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Monday 23 January 2012

On the Diverse Benefits of being Struck by Lightning

A couple of days ago I came across two unusual tales from the past, which demonstrate that being hit by lightning isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first is recounted in Mark Pilkington’s excellent little book Far Out: 101 Strange Tales From Science's Outer Edge. It concerns an event that is reputed to have occurred during a service at Wells Cathedral in Somerset in 1596 (the cathedral is famous for the sculptures on its west front, shown on the left, which illustrate the Day of Judgment).

According to Isaac Casaubon’s Adversaria, written a few years after the incident, the Cathedral was struck by a bolt of lightning and the congregation inside was thrown to the floor. When they recovered, no-one was hurt, but they all bore tattoos of the Cross on their bodies. Even the Bishop of Wells and his wife were marked in this way. This was an early example of what later came to be called “keranography”... the theory that lightning could imprint images on the skin in a kind of spontaneous, natural photography. Although the idea is dismissed as pseudoscience today, it’s perfectly true that non-fatal lightning strikes can leave tattoo-like marks on the body. No doubt the pious people of Wells in 1596 interpreted these as the sign of the cross!

A few hours after reading Mark’s book, I got an e-mail from Ray Girvan drawing my attention to a curious story about Mary Anning (1799 - 1847), who lived in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast... about 40 miles south of Wells. Mary Anning is the greatest figure in Lyme’s history: she discovered the first fossilized ichthyosaur when she was just twelve years old, and went on to become one of the most highly skilled and highly regarded fossil-hunters of the nineteenth century. She was recently voted the third most influential British woman in the history of science. And—if you believe a local legend—it’s all because she was struck by lightning when she was a toddler.

Much as I hate Wikipedia and its militant skepticism, there’s no denying that if something appears there—and remains there for more than a few hours without being tagged or deleted—then it must be undisputably True. And the story about the lightning strike is right there in the Wikipedia article on Mary Anning. Apparently, when she was 15 months old, she was sheltering under a tree with three women when the tree was hit by lightning. The three women were killed, but little Mary survived. That much is fact. But what of her family’s claim that the lightning strike turned her into a genius? Obviously no-one can know, but I’d like to think it was true!


Anonymous said...

Awesome post Andrew. Are you familiar with this guy who survived 7 different lightning strikes?

There's an interview with John Friedman, author of "Out of the Blue: A History of Lightning", here. Haven't listened to it in a long time but if I recall correctly he tells a number of wild tales.

Andrew May said...

Great, thanks - I was aware of the first item but not the second.

Anonymous said...

Today must be double tweet/ double post day. :)

Andrew May said...

I know what you mean, but hopefully no-one else will (I've deleted the duplicates). Just a little impatient with the Return key, is all.