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Saturday, April 25, 2015

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Journey to the centre of the earth

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Sign marks the spot where the earth’s latitude marks precisely zero degrees. [Ron Csillag photo]

QUITO — “Ecuador” is Spanish for “Equator,” and no trip to this small Andean nation is complete without availing yourself of the opportunity to straddle the line that divides the planet’s northern and southern hemispheres.

Among the charming Ecuadorian capital’s main attractions is the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the Earth) outdoor exhibit, a large-scale promenade-like complex lined with busts of famous explorers where the centrepiece is a massive trapezoidal monument topped by a large globe. The immenseness of it seems out of place in this small and quaint city.

This is where, in 1736, the French explorer de la Condamine staked out what he thought was the centre of the planet. Local indigenous people told him he was off the mark, but the European considered their measurements primitive.

Turned out the natives were right.

The exact Equator, located by GPS in the 1990s, is 180 metres away, now at the Museo de Sitio Intinan. Lined with shops selling local crafts, the attraction’s centrepiece – literally – is a four-inch-wide red line that marks the spot where the Earth’s latitude measures precisely zero degrees. Tourists crowd the painted stripe, eager to have their pictures taken with one foot in each hemisphere.

Strange things are supposed to happen here.

Earnest young guides will take you through a series of experiments to showcase the Equator’s otherworldly properties, among them, that people weigh one kilo less when standing on the line and that they are somehow weaker. My guide, a young woman half my weight, asked me to pinch my forefinger to my thumb in a loop, then tried, and failed, to pull them apart a few feet north of the Equator. On the line itself, she was magically able to separate my digits.

You can also balance a raw egg on a nail head, but only on the Equator, apparently.

Finally, this is the place to settle the age-old debate about whether water circles down a drain in a clockwise direction in the southern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the northern half of the planet. We’ve all heard how water in Australian toilets swirls in the “opposite” direction from our commodes, supposedly a result of what’s known as the Coriolis effect.

For this procedure, washbasins are filled with water and a few leaves are tossed in to better observe the rotation. Sure enough, the liquid vortexes clockwise in the south and the other way two feet north of the line. On the Equator itself, it whooshes straight down the drain.

This is beguiling, but bunk.

I don’t want to spoil the fun, but you can make water circle any way that you want with a subtle sleight-of-hand. What’s the trick? It’s how the water enters the basin. It will always drain in the direction in which it is poured. It may seem still after a few seconds, but the molecules continue to swirl.

Similarly, the rotation of a draining toilet is determined by where the water just under the rim is squirted into the bowl when it is flushed.

Every serious source on the subject agrees the Coriolis effect describes only large, cyclonic weather phenomena, such as hurricanes and cyclones. There’s just not enough water in your sink, tub or toilet to notice it.

My only meteorologist acquaintance, Michael Stavsky, explains it with a flourish: “For the Coriolis effect to have a significant impact, flushing one’s toilet would have to take several hours.”

But don’t let any of this prevent you from having your passport stamped here with “Latitud 00º00’00.” It’s a great conversation starter.

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