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The Straight Dope 

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I can't understand why this wouldn't be a cure for someone infected with HIV, the AIDS virus: put them in one of those plastic bubbles like they use for people with genetic immunological deficiences. No germs, no opportunistic infections, no AIDS, right? --Bob Kernell

If only it were that simple. There are a couple problems with your idea: first, AIDS is quite capable of killing you all by itself, without any help from opportunistic infections. It can directly infect the brain and the gut, producing such syndromes as HIV encephalopathy, also knowns as AIDS dementia (symptoms: loss of memory, alertness, balance, and vision; weakness) and HIV wasting syndrome, where you simply waste away. (Opportunistic infections may also contribute to this.)

The other problem is that AIDS makes you vulnerable to germs that are already in your body. For example, there's toxoplasmosis, which people sometimes get when they eat undercooked meat or handle kittens. In normal adults toxo produces mild symptoms (swollen lymph nodes, fatigue). But it remains in the brain and muscles, and if you subsequently get AIDS it can lead to encephalitis and eventually abscesses in the brain, causing headaches, seizures, and convulsions.

Then there's cytomegalovirus. Kids and mothers of small children often get it, since it's passed in the urine. In normal adults it produces mono-like symptoms (fever, sore throat). But it too remains in the body and in an AIDS patient can infect the retina, causing blindness.

I could go on, but it's too depressing. If you get HIV doctors will try to determine what infections you already have and do what they can to prevent you from getting anything else. (If you don't already have toxo they'll tell you not to change any kitter litter boxes, for example.) But this merely prolongs the inevitable. So far as is now known, AIDS will kill everyone who contracts it.

I recall hearing from a weatherman in Atlanta that lightning can go from cloud to cloud, from cloud to ground, and from ground to cloud. While the first two are common knowledge, I've never met anyone who has encountered the third. Can lightning really travel from ground to cloud? Is this common? --Jim Burket, Evanston

Depends how you mean. You take Madonna--now there's common. But in one sense it does happen all the time. The main stroke in most lightning bolts travels up, from ground to cloud. What happens is this: a stepped leader, a relatively dim initial stroke, zigzags downward from the thundercloud. As it nears the ground, a streamer is sucked upward from the earth. The two meet midway, typically 50 to 100 feet above the ground, establishing a continuous charged path from heaven to earth. Then a mighty return stroke travels from ground to cloud by way of the charged path, generating most of the light you see. It all takes less than half a second.

Still, although the light travels upward, most of the electrons travel down, so we're not really talking about a ground-to-cloud bolt here. What you want is classic upside-down lightning, complete with forks pointing skyward. While most people will never see it, in a few places it happens all the time, thanks to the human proclivity to build tall things out of metal. Typical G-C lightning launch points include towers on mountains and skyscrapers.

A promising locale for upside-down lightning spotting is the Empire State Building in New York, a focus of lightning research for many years and a dramatic refutation of the myth that lightning never strikes the same place twice. (In a typical year it gets jolted more than 20 times.) Watch the ESB from a safe distance some stormy day and you may notice a stepped leader start atop the building and sprout cloudward. Sort of a metaphor for the whole NYC 'tude: do unto them before they get a chance to do unto you.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.


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