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Life and death in lightnings!

How likely would it be to get struck by lightning during a thunderstorm? Most people would say: unlikely. And they would be right: statistics show that, assuming a lifetime of eighty years, one in ten thousands people are struck by lightning.

(from Pixabay)

It goes without saying that being struck twice in a lifetime (assuming that one always survives the first strike – which is even less likely) bears a probability below one in a hundred millions (1 in 100,000,000)….
Imagine being struck seven times! Well, based on the above numbers, it’s one chance over ten octillions (one octillion is “1” followed by 27 zeros): next to impossible. But, according to the Washington Post – in an article on August 15th 2013 – the odds are even fewer and would be 4.15 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (“1” followed by 32 zeros): some 10,000 times even closer to impossible!

The seven times of Roy Sullivan

Apparently, this doesn’t apply to Roy Cleveland Sullivan, a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia who, between April 1942 and June 1977, was hit by lightning on seven different occasions and survived all of them! All seven strikes were documented both by the Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and by doctors who treated Sullivan. This earned him an immortal place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The first time was in April 1942. Sullivan was hiding from a thunderstorm in a fire lookout tower that had no lightning rod. The tower was hit seven or eight times and started burning. Therefore, he decided to move away and ran outside. That’s where he received his first and most severe lightning hit, which burned a half-inch strip all along his right leg and left a hole in his shoe.
The second episode was in July 1969. Sullivan was driving a truck. It is almost impossible to be hit by lightning while in a vehicle because the metal body protects people, by acting as a Faraday cage…. This is how the Lakeland Ledger, in its edition on May 2nd 1972, described the event:

(….) a bolt hit two trees on the west side of the road, then jumped to a gumtree on the east side. The bolt went through the cab on the truck, which had both windows open, and relieved Sullivan of his eyelashes, eyebrows and all his hair up to his hat brim.

The strike knocked Sullivan unconscious and the uncontrolled truck kept moving until it stopped near a cliff edge!
The third strike came in July 1970. Sullivan was standing on the edge of his front garden. The lightning hit a power transformer near the trailer and, from there, jumped to his left shoulder. According to the Lakeland Ledger, he was knocked several times but left only with slight burns.
The fourth strike was in May 1972. Sullivan was working inside a ranger station in Shenandoah National Park when another strike occurred. It set his hair on fire and he first tried to extinguish the flames with his jacket. He then rushed to the restroom but couldn’t fit under the water tap; so he used a wet towel instead. Sullivan declared to the Lakeland Ledger that he had never been a fearful man but now, when he would hear a thunder, he would feel a little shaky. Surely, after the fourth strike, he acquired a new fear: for months, whenever he was caught in a storm while driving his truck, he would pull over and lie down on the front seat until the storm passed. He also began to carry a can of water with him….
The fifth time was in August 1973. While on patrol in the park, he saw a storm cloud forming and tried to escape. But he reported later that he had the impression that the cloud was following him! Once he thought he had outrun it, he reckoned he would be safer outside the truck and came out of it. That’s when he was struck by the lightning! Sullivan even stated that he actually saw the bolt that hit him! The lightning burnt (again) his hair, moved down his left limbs and knocked off his shoe. Still conscious, Sullivan crawled to his truck and poured the can of water – which he always kept – over his head.
The sixth episode was in June 1976. Sullivan saw a cloud, thought that it was following him and tried to run away. A lightning got him anyway and injured his ankle, leaving him once more alive.
The seventh time was in June 1977. Sullivan was fishing in a pond. A lighting hit the top of his head, singed his hair, traveled down and burnt his chest and stomach. Then, according to John Friedman’s Out of the Blue: A History of Lightning: Science, Superstition, and Amazing Stories of Survival, a bear appeared and tried to steal trout from his fishing line. He managed to fight off the bear with a tree branch and claimed that it was the twenty-second time that he had hit a bear with a branch.

Actually, Sullivan recalled that the very first time he was hit by lightning was in his childhood: he was helping his father to cut wheat in a field, when a thunderbolt struck the blade of his scythe without injuring him. He couldn’t prove it, so he never claimed it….
Even Sullivan’s wife got in on the action while drying clothes outside. They were hanging metal laundry on a steel wire when they both got hit….

The deadly lightning

Sometimes, Mother Nature is not so kind. Here’s an episode that requires a lot of details to be confirmed, though it’s been reported by the BBC, the Independent and the Guardian, among others.

In the late 1998, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (once known as Zaire, a former Belgian colony), the newspaper L’Avenir reported of a whole football team being killed by a bolt of lightning during an official match in the eastern province of Kasai, while the other team (the home team “Basanga”) was left unhurt! Moreover, thirty other people received burns. Obviously, being in the heart of the tropical Africa, locals believed in charms and spells and the opinion was divided over whether someone had cursed the away team…. The match score was 1-1 when the lightning struck.
No probability calculation has been devised so far to estimate the likelihood of one lightning killing 11 people in one shot but I would bet that he odds are extremely low – let alone the careful choice of striking only the away team….

Any lesson learnt?

These two stories cannot be used to prove the dangerous effects of the lightnings on the human body; there is actually a whole science for that: the keraunomedicine.
These two stories teach more about our (mis)understanding and (mis)estimation of likelihood: unlikely doesn’t mean impossible – but just unlikely. And when it comes to lightnings, our perception of likelihood tends to be distorted.

But it’s not just about lightnings; let’s take a surprising example. Assuming that one year has always 365 days (let’s ignore leap years for simplicity), the probability of two people celebrating their birthday on the same date each year (say March 23rd) is 1/365 (about 2.74%). Obviously, if we put 366 people in a room, we will certainly (probability of 100%) find at least two of them who celebrate their birthday the same day.
But did you know that, if you put only 23 individuals in a room, this probability is already more than 50%?
Did you know that this probability goes over 90% if you gather just 41 persons?

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