There is something pointed about lightning that seems to show purposefulness. We have earthquakes, we have tornadoes, we have many other worrisome planetary characteristics, but lightning seems aimed, it seems to pick off individuals in ways that cry out for a reason such a thing ought to befall them. The pointedness of lightning is one of the themes running through _Out of the Blue - A History of Lightning: Science, Superstition, and Amazing Stories of Survival_ (Delacorte Press) by John S. Friedman. It has a more-or-less historic run of chapters dealing with how we have come to our current understanding of lightning as a natural rather than supernatural phenomenon, intercalated with the story of a dramatic rescue of climbers struck by lighting on a peak of the Teton Range and with many personal stories about what lightning has done to survivors. Don't call them victims. The Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Victims was founded in 1989, but changed those "Victims" to "Survivors", and the organization thrives with 1,500 members each of whom have insights no non-member will ever have. Friedman, a writer who made the Oscar-winning documentary _Hotel Terminus_ twenty years ago, has interviewed many of the survivors whose stories make up the most arresting part of the book.
Lightning not only seems aimed, it is fast, conducting its devastation literally before those it hits knew what hit them. The gods who use lightning in the stories are the ones quick to wrath. When Benjamin Franklin had invented the lightning rod, priests argued against it, saying that they were impious tools to thwart God's will. Though the folklore described here is amusing, the science of lightning is just as well described, although there are still large holes in our understanding. Forked lightning is the most familiar; it happens on Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn, too. On Earth, over a billion such flashes happen every year. An average flash is 25,000 feet long and one to six inches in diameter. It heats up the lightning channel to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, far hotter than the surface of the sun. Plenty live to tell about being hit by such bolts; such strikes are only fatal around 10% of the time. We think of lightning coming down and hitting one target, but it can jump around. In Colorado in 2004, lightning hit the clubs of a golfer who was with a group, but then it jumped from one person to another, resulting in injuries to the group of nineteen, no deaths. Tenacious golfers are at risk for lightning injury, leading to the safety slogan "Don't be lame! End the game!" Boy Scouts also seem to be at risk, and the organization has lost some huge lawsuits because it does not have a good safety record. The most peculiar stories here are of the people who get struck repeatedly; lightning not only does strike in the same place, it seems to prefer particular people. These "human lightning rods" are not always forest rangers or otherwise in locales at risk for lightning strikes, they just get hit more often. There may be a medical reason, something different in their body chemistry, but no one has a clue what it might be. As far as anyone knows, if you survive a lightning strike you are safe from future ones; no one who gets hit repeatedly has ever died from subsequent strikes.
Being struck by lightning has definite, but variable, physiological results. The common ideas that someone who is struck will burst into flames or will be instantaneously reduced to ashes are wrong. There can be burns because of the extreme heat, but there are often few external signs of a strike. Even more serious and puzzling are neurological symptoms like memory or attention problems. There are few doctors who ever get to see a lightning strike survivor, and so there are very few specialists. With the pointedness of lightning, it is not surprising that those who are struck and live take lessons from the experience. Over and over in interviews, they tell Friedman things like "God must have a plan for me", and many have had their personal faith increased. No one mentions why such a plan had to include a lightning strike, and it seems that the greatest inspiration that such victims have gotten is to work devotedly for The Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors. The circularity doesn't seem to register; if lightning strikes were a force for human good, we would not need such organizations, nor would we need National Lightning Safety Awareness Week each June, which is sponsored jointly by organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) , the Little League, and the PGA Golf Tour. Friedman's book is an appealing combination of meteorological and medical science, combined with the personal stories of those whom lightning has hit, and the gruesome stories of those who did not live to tell the stories themselves.