Friday, March 20, 2009

A Cheap Trick Hunting the Imaginary Line (Equator)

Today being the equinox – one of the two times in a year that the sun sits directly above the equator – it seems appropriate to post an article on the equator. This magic line passes through 14 countries around the globe and I am sure that most countries mark it with monuments, painted lines, road signs and special symbols. Ecuador even takes its name from this famous line that divides our planet in two – named after a French/Spanish scientific expedition in the early 1700s to measure the curvature of the Earth.

Only a few miles north of Ecuador’s capital Quito, the grandly named Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) has a museum with a planetarium, a bit of history, a model of old Quito and a few displays. It also includes the most elaborate equatorial statue that I have seen (right) and an area with a number of the world’s flags. A different Ecuadorian road highlights the hemispheres with a giant sculptured globe (top photo).

Uganda marks the Equator only a few miles south of their capital, Kampala, with a horseshoe-styled statue while one of the Kenyan markers on the road between Nairobi and Samburu National Park is little more than a road sign.

Apart from the usual trite gift shops, a favourite sight at the equator locations is a demonstration of the Coriolis Effect. In simple terms, this is the idea that water drains from a basin or down a toilet in an anti-clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere and in a clockwise direction south of the Equator. The effect is stronger the further you move from the equator.

For a small fee, someone will pour water in a tub or basin with a hole in it. Standing a few metres north of the Equator and dramatically dropping a match, twig or flower into the water, the item will spin counter clockwise. Moving a few metres the other side of the Equator, this same item will rotate in the opposite direction. Finally when standing astride of the Equator, the item will stay almost motionless as the water drains away.

To get an idea of the demonstration, a number of videos on Youtube exist (simply search on “coriolis” and “equator’).

Sorry to be a spoil-sport but this demonstration is faked. The Coriolis Effect is real but standing only a few metres either side of the Equator will not show up such a weak force – it has much more to do with how the water is poured and released. In fact, somewhat bizarrely, the Kenyan demonstration that I witnessed got the two directions the wrong way around with the water draining in the opposite direction to that which would be expected.

But it does provide a lot of chatter and interest among visitors and absorbs many with all kind of queries flowing to the anointed smiling and animated science teacher. It certainly adds to the entertainment of a short break in the journey to take a few happy snaps standing astride of the Equator or climbing upon the marker.

Enjoy the equinox as the north moves into spring and the south moves out of its summer. I trust that your travels will take you past the equator at least once in your life.


Cuckoo said...

This is quite an information. Thanks for sharing it. The example of water draining is very interesting.

Mark H said...

@cuckoo: It attracts quite an audience. A bit of fun...

emma said...

I have been to two of the signs in Africa but was too cynical to watch the water demonsration. It was interesting to read what actually happens.

Mark H said...

@emma: You didn't miss much. The story is better than the demonstration.

A traveler said...

I experienced this myself and it was really exciting to see. The world really has many treasures.

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