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Death By Lightning

( Originally Published 1905 )

PEOPLE in general imagine, when they think at all about the matter, that an impression upon the nerves—a blow, for example, or the prick of a pin—is felt at the moment it is inflicted. But this is not the case. The seat of sensation being the brain, to it the intelligence of any impression made upon the nerves has to be transmitted before this impression can become manifest as consciousness. The transmission, moreover, requires time, and the consequence is, that a wound inflicted on a portion of the body distant from the brain is more tardily appreciated than one inflicted adjacent to the brain. By an extremely ingenious experimental arrangement, Helmholtz has determined the velocity of this nervous transmission, and finds it to be about eighty feet a second, or less than one-thirteenth of the velocity of sound in air. If, therefore, a whale forty feet long were wounded in the tail, it would not be conscious of the in-jury till half a second after the wound had been inflicted.' But this is not the only ingredient in the delay. There can scarcely be a doubt that to every act of consciousness belongs a determinate molecular arrangement of the brain—that every thought or feeling has its physical correlative in that organ; and nothing can be more certain than that every physical change, whether molecular or mechanical, requires time for its accomplishment. So that, besides the interval of transmission, a still further time is necessary for the brain to put itself in order—for its molecules to take up the motions or positions necessary to the completion of consciousness. Helmholtz considers that one-tenth of a second is demanded for this purpose. Thus, in the case of the whale above supposed, we have first half a second consumed in the transmission of the intelligence through the sensor nerves to the head, one-tenth of a second consumed by the brain in completing the arrangements necessary to consciousness, and, if the velocity of transmission through the motor be the same as that through the sensor nerves, half a second in sending a command to the tail to defend itself. Thus one second and a tenth would elapse before an impression made upon its caudal nerves could be responded to by a whale forty feet long.

Now, it is quite conceivable that an injury might be inflicted so rapidly that within the time required by the brain to complete the arrangements necessary to consciousness, its power of arrangement might be destroyed. In such a case, though the injury might be of a nature to cause death, this would occur without pain. Death in this case would be simply the sudden negation of life, without any intervention of consciousness whatever.

The time required for a rifle-bullet to pass clean through a man's head may be roughly estimated at a thousandth of a second. Here, therefore, we should have no room for sensation, and death would be painless. But there are other actions which far transcend in rapidity that of the rifle-bullet. A flash of lightning cleaves a cloud, appearing and disappearing in less than a hundred-thousandth of a second, and the velocity of electricity is such as would carry it in a single second over a distance almost equal to that which separates the earth and moon. It is well known that a luminous impression once made upon the retina endures for about one-sixth of a second, and that this is the reason why we see a continuous band of light when a glowing coal is caused to pass rapidly through the air. A body illuminated by an instantaneous flash continues to be seen for the sixth of a second after the flash has become extinct; and if the body thus illuminated be in motion, it appears at rest at the place where the flash falls upon it. When a color-top with differently-colored sectors is caused to spin rapidly the colors blend together. Such a top,' rotating in a dark room and illuminated by an electric spark, appears motionless, each distinct color being clearly seen. Professor Dove has found that a flash of lightning produces the same effect. During a thunderstorm he put a color-top in exceedingly rapid motion, and found that every flash revealed the top as a motionless object with its colors distinct. If illuminated solely by a flash of lightning, the motion of all bodies on the earth's surface would, as Dove has remarked, appear suspended. A cannon-ball, for example, would have its flight apparently arrested, and would seem to hang motionless in space as long as the luminous impression which revealed the ball remained upon the eye.

If, then, a rifle-bullet move with sufficient rapidity to destroy life without the interposition of sensation, much more is a flash of lightning competent to produce this effect. Accordingly, we have well-authenticated cases of people being struck senseless by lightning who, on recovery, had no memory of pain. The following circumstantial case is described by Hemmer:

On June 30, 1788, a soldier in the neighborhood of Mannheim, being overtaken by rain; placed himself under a tree, beneath which a woman had previously taken shelter. He looked upward to see whether the branches were thick enough to afford the required protection, and, in doing so, was struck by lightning, and fell senseless to the earth. The woman at his side experienced the shock in her foot, but was not struck down. Some hours after-ward the man revived, but remembered nothing about what . had occurred, save the fact of his looking up at the branches. This was his last act of consciousness, and he passed from the conscious to the unconscious condition without pain. The visible marks of a lightning stroke are usually insignificant: the hair is sometimes burned; slight wounds are observed ; while, in some instances, a red streak marks the track of the discharge over the skin.

Under ordinary circumstances, the discharge from a small Leyden jar is exceedingly unpleasant to me. Some time ago I happened to stand in the presence of a numerous audience, with a battery of fifteen large Leyden jars charged beside me. Through some awkwardness on my part, I touched a wire leading from the battery, and the discharge went through my body. Life was absolutely blotted out for a very sensible interval, without a trace of pain. In a second or so consciousness returned; I vaguely discerned the audience and apparatus, and, by the help of these external appearances, immediately concluded that I had received the battery discharge. The intellectual consciousness of my position was restored with exceeding rapidity, but not so the optical consciousness. To prevent the audience from being alarmed, I observed that it had often been my desire to receive accidentally such a shock, and that my wish had at length been fulfilled. But, while making this remark, the appearance which my body presented to my eyes was that of a number of separate pieces. The arms, for example, were detached from the trunk, and seemed suspended in the air. In fact, memory and the power of reasoning appeared to be complete long before the optic nerve was restored to healthy action. But what I wish chiefly to dwell upon here is, the absolute painlessness of the shock; and there cannot, I think, be a doubt that, to a person struck dead by lightning, the passage from life to death occurs without consciousness being in the least degree implicated. It is an abrupt stoppage of sensation, unaccompanied by a pang.

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