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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.
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.
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.
Edwin Robinson claims a lightning bolt returned his eyesight, which he'd lost in a car accident 10 years earlier.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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