Striking facts

Q: Funny thing about lightning is a) it never strikes the same place twice; b) if it strikes a place once, it may strike there dozens of times. ­B. Franklin

 A: Both can be true, depending on the "place" and type of lightning, says University of Florida electrical and computer engineer Vladimir Rakov. The majority of lightning discharges begin in the clouds, with the leader channel extending down in search of a ground termination point.

If terrain is flat and uniform, any strike point is equally likely– or unlikely: "A small one-square-meter area in an open Florida field is struck, on average, once every 100 millennia! So if you saw a lightning strike to that small area, another one could be expected in 5,000 human generations or so, which, practically speaking, is never."

But, in reality, terrain is not homogeneous, and features like grounded metallic objects become "lightning rods." And taller objects are struck more often. For example, a 30-meter tower in Florida is struck, on average, once every three to four years, a 60-meter tower yearly. Over 100 meters, the object may send a leader channel skyward, inviting a hit.

Thus the Ostankino TV Tower in Moscow, at 540 meters, draws about 30 strikes a year. "If relocated to the Tampa Bay area, where lightning activity is three to four times more intense, the tower would experience 90-120 strikes a year," Rakov says.

Q: Spell out "one," "two," "three," "four," and "five," and you'll use all vowels at least once except "a" (the sometimes-vowel "y" comes in at "twenty"). How far do you have to count before using the letter "a" the first time? ­N. Webster

A: It's hard to believe until you start checking, but no "a" is needed up through all the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties... nor through one-hundred, one-hundred-one... two-hundred- one... three-hundred-one... nine-hundred-one... making it clear by now that not until the thousandth term will the usually ubiquitous "a" break its dry-spell.

Q: Newlyweds, is your marriage destined to last? Can you tell by the depth of your love? ­ L. Schlessinger

 A: Before answering, consider the statistics. Divorce rates worldwide vary from .01 percent of the population annually in Bolivia, the Philippines and Spain to 4.7 percent in the U.S., says David Myers in Social Psychology. Slightly more than half of marriages in the "individualistic" U.S. end in divorce, 40 percent in Canada– higher for marriages of the last few decades.

Now, score yourself and your spouse on the following checklist: 1. married after age 20; 2. both from stable two-parent homes; 3. dated a good while before marrying; 4. both well-educated; 5. stable income from a good job; 6. live in a small town or on a farm; 7. did not cohabit or become pregnant before marriage; 8. are religious; 9. are of similar age, faith, education.

Answer "yes" to all these, says Myers, and you're very likely to stay together. "But if none of these is true for someone, marital breakdown is an almost sure bet."

Some time ago, a love poem that had been slipped into a bottle washed up on a Guam beach: "If, by the time this letter reaches you, I am old and gray, I know our love will be fresh as it is today... If this note never reaches you, it will still be written in my heart that I will go to extreme means to prove my love for you. Your husband, Bob."

When the woman addressed was reached by phone and read the note, she burst out laughing and announced, "We're divorced."


(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at