Jewish World Review Feb. 5, 2004 / 13 Shevat, 5764

Jeff Elder

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Consumer Reports

Lightning CAN strike twice; how people got their last names; more | Q: What are the odds of being struck by lightning twice in a lifetime? - Eric Fordley

A: Eric, any discussion of multiple lightning strikes surely must begin with poor Roy Sullivan.

Sullivan, a Virginia park ranger, survived seven lightning strikes, making him the world record holder. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Sullivan was first hit by lightning in 1942, and was struck six more times over the next 35 years. He was struck in the great outdoors. But he was also zapped in an office, and walking across his front yard to get the mail.

There was just something about Roy Sullivan that lightning liked.

Sullivan committed suicide in his 70s in 1983, reportedly distraught over the loss of a woman.

In another odd instance, it made the film crew pause when Jim Caviezel, the actor playing Jesus in Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion Of Christ," was struck twice during filming. (Caviezel wasn't hurt badly by either strike.)

Despite these occurrences, experts say the odds of being struck by lightning twice in a lifetime are roughly one in 9,000,000.

According to Storm Data, a National Weather Service publication, your odds of being struck by lightning once in an 80-year lifetime are about one in 3,000.

(You might have seen odds like one in 650,000. Those are roughly the odds of being struck in a given year.)

Lightning strikes occur with what statisticians call "independent probability." This means one strike doesn't affect the odds of another strike. This is also true about flips of a coin, or rolls of dice. If you roll a 12 once, your odds or rolling a 12 the next time are the same. Your odds of being struck by lightning are not different depending on whether you've already been struck before or not.

The way you calculate independent probability is to multiply the odds. The odds of being struck once in your lifetime are one in 3,000. The odds of being struck twice in your lifetime are one in 9,000,000.

Certain factors could affect these odds, however. For instance, someone's more likely to be struck if they golf in the rain or camp during thunderstorm season.

It's often said that your odds of being struck by lightning are better than your odds of winning the lottery. That's a vast understatement. Your odds of winning the Powerball multi-state lottery jackpot are about one in 120,526,770.

Yet some people win two lottery jackpots.

Last year Shelley Hedwall of Lake George, Colo., won the state's $2.8 million Lotto jackpot. She had also won $10 million in 1998. (This makes you wonder how wisely the new millionaire was handling her winnings. But you can't argue with success.)

Too bad lightning victim Roy Sullivan couldn't have met a lady with that kind of luck. I picture a nice, indoor wedding.

_Sources: Ask a Scientist, National Weather Service, PBS

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Q: I want to know how people got their last names, and how last names came about. - Stacy Stohon

A: Stacy, "onomatologists" is the name for people who study names. (Catchy, ain't it?)

These folks say that surnames - like nearly everything else - came about because of money.

At the year 1000, peasants were scurrying around, terrified that their windmills and ox carts would no longer work after "Y1K." Also at this time, Western Europe began to develop systems of credit. And as the population grew, it got tougher and tougher to know who owed whom.

If Peter was to pay Paul, it became important to know which Peter owed which Paul. So last names, or descriptive names indicating which Peter or Paul began. At the time, Peter and Paul did not even know or care that a descriptive name was attached to their first name. Nor was the same descriptive name used with each transaction.

At this time in Western Europe - and in many other cultures, as well - surnames evolved from four main sources:

_Locality - People named Brooks, Wood and Oakes probably lived by a brook, wood or oak trees. Scott was probably from Scotland.

_Father's first name - Johnson was the son of John, and Williamson was the son of William.

_Office or occupation - Marshal, Baker, Smith, Miller, Taylor, and even Treadwater (for a sailor).

_Nicknames - Little, Small, Stout - even Crooke.

Names that don't appear to fall into these categories often actually do - but in another language.

Name experts say African Americans did not get their surnames, for the most part, from their slave owners, as some people assume. Once freed, why would they name themselves after the masters of their misery? Instead, they chose names that were well known, or from prestigious families in the South. Many of those names were Irish, Scottish, English or Welsh.

_Sources:, historical research center



On cowgirls:

1. Who did legendary marksman Frank Butler fall in love with when he outshot her?

2. Who kept her own name when she married a movie star cowboy?

3. What native of Princeton, Mo., drank hard, wore men's clothes, cussed, chewed tobacco and rescued soldiers in Indian battles?

4. What obstacle race is a hallmark of women's rodeo?



1. Annie Oakley

2. Dale Evans

3. Calamity Jane

4. Barrel racing

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Jeff Elder is a columnist for The Charlotte Observer. Comment or try to stump him by clicking here. If you send him a great question, he'll send you a Glad You Asked T-shirt.


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