Weird Wednesdays: Seven times unlucky

(Dmitry Kalinin/Flickr Creative Commons)

Friday the 13th is coming up, many of us superstitious types are bracing for a day of bad luck. We grab our four-leaf clovers, knock on wood and don our lucky sweater/necklace/hat/underpants. And we thank goodness that the next 13th to fall at the end of the week will be in July--well away from midterms season.

Count yourself as lucky (ha, ha) that your bout of bad luck is only for one day. There’s a guy out there who’s had a lifetime of misfortune--and who’s probably spent a fortune on hats.

Meet Roy Sullivan. He died in 1983, at the ripe old age of 71. During his life, he was a Shenandoah National Park ranger for over 30 years, a World War II veteran and a Virginia-born U.S. citizen. He also holds one of the world records for the most lightning strikes survived by a single person.

The first time seemed almost like a fluke. Sullivan was hiding in a fire watch tower during a storm when it struck, traveling out of his right leg and leaving a scorched hole in his boot.

The second time was serendipitously disastrous. This time around the lightning struck him through the open window of his truck. Sullivan was knocked unconscious and narrowly avoided driving his car off a cliff.

The third time was just insulting. While in his front yard, a bolt struck a nearby transformer, which connected to his left shoulder.

By the time he was 75, Sullivan had been struck by lightning no less than a total of seven times, including while he was fishing (which set his hair on fire), on patrol at the park and while putting out washing with his wife--which ended up striking her as well (bad luck rubs off, I guess). It got to the point where Roy reported being chased by clouds. The ranger took to carrying around a can of water in case his hair caught on fire and warning people to get away from him during storms.

The odds of being struck by lightning are one in 700,000. The odds of being struck by lightning twice are one in 960,000. The odds of being struck by lightning seven times are about 4.15 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, by some accounts. That’s about four in one nonillion/10E-31. You have more of a chance of getting eaten by a shark after your private plane you chartered with your lottery winnings crashes into the ocean because the pilot was struck by a meteor (Yes, I did the math).

Why would Roy Sullivan be so attractive? (In the lightning way. Not the other way, unless you’re into misfortunate park rangers). He wasn’t particularly tall. He had no piercings, prosthetics or crazy metal bolts sticking out of the side of his head. And as far as he could recall, he hadn’t flipped off Zeus, Thor, Indra or any other associated entities of lightning.

Lightning strikes in humans are rare in general because we’re short and small. Strikes caused by ice crystals in thunderclouds rubbing up against each other and causing static electricity to build up, which is discharged in a big ol’ bolt to the ground. The cloud will go for something attractive--a tall tree, a power line, a lightning rod or a nice squishy human standing up in a field-- that contains water or metal and is the tallest thing around. The conduit concentrates and directs the lightning into the ground, where it dissipates.

Why Sullivan kept getting struck is a mystery, though whatever the cause was, it didn’t do much for his fitness. Being struck by lightning repeatedly is highly detrimental to your health (duh). What does it do exactly, you may ask?

First of all, it’s sending about the same amount of energy it takes to power a fridge for a day (about 10 billion watts). That's about the equivalent of 55 million little static shocks you get when you touch a doorknob. Not fun!

All that energy wreaks havoc on your body. Your muscles spasm. Your ears can be injured by the terrific sound the bolt causes. Small capillaries under your skin burst. The heart can beat erratically--it’s like a massive electrocardioversion--or go into cardiac arrest. Lightning also reaches a temperature of about 50,000 degrees, which can cook pretty much any part of your body in a blink. All this heat can cause the air in your lungs to heat and expand, boiling the fluids within and even causing puncture or rupture.

This is all immediate, mind you. If you happen to survive (you have about a 90 percent chance, surprisingly enough) you can suffer from amnesia, confusion, arrhythmia, lung collapse and/or brain damage. Even if the effects seem temporary, recent studies have shown that the brain can have chemical and neurological alterations to it--causing everything from an urge to play the piano to depression.

In fact, lightning may have been what killed Sullivan in the end. While the ranger died in his bed, it was by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Whether it was due to depression, brain damage from the repeated lightning strikes or simply a desire to escape the wrath of the sky, we will never know.

In the meantime, next time a storm brews over campus, stay inside. Put on your lucky sweater and don’t go under trees, fire towers or near anyone named Roy. Stay safe, readers, and stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.