Charlatans of the Equator

October 29, 2007
Day 761

Picture of equator.

A sign claiming to be on the equator.

At least a dozen times in my travels in South America, the topic of the Mitad del Mundo ("The Center of the Earth," as the equator near Quito is known) has come up with other travelers. Inevitably, the person tells me how great it was that they got to see firsthand that water drains from a sink in the opposite direction depending on which hemisphere you're in. I've always told them how ridiculous that was, that moving a little north or south of the equator couldn't possibly affect the flow of water, but they've always contended that they had "seen it with their own eyes." Well today, I finally got to see the equator with my own eyes, and I took an Israeli girl named Niva along as a witness.

When we reached the Mitad del Mundo, we walked past a virtual city of souvenir shops and restaurants until we reached a long line in the ground, an announcement that we had reached the equator, and a large monument commemorating our arrival. We escaped the sun and made a beeline for the large concrete sculpture.

Surprisingly, inside the monument was a museum full of relics from the multitude of cultures that still exist in Ecuador. From the Africans who were originally brought here as slaves, to the colorful but conservative mountain cultures, to the sultry cultures of the Amazon basin, Ecuador was very proud of its diverse heritage. There was also a section talking about how the French were sent here hundreds of years ago in an attempt to find the exact line of the equator. I guess that's why the monument was really built.

We didn't see any crazy people frantically flushing toilets around the equator line, but then we discovered that the entire city was built in the wrong spot. According to what the signs said, a few years back, GPS confirmed that the actual equator was in fact 240 meters north of line that the Ecuadorians had spent so much effort to build. And sure enough, when we walked away from the official-looking complex, we found the Inti-Ñan Solar Museum, where all of the quackery would commence.

We were given a guide named Andres to show us around the museum. At first he showed us a replica of a tomb where the indigenous people would bury a woman alive after her husband died, a solar clock that seemed to be pretty accurate, and a house that was supposedly original from an indigenous family over 100 years ago. Everything seemed legitimate so far.

Picture of Andres.

Andres showing us the powers of the Earth.

Next Andres led us to the actual line where he had set up a globe to demonstrate that the Earth rotates counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the south. The real fun began when he pulled the plug from a pan of water that was straddling the equator, and the water went straight down without spinning. Next, he moved the pan two meters to the south, refilled it, and pulled the plug again to reveal that the water drained in a clockwise manner. Finally, he moved the pan two meters north of the equator, filled it again, and pulled out the plug again, and suddenly the water drained counter-clockwise. I had almost gotten into physical fights with people who saw this demonstration and claimed that it was real, and now even I had seen it with my own eyes.

The thing is, the demonstration looked realistic except the fact that Andres filled the pan from the side to get the water moving in the appropriate direction. This probably had 1,000,000 times more influence on the water than the Coriolis effect, which he claimed was responsible for the water's direction. The water draining without moving when the pan was on the equator could be explained by the fact that it had been sitting for several minutes, which was long enough to stop the flow of the water sufficiently, especially given the fact that the pan's plug was very large.

Niva was quick to point out to Andres that it was crazy to assume that moving the pan a little to the north or south would suddenly affect the flow of the water. Andres simply said, "This is a demonstration, not an experiment." I guess that was his way of admitting that he was the one who created the effect without ruining the day of any other tourists who might have been listening.

The final demonstrations were even more ridiculous. We were shown that while it wasn't easy, it was definitely possible to balance an egg on the equator. I almost pointed out that you can balance an egg anywhere on the planet, but I got a certificate for my accomplishment, so I shut up. We were also shown that we weigh less (maybe by one gram) on the equator since we're further from the center of the Earth, and Andres even showed this by performing a few more demonstrations of our relative weakness while standing on the line compared with right next to it. There's no way we only felt weaker because Andres was applying more force to our hands, either. The charlatan show may have been entertaining, but the problem was that it made me skeptical of everything else I saw that day, too.

At the end of our museum visit, Andres showed us some cool stuff like how to make a shrunken head, how to shoot a dart through a blowgun, and how the local people did their weaving. I even got a Mitad del Mundo stamp in my passport. So the visit ended on a high note, even though I wasn't sure if I had even seen the real equator at all.

I'm really surprised that so many seemingly reasonable people I met on my trip fell for the water spinning trick given that it was fairly obvious what was really happening. I guess the best explanation is that people want to believe in unusual stuff, not the boring stuff that happens to be true. So the lesson of the day is that water in any form smaller than a hurricane (and that includes your toilet) doesn't spin in opposite directions when draining depending on which hemisphere you're in. But at least we still have Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

The photo album for this entry is here.

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