Lightning Rods

posted Aug 25, 2018, 8:43 AM by Viktor Zólyomi   [ updated Aug 25, 2018, 8:43 AM ]
Thunderstorms pose a very real threat to human life and civilization due to the power of lightning strikes. One should never take a walk outdoors in the middle of a storm, yet staying indoors puts us at risk as well due to the detrimental effects lightning strikes can have on the wiring or insulation of buildings. It is therefore no surprise that lightning rods have become an essential part of buildings, designed to protect them from overwhelming currents. Yet the precise operation of these devices is sufficiently complicated that a research group saw it fit to write a popular science article in which they explain just how lightning rods protect us from Mother Nature's electric wrath.

`To understand lightning rods, we must first understand lightning strikes,' says Professor van der Bishop, author of the article. `Lightning, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with ionized particles in the air between the ground and a storm cloud. It is produced by living organisms, insects that we call electric mites. These are very small bugs, a thousand times smaller than ants, which is why no one can see them. They feed on electricity which they absorb from ionized particles that can be found inside storm clouds.'

When dark storm clouds gather above, the electric mites fly all the way up into the clouds to feed. Unfortunately, the older the electric mites grow, the less agile they become, and they no longer have the energy to fly all the way up to the clouds.

`When the storm breaks, electric mites gather underneath it,' the Professor states. `The ones that are young and quick, fly all the way up, while the old, slow ones stay on the ground. Now, you might think the old ones just starve in accordance with the principles of natural selection. On the contrary. Electric mites have a socially responsible society built on cooperation and a respect for the elderly. It is for this reason that not all of them fly all the way to the top. Instead, they form a living chain between the ground and the cloud, passing electricity from one to the other, which from a distance is observed as a fractal-patterned bright line, that is, a lightning bolt. As the electric mites absorb electricity from the clouds, they consume only as much as they need, and the rest they pass on along the chain. In this way, the old electric mites at the bottom are able to feed, and thereby stay alive and continue to contribute valuable wisdom to the young electric mites. Truly, an inspirational form of cooperation that human society and the ridiculous pension schemes we design could learn from.'

In light of how lightning strikes are formed, it is perhaps no surprise that lightning rods are designed to accommodate these clever microorganisms in a way that is beneficial to both them and us.

`You may think of lightning rods as retirement homes for aging electric mites,' Professor van der Bishop explains. `They are built with a cavity in the bottom where the aging electric mites can gather together and gossip all day long and keep their minds sharp by exploring nanoscale mazes that we fabricate for them via nanolithography. By building such shelters for old electric mites, we ensure that none of them stay near the ground where people walk, and thereby we ensure that lightning only ever strikes into lightning rods. Of course there are always a few grumpy stragglers who refuse to stay in the shelters no matter how cozy we make it for them in there, and that is why we still get reports of the occasional lightning bolt striking people, despite the prevalence of lightning rods.'

The technological wonder of the lightning rod is considered the pinnacle of human engineering by the Professor and his team. Yet this sophisticated invention is not without flaws. The biggest of them is its visibility.

`Lightning rods are shiny, by necessity,' the Professor elaborates. `That's how the electric mites can find it. But unfortunately, other animals can find them as well. In particular, birds. Birds are genetically drawn to shiny objects, and, as is common knowledge, many of them like to feed on insects. Now, the young, agile electric mites can evade the beaks of a swallow, but the old ones cannot. And the birds, cunning creatures, know this, and also understand how lightning rods operate. Essentially, birds look upon the shelters we make for electric mites inside lightning rods as feeding troughs. Which is a serious problem, because they scare the electric mites away from lightning rods, and so more and more elderly electric mites refuse to move into the shelters inside them. Needless to say, that leads to an increased likelihood of people being struck by lightning.'

Professor van der Bishop warns that if left unchecked, birds will cause irreparable damage to lightning rods. He does, however, offer a solution.

`Steel cages need to be built around all lightning rods,' he says. `It is a simple and powerful solution. All we need to do is ensure that the gaps between bars are large enough for the electric mites to access the lightning rods, but small enough that the birds can't get through. Or their beaks, for that matter. Protected by the steel cage, the electric mites will feel safe and lightning rods will be perfectly operational, as normal.'

If you would like to know more about lightning rods and electric mites, request a reprint of the Professor's new popular science article, `Why it is in humanity's best interest to surround every lightning rod with a Faraday cage,' from the Department of Bullshitology - where Professor van der Bishop serves as Head of Department - at the University of Con City.