We had a bit of a storm last night. I awoke in the wee hours before dawn to flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder. For some silly reason as I lay on my pillow attempting to resume my slumbers, I thought about an old science lesson from my earliest school days. I remember following my teacher’s instructions to draw a couple of clouds on my paper and fill them with pluses and minuses to represent electrical charges. Then I drew a tree on the ground with a man standing next to it. The positive charges were at the tops of the clouds and the negative ones sunk to the bottom. The objects on the ground were positive. The teacher explained that lightning occurred when there was a need to create balance between the charges either within a single cloud, between two clouds or from a cloud to the ground. She warned us of the dangers of being the highest point on the ground during a thunderstorm, and then read us a story about Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with a set of keys tied to a kite that created a strike of lightning. It was all so fascinating back then and still is for me today.
I’ve always like mathematics and processes that are logical, so the balancing of positive and negative charges that make the static electricity of lightning made perfect sense to me. I have forever been in awe of lightning storms but also wary of being outside while they are taking place. I don’t grinch whenever I’m told to leave a swimming pool or if a sport is temporarily halted until the danger of lightning is gone. I even started hikes to the tops of mountains well before the first signs of daylight so that I would arrive before the regular afternoon rainstorms that threatened those standing proudly on summits.
When I was still a child a man named Johnny built a wonderful neighborhood grocery store at the corner of my street. I loved running down there with a dollar in my hands and a short list of items that my mother needed to create one of her yummy dinners. Johnny was a very nice man who knew everyone by name and watched over all of us as though he was our uncle. One day he was standing under a tree in his front yard when a stray bit of lightning came from nowhere and struck him to the ground. It was big story that made the front page of one of the local newspapers. Houston was still more small town than city back then, so the tale of a citizen’s brush with an electrical shock was big news. Johnny became even more of a celebrity in my little girl eyes.
We often use lightning as a writing tool. It is a metaphor for something unlikely to happen. It can represent both good and bad luck. It sets a dark and foreboding mood. It is a kind of omen of evil. We attribute properties to lightning that are mystical and sometimes even satanic, when in reality it is nothing more than a very natural occurrence. It is a way of keeping balance in the atmosphere. We should respect its power but with the right precautions it is unlikely to harm us the way that we may fear.
It seems as though we all too often ignore the actual science of the natural world around us and attempt to force our own beliefs and concerns onto a situation, particularly when we don’t like the inconvenient truths of reality. We humans have cast some very strange ideas onto the workings of the world throughout history resulting in stories of witches and the condemnation of a brilliant man who understood that the earth is not at the center of the universe. We gazed across the horizon and thought that our earth was flat. Even as humans began to sail around the oceans without dropping off into an abyss we still had those who would not accept that maybe our planet was actually round. To this very day we have people in our midst who are unwilling to believe many of the discoveries of science. They cling to their own limited and misguided beliefs in spite of mounting evidence that they are wrong.
I marvel at those with minds so great that they determine how things work. Chemistry is like music to me. Biology is miraculous. Physics takes my breath away. I think of trailblazers in science and medicine like Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. I remember how inventive Benjamin Franklin actually was, so when I visited a museum dedicated to his remarkable life I was enthralled by his inventiveness and both his physical and mental prowess. Little wonder that he was a world renowned personality who was a favorite in the French court. He was an incredibly accomplished man.
Science is at the forefront of new frontiers in living. We don’t have to accept every single finding that comes from that world but the scientific method along with the scientific community have rules in place that ultimately determine the veracity of discoveries and claims. Science is built on evidence, proof, not just hopeful beliefs. Good theories grow from slow, deliberate processes. There is a beautiful diplomacy that exists between researchers of the world who share information and expose hoaxes. Science is honest and rational, and we would all do well to learn more about it rather than blindly accepting the word of charlatans who pass rumors over the backyard fence.
Benjamin Franklin was one of our Founding Fathers, but he was so much more. His little kite experiment should demonstrate our own need to learn the truth of how things really work. A bit of time reading about climate change, vaccines, alternative energies, worlds of the future might be the best way to understand how our own behaviors are impacting the world. Conspiracy theories have littered the pages of history all to no avail while pioneers like Ben Franklin have brought us the kind of knowledge that is the true mark of freedom. Listen and learn about science. Know that lightning occurs for a reason that is devoid of ill intent. See the world for what it really is.