|MadSci Network: Physics|
Dear Kay and Christen, The answer is, "it depends." Lightning is really a huge spark, and it can kill you. It's made up of a stream of electrons, which are one kind of the three particles that make up atoms. Electrons each have one bit of electric charge. There are two kinds of charge, called positive and negative, and electrons all have negative charge. Positive and negative (opposite) charges attract each other VERY strongly, and like charges (positive and positive, or negative and negative) repel each other just as strongly. Because electrons push away from each other, they tend to run around the OUTSIDE of a metal object like a car when they are passing through, like during a lightning strike, to get as far away from each other as possible. That is, even if you touch the INSIDE of a car that's being hit by lightning, all that electricity will be on the OUTSIDE surface, and you won't even feel it. BUT!!!!!! NEVER TRY THAT!! Because, not all car bodies are made of metal any more, a lot have plastic or fiberglass parts, and some metal things inside the car might be connected just right to the outside and allow you get a shock. But in general, inside a metal car, if you keep out of contact with door handles, switches, and so on, yes, you are quite safe inside a car during a lightning storm. The Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts gives a wonderful demonstration of this every day. They have a giant static electricity generator three stories high that makes HUGE sparks - not quite as big as real lightning, but 20 feet or more long! Some of them jump to what looks like a giant bird cage. From inside the metal cage, a person explains about lightning, electricity, and sparks. While these sparks are hitting the cage, the demonstrator runs his or her hands along the inside of the cage to show that the electricity is all running around the outside, which explains why that person remains perfectly safe. It also explains why you are safe inside a metal car. But a car during a lightning storm is not a carefully controlled laboratory environment, so keep your windows closed and your hands away from handles if you're on the road when a storm hits! And find out if your car has a metal body.
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