– It turns out that Chuck Jones and other animators knew more about lightning than anyone thought. Almost every avid cartoon watcher can remember a
character that, once struck by lightning, had its skeleton show as if exposed to X-rays.
Scientists secretly scoffed at the image. For generations the prevailing wisdom on lightning was that it produced only visible light and radio waves, not
X-rays or other forms of energetic radiation. Thanks to a new discovery by Florida Tech Assistant Professor of the Department of Physics and Space Sciences
Joe Dwyer and several scientists at Florida Tech, including Dr. Hamid Rassoul, and the University of Florida, we now know that the cartoonists were right,
and most scientists were wrong.
In experiments detailed in the Jan. 31 issue of Science, Dwyer, the project’s principle investigator, and his fellow scientists discovered that lightning
does, in fact, emit X-rays, Gamma rays or other energetic radiation. Their discovery was made during research in the summer of 2002 at the International
Center for Lightning Research and Testing at Camp Blanding, Fla.
Like modern-day Ben Franklins, the team of researchers launched small rockets trailing thin copper wires into overhead thunderclouds. These rockets
triggered predictable lightning strikes that were measured by instrumentation located 75 feet from the launch site.
Most models of lightning do not predict the production of energetic radiation. Dwyer said this suggests that our current understanding of how lightning
works is not yet complete. For example, Dwyer and his team are still working to learn how X-rays function as part of the lightning. It is unclear if they
are a by-product of the strike or a contributing factor to the formation of lightning.
In either case, unlike the cartoon characters of old, humans need not worry about the X-rays emitted by these lightning strikes, said Dwyer.
“Although the bursts of energetic radiation are very intense, they are also very brief, so the total radiation dose should not be terribly large,” he said.
“Of course, if you happen to be close enough to lightning to be hit by this radiation, you are already in big trouble.”