STRANGE BUT TRUE- Beneficial bolts: Lightning can do some good

DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

 

 Q. Lightning strikes kill thousands of people every year. Does lightning ever do anyone any good? –B. Franklin

 A. On the planetary scale, lightning may have helped in the early formation of amino acids, precursor to life on Earth, says Colby College's James R. Fleming, historian of science and technology. Long ago, lightning perhaps brought fire to humankind. Today, lightning fixes nitrogen in the air, creating natural fertilizer, and ignites eco-sound, forest-thinning fires. Also, lightning's electromagnetic fields aid scientists in study of the atmosphere.

And every once in a while, says FMA Research Inc., a consortium of atmospheric scientists, lightning does a few bolt-from-the-blue individual good deeds. In 1856, reported by Scientific American magazine, a strike in Kensington, New Hampshire, made a hole a foot wide and 30 feet deep– a "well" that soon filled with good water. A Greenwood, South Carolina, electrician was hit and never again felt cold, even when working outside in sub-zero temperatures. There are stories of blind people regaining their sight, and even published claims of victims with improved intelligence.

But these are rare exceptions, with lightning deserving from all of us the utmost respect.

Q. Baseball has plenty of switch-hitters, batting usually left-handed for advantage against right-handed pitchers, and vice versa. But why have there been so few switch-pitchers, such as Greg Harris some years ago with the Montreal Expos? –S. Kofax

 A. Handedness is strongest for ballistic movements such as kicking, clubbing, hammering, and especially accurate throwing, making ambidextrous pitching tough, says University of Washington neurobiologist William H. Calvin, author of A Brain for All Seasons. For batting, both sides of the body are pretty equally involved, and switching around is more a matter of practice.

But in pitching, one arm executes a very complicated plan constructed during "get set" and must release the ball within a very tight "launch window" to hit the desired place in the strike zone. The batter can keep correcting his swing as the ball approaches, but the pitcher is launching an unguided missile. The brain usually does that job best with a preferred hand.

Footnote on Greg Harris: It proved so upsetting to batters to have one pitch coming at them from the right, next from the left, that Baseball soon ruled a pitcher couldn't switch pitching hands during the same at-bat.

Q. The Ordovician extinction (440 million years ago), the Devonian extinction (370 mya), the Permian extinction (250 mya), the Triassic extinction (220 mya), and the Cretaceous extinction (65 mya, ending the age of the dinosaurs): Each wiped out close to half of Earth species then alive, due possibly to meteor impact, global glaciation, super-volcanoes, etc. Another is the more recent Holocene extinction. What calamity caused this one? –F. Flintstone

 A. "Caused" isn't the right word, because this Sixth Great Extinction is ongoing, says physicist Stephen Webb in If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens... Where Is Everybody? It's happening right now! This epoch encompasses the last 10,000 years, up to the present day. Unlike previous extinctions, "in this case the cause is clear: human activity. We hunt species to extinction, introduce alien species into new ecosystems and cause havoc, and most importantly, we destroy habitats."

By some estimates, species are disappearing at 120,000 times the "normal" rate. Many in destroyed rain forests were never even documented as species in the first place. If these activities continue, says Webb, global atmosphere and climatic effects seem certain to occur. Will Homo sapiens then join the list of disappearers?

 

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at

strangetrue@compuserve.com.

#