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7 Disasters Caused by Lightning

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From gunpowder stockpiles to Star Wars memorabilia, it seems that nothing is safe from a lightning strike. Let's take a look back at some notable examples.

1. Lightning and Gunpowder Don't Mix

In August of 1769, lightning struck the tower of the Church of the Nazaire in Brescia, Italy. The current passed through the vaults where 207,000 pounds of gunpowder had been stored for safekeeping. You can tell where this is going. The aftermath destroyed a sixth of the city and killed 3,000 residents. The British parliament responded by passing two acts establishing standards for the manufacture and storage of gunpowder in private hands, eventually leading to an argument over how to best protect arsenal from lightning strikes.

2. Pan American Flight 214—December 8, 1963

The worst lightning strike death toll occurred when lightning hit a Pan American Boeing 707 en route from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, killing all 81 on board. It's the only US airliner lost to lightning. Lightning struck the left wing of the 707 and hit the fuel vapor mixture stored in a reserve fuel tank, igniting it. The airplane exploded midair and crashed near Elkton, Maryland.

Flight 214 was in a holding pattern, awaiting approval to land at Philadelphia International Airport when it was struck. On fire, a large portion of the left wing separated in flight. The pilot managed to maintain control for a few seconds before the plane crashed. While examining the wreckage, officials noticed numerous spots where the metal surface and rivet heads appeared melted. Also, an irregular-shaped hole surrounded by fused metal indicated the presence of high heat.

Lightning charges can be hazardous to airplane fuel systems because lightning is able to ignite the fuel vapor in the tanks. As a result of this tragedy, the FAA insisted that all commercial jet liners be fitted with lightning discharge wicks. Still, on average, every commercial airliner is struck in flight at least once per year.

3. New York City Blackout

time-blackout.jpgChaos hit New York City in the summer of 1977 when lightning struck the Consolidated Edison electrical transmission line in northern Westchester County. The strike occurred near the ConEd power plant and as a result, major transmission lines were short-circuited. After an investigation, officials determined that several "massive lightning bolts" had struck the 345,000-volt power lines numerous times. The power was out for 25 hours, trapping people in subways and elevators, with violent looting, rioting and arson peppering the city.

4. Lightning in Space (sort of)

The Atlas-Centaur 67 was a 137-foot, $78 million rocket carrying $83 million of military communication equipment. Spinning out of control 51 seconds after liftoff, the rocket had to be destroyed immediately to prevent any off-course veering that might have endangered populated areas along the Florida coast. The flaming wreckage fell into the Atlantic Ocean three miles from Cape Canaveral.

Afterwards, videotape released by NASA showed a lightning bolt clearly flashing out of the rain clouds into which the Atlas-Centaur had vanished. Safety officials determined that at 14,250 feet the rocket disappeared into the clouds, losing control and disrupting all communications. Lightning experts said that a rocket penetrating a storm cloud could attract electrical charges much like a tree or a tall building, such as the Empire State Building. NASA officials blamed the Air Force for shoddy weather reports, and defended their decision to launch a rocket into cloudy skies.

This was not the first time lightning and NASA butted heads. On November 14, 1969, the Apollo 12 was struck thirty seconds into liftoff. Systems failed temporarily, but the astronauts managed to regain control.

5. The Yellowstone Fires—Summer of 1988

A combination of drought, high winds, and multiple lightning strikes caused one of the largest fire seasons in Yellowstone history. Fires affected 36% of the park (approx. 793,800 acres)—nine fires because of human error, 42 by lightning. 300 mammals perished (mostly elk). Yellowstone residents, firefighters, and tourists remember the harrowing months of flames licking above the treetops, evacuations, closed roads, and hillsides glowing with embers. Dubbed "Black Saturday," August 20 marked the single most active fire day of the 1988 season. Several Rangers and visitors found themselves stranded at the visitor center, the exit paths blocked by downed trees and 100 foot tall windblown flames.

Even ten years later, hikers still had to take caution, especially on windy days, for falling dead trees burned in the 1988 fires. As of 2008, new trees are growing in thick and tall, covering the views opened up by the fires.

6. Lightning vs. The Force

In 2005, Graham Duck returned to his home in Loftus to find that his house had been struck by lightning during a storm that ravaged part of northern England. The lightning hit the chimney, traveled down a wall, and set fire to the loft. The lightning strike also destroyed his £20,000 collection of Star Wars toys and memorabilia, which he had stored in the loft, close to where the lightning hit the roof. Mr. Duck called the collection irreplaceable and priceless.

7. Lightning: Cure or Cause?

70% of people who get hit by lightning survive—including many golfers, whose constant presence in open spaces leaves them vulnerable. Victims often claim to have undergone physical changes, frustrating incredulous lawyers who think they want simply to win lawsuits or workers' compensation. Survivors claim that after being struck, they developed stutters, impotence, memory loss, depression, blurred vision, and poor hearing. Fair enough after having electricity surge through your body. Some bizarre survivor stories include:

Tony Cicori, a surgeon who suddenly became obsessed with classical piano after being struck by lightning.
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Roy Sullivan, a former park ranger, holds the Guinness Records not only for being struck the most—seven times—but surviving them all! He kind of debunks the whole "lightning never strikes the same place twice" thing. Sadly, Sullivan committed suicide when he was 71.
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Harold Deal said he stopped feeling cold after he was struck by lightning in 1969. He regularly wears shorts in snowstorms and has photos to prove it.
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Edwin Robinson claims a lightning bolt returned his eyesight, which he'd lost in a car accident 10 years earlier.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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