A Bolt From Her Quiver

It is said that early experiments in electromagnetism were inspired by hikes in the Austrian countryside, where rough terrain made the magnetic compass indispensable, and where sudden thundershowers are common. Soon it was noticed that when lightning flashed nearby, the compass needle would jump, which led naturally the experiments that changed our world forever.

I once had a similar experience. I was walking across the open campus of my university when the persistent mist that had besieged our weekend suddenly resolved into rain. The campus was large and sudden storms not uncommon, and though I had brought along my faithful umbrella, I could not take much pride in the provision as the electrical ferocity of the storm blossomed overhead. Within a minute, the afternoon glow still warming the dripping foliage around me was transformed by stroboscopic lashes from above. I hurried, but before I could reach the stairs leading down to the street and the safety of the nearest building, I felt a jolt through my hand and was shaken, bodily, by a massive concussion of palpable thunder.

“This is it,” I thought as the giant plate glass windows rattled in the nearby natatorium, “I have stepped into a charge leader and am about to be struck by lightning.”

As a dedicated geek, you see, I was well aware of research, recent at that time, of the stroke-counterstroke nature of the lightning strike–which begins with an invisible trace of airborne current snaking between the cloud and ground. I reckoned the metal rod of the umbrella had contacted such a current, conducting a high-voltage pulse through the plastic handle and into my hand.

“But,” I thought next, “I should already be dead.”

I knew, after all, that any conscious realization forms in the brain much more slowly than a lightning bolt. My heart raced ahead of my feet as I hurried under cover, but I soon realized my mistake. The bolt had never come near the ground. It, like all of the impressive discharges around me that afternoon, had been from one cloud to the next. What I had felt was but a tiny side current, an eddy, induced into the metal rod of the umbrella by the enormous MAGNETIC FIELD moving perpendicular to the bolt.

As far as I know, not a single bolt struck the ground that day, so it would be fatuous to say I was lucky to survive. I was lucky though, just a bit, to catch nature flexing her muscle.