened by it.
My house was hit by lightning when I was 10 years old. It hit our chimney and blew the bricks apart and started a small fire in our attic. The fire department came and doused the fire which was more of glowing wood and insulation than flames but the event had a big impact on me.
I wanted to learn more about these electrical discharges. There are many types of lighting: ball and bead, forked and sheet, superbolts and rocket lightning, crown flashes and anvil crawlers, staccato lightning, ribbon lightning, and more. My parents claimed that when I was a baby ball lightning came through a window of our house, rolled across the room, and exited on the opposite side of the house. I still doubt that but it did send me to books to see if such a thing was even possible.
Humans throughout history have been fascinated and frightened by lightning. It figures in theology and mythology. Those interpretations happened long before science could answer some of the questions about thunder and lightning or even before the two were known to be parts of the same thing.
Even in the era of Sir Isaac Newton (late 1600s and early 1700s) the science of electricity only covered a static charge and it was known as “electric magic.”
I remember reading in some novel about St. Elmo’s Fire which is named after St. Erasmus of Formia (also known as St. Elmo), the patron saint of sailors. It’s not lightning but this weird phenomenon can warn of an imminent lightning strike. This luminous plasma is created by a corona discharge from a rod-like object such as a mast (though it can also be a spire, chimney, or even an animal horn) in an atmospheric electric field. It is interesting that this very strange event was regarded by sailors with awe and sometimes considered to be a good omen.
If you asked most people who is associated with thunder and lightning in religion or mythology, I suspect that Thor would be the top answer. But lightning also appears in the Abrahamic religions, Hindu, Shinto and traditional religions of African tribes.
Lei Gong is the god of thunder in Chinese folklore, and his wife, Dianmu, was the goddess of lightning.
In Native American stories, Thunderbird controlled the upper world and flapped his wings to create thunder to protect humans from the underworld. Lightning shot out of his eyes at the underworld’s monsters.
“If lightning is the anger of the gods,
then the gods are concerned mostly about trees.” ― Lao Tzu
As science came into being – and as I got older – we al learned that thunder wasn’t “God bowling” (as I heard in childhood) and lightning was not caused by Thor’s hammer. Colliding particles of liquid – rain, ice or snow – inside storm clouds increase the imbalance between storm clouds and the ground, and often negatively charge the lower reaches of those clouds. Ceratin objects on the ground – especially trees, building steeples (and chimneys!), but also the Earth itself, become positively charged. Nature wants to keep a balance and so a current (lightning) passes between the two charges.
“Computers can deliver nuclear explosions to precisely anywhere on earth.
A lightning bolt is made entirely of error.”
― Galway Kinnell
It seems so silly now that church bells forged before science informed us about lightning might have the inscription “Fulgura Frango” (I break up lightning flashes) because it was believed that ringing church bells could ward off lightning strikes. One theory was that ringing bells would change the air’s flow, breaking the lightning’s path toward church towers.
Every child learns at some point about the wise Benjamin Franklin and his foolishly dangerous kite and key experiments from the mid-1700s led him to conclude that lightning was electricity. He soon invented the lightning rod, which actually did save some lives and buildings.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
– Mark Twain