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Flying circus of physics

Downing of football players in lightning

Sunday, November 01, 2015


Video series

The fifth episode of my Flying Circus of Physics video series with Cleveland State has now been posted.

Downing of football players in lightning
Jearl Walker
November 2015 One of the most common ways that lightning can hurt or kill a person (or an animal) is by the currents that the lightning strike sends out through the ground from the strike point. If a person is standing with one foot closer to the strike point that the other foot, the lightning sets up an electric field along the ground between the feet, and that field can drive a current up one leg, across the torso, and down the other leg. The current can stop the breathing, stop the heart, and cause internal burns. When I first saw this video, I thought for sure that these rolling football players were knocked down and hurt by ground currents from a lightning strike off camera toward the left. (In the slow-motion replay, you can see a flash of light from that direction.)

However, when I was showing the video in class a few years ago, I noted that the players were running during the flash. So, they did not have both feet on the ground. Also, and perhaps more important, many of the hurt players were clutching their heads.

I now think that they suffered upward streamers. As explained in both The Flying Circus of Physics and my textbook, an upward streamer can occur when the electric field near the ground is strong enough to ionize air molecules. Once the electrons are pulled out of the molecules, they can flow down an ionized channel to the ground. In the video, the electron flow was down into the head of a victim and then through the body down to the ground.

To see a photograph of a prominent upward streamer (near a lightning strike to a tree), go to the first archived story at this site:

Dots · through ··· indicate level of difficulty
Journal reference style: author, journal, volume, pages (date)
· Krider, E. P., and C. G. Ladd, “Upward streamers in lightning discharges to mountainous terrain,” Weather, 30, 77-81 (1975)
· Krider, E. P., and R. H. Wetmore, “Upward streamers produced by a lightning strike to radio transmission towers,” Journal of Geophysical Research, 92, No. D8, 9859-9862 (20 August 1987)
· Smith, T., “On lightning: hair standing on end may be warning of an impending strike,” British Medical Journal, 303, No. 6817, 1563 (21-28 December 1991)
· Anderson, R. B., “Does a fifth mechanism exist to explain lightning injuries?” IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology, 20, No. 1, 105-113 (January/February 2001).

· Cooper, M. A., “A fifth mechanism of lightning injury,” Academic Emergency Medicine, 9, No. 2, 172-174 (February 2002)
··· Morrow, R., and T. R. Blackburn, “The stepped nature of lightning, and the upward connecting streamer,” Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, 35, L69-L73 (2002)


Are you looking for the stories from the last several months? They are in the archives:

Pointy ice drops, 4.20
Japanese samurai horo: silk cloth versus arrows, 1.130
Juggling hammers, hitting a nail on the head, 1.25
Pub trick --- optically reversing arrows, 6.168

Sloshing, 2.199
Coffee heated in hot sand, 4.115
Pinhole sites and selfies, 7.33
Pub trick -- balancing pins on glass rim, 1.239

Loop-the-loop with cars, bikes, skateboards, and simply running, 1.270
Pub  trick --- spoon into mug, 1.271
Transparent when wet, 6.86
Hula-hoop, 1.84

Lethal upward streamers in an electric storm, 5.1
Floaters in your eye, 7.5
Pub trick --- musical wineglass, 3.43
Standing and walking in a strong wind, 1.227

Pub trick --- beer bottle tapping prank, 2.76
Bull riding, 1.92
Mianus Bridge collapse, 1.71
Sliding stick across outstretched fingers, 1.172

Café wall illusion, 7.58
Tire explosions, 4.114
Pub trick --- using thermal stress to open a wine bottle, 4.113
Giant Leg towers, 1.272

Pouring tea in an airplane during a barrel roll  2.197
Pub trick --- water from nowhere  6.166
Survival strategies of emperor penguin huddles   1.197
Racing over a rail crossing  7.59

V1 flying bombs tipped by Spitfire airplanes  1.273
Smallest electric train  5.61
Whispering bench in New York City's Central park  3.63
Pub trick --- separating salt and pepper  5.60

Tesla coils  5.62
Royle's self-pouring teapot  2.198
Self-righting of overturned turtles and the toy known as gomboc  1.274
Pub trick --- the self-righting bottle  1.106

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