Thor Comes To Philly - The Science Of Thunder
    By Becky Jungbauer | June 9th 2009 08:05 PM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Becky

    A scientist and journalist by training, I enjoy all things science, especially science-related humor. My column title is a throwback to Jane


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    I awoke early this morning, confused in my half-asleep stupor as to why the neighbors were rolling the garbage cans up and down the driveway while at the same time the nearby naval air station was staging extremely low-flying drills about 10 feet from the roof.

    After I ruled out the garbage can theory (garbage day is Wednesday, so that would just be silly) and I didn't see Maverick and Goose buzzing the house tower, I thought, "Is that thunder?" It couldn't be - I'd never heard thunder like that, and I grew up in the upper midwest where tornadoes are the only relief from mosquitoes.

    But it was.

    Continuous low rumbling with no distinct break for several minutes. Since I wasn't getting any sleep anyway, I tried to find out if there's a name for that kind of thunder. Turns out, not that I could find. But I did find all sorts of other cool thunder trivia along the way.

    Thunder is a really popular word for movie titles, bands, soccer teams, smart phones, trains/planes/automobiles, and a great intro riff for AC/DC. Chances are that you're experiencing a thunderstorm right now - about 2,000 are occurring around the globe at any given time.

    Epenthesis (Patrick, this one is for you!) - the word thunder is an example of ἐπένθεσις, or epenthesis, the addition of one or more sounds to a word, especially to the interior of a word. A "d" was added to the Old English thunor.

    Cause - Thunder is the audible pressure (compression) wave produced by lightning, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute. Thunder is produced by the explosive expansion of heated air surrounding a lightning channel and can be heard from a maximum distance of about 10 miles (16 km) under good atmospheric conditions.

    Nearly all lightning is generated by thunderstorms. However, the NLSI says, "lightning has also been observed during snowstorms, in columns of billowing smoke from forest fires, in erupting volcanic debris clouds, near fireballs created by nuclear explosions, and on some planets and moons in our solar system. Lightning is a giant static electrical spark. Where there's lightning, there's thunder, and vice versa."

    A man in Minneapolis was struck by lightening during a blizzard. Go MN! The NLSI site has a few interesting paragraphs on the science of thunder, so check it out.

    Early theories - lightning was the weapon of choice for the mythological beings like Thor (Norse), Zeus (Greek), Indra (Hindu) and Jupiter (Roman). Navajos believed in the Thunderbird, which flapped its wings and created the sound of thunder, and was the source of lightening (sunlight reflected in its eyes).

    The early Greeks, Romans and Vikings (not the football team, they can't find their way off a boat in Lake Minnetonka) believed thunder to be a number of phenomena, including that it was caused by clouds colliding.

    Castle thunder - the original Frankenstein film (1931) featured this iconic sound, which was then featured in a bazillion other movies and cartoons including Scooby Doo, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Mary Poppins and the Brave Little Toaster. Imagine a dark sky, scary castle, organ music in minor key, maybe a psychadelic hippie van full of meddling kids.

    The return stroke - Britannica says the loudest thunder heard after a flash to the ground is actually produced by the return stroke that follows the path forged by the initial stroke, or stepped leader. "The return stroke is louder because it contains a larger and faster-rising electric current than either the leader or a discharge within a cloud. Because the path of a lightning channel is usually branched, tortuous, and very long, sound waves from more distant portions arrive later than those from nearer portions, accounting for the duration of thunder and for the 

    characteristic claps and rumbles."

    You know what is tortuous? Trying to convince your frightened kitty that the rumbling noises aren't going to get him while unsure yourself if indeed that thunder might not just come through the window and send you into oblivion, courtesy of Queen Bavmorda.

    Timing - the distance to a lightening flash can be estimated by measuring the time delay between the flash of light and the thunder - rule of thumb is 5 seconds per mile (3 seconds per km).

    And given that the total energy in a large thunderstorm is more than that in an atomic bomb, don't forget Lightning Safety Awareness Week, which strikes during the last full week in June.


    Gerhard Adam
    (garbage day is Wednesday, so that would just be silly)
    Of course, since that's Wodin's Day.  I would've expected this type of thing on Thors day ... :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Epenthesis?  Don't talk to me about epen******thesis.  I have enough trouble with infixes!  ;)

    Great style!  I think I'll just give up on the prose now, and hand you the laurels.
    Great article Becky. I love thunder.

    But! It is high time you guys learn some Norwegian. I mean, you are asking for it with all this linguistics shooting around and on top of that you bring in T(h)or...So without further ado.

    Thunder = torden
    (Weather = vær)
    Thursday = torsdag
    Hammer = hammer

    So here in this country we always have tordenvær på torsdag. Når Tor med hammeren kommer. :-)

    Ok, a little translation aid for the last sentence: When Thor with the hammer arrives.

    End of todays lesson. :-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Becky Jungbauer

    I actually did look for some Norwegian tidbits to include, especially considering I talked about Thor. I really did have you in mind. Alas, my Norwegian is, shall we say, sub-par. And by sub-par I mean non-existent.

    Clearly I brought this weather with me and thus I am Thor - you'll see it in the featured section picture, if you don't believe me. Unfortunately, I can't control my own creation so my somewhat outlandish "Planes, Trains And Automobiles" saga is still ongoing. It has gone from annoyance ("How dare planes be late? I have important meetings") to concern ("I could miss my important meetings") to the ridiculous ("Screw it, day one is shot") Though my expletives today shall be "Hammer of Thor!!" thanks to this article and Bente's language lesson.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I really want to hear about the reactions of people around you when you shout out "Hammer of Thor!" I hope you accompany it with a shake of your fist.
    I even got Christine Baranski to say it at Lincoln Center during  the opening of the World Science Fest.   And I got her to agree to hire me if they need a science advisor on any Mamma Mia sequel that should arise.  So I am the Nth degree of Awesome for that (and so is she!)
    Becky Jungbauer
    I just saw the featured article photo - oh man, my stomach hurts from laughing! That is awesome to the avogadro's number-th degree!
    Gerhard Adam
    Perhaps it's appropriate to mention "The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul" by Douglas Adams ....
    Mundus vult decipi
    Kimberly Crandell
    Love thunderstorms!  We had a good one here last week, which was extremely rare.

    But Becky, must we encourage the Hank/Thor connection?  And with a picture, no less.  *sigh*  There will be no living with him now.

    "By the Hammer of Thor, bake me a pie!!" 
    It's coming.  I can sense it.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I'm guessing that any encouragement of his already inflated ego will result in incremental increases in hardship, as he has to be pretty close to the asymptote of impossible to live with. Notwithstanding, the Thor attribution was entirely unintentional and I sincerely apologize for any continuing difficulties in your life due to said connection. My suggestion: keep a rolling pin, preferably made of some durable metal like tungsten alloy, nearby. That way when he asks you to bake him a pie, you can whack him and not damage a useful kitchen utensil on his hard head. 
    I just had a meeting with a gent who runs a media company and, as you know, those featured boxes mix randomly with every reload.  You have to mouse over to see the other ones.   Wouldn't you know that Thor pic is the one that came up?
    You really want to get some off world information about lightning and thunder, look at line 13; 14; and 15 in the chapter 60 Quaking of the heavens in the book of Enoch where God's angel of Peace discribes the hidden secrets of thunder and lightning to him. Its a bit ambiguous but understandable. If you follow closely he says that the thunder and lightning are reigned in and pushed forward to the four quaters of the earth. He was explaining a red sprite being shot upwards above a thunder cloud. What went to the four quaters of the earth was what Enoch discribed as sand of the treasury of the thunder and lightning. This is where us earthlings get helium iosotpe 3 space dust from which is generated by the red sprite which Enoch refered to as the thunder. There is a world of information in those 3 little lines. He could not have known about the science of thunder and lightning on his own. Check out my book, Thor's Anvil Revealed, if you dare!