Science relearned; The Middle of the World

On our recent trip to Ecuador, we visited the city of Quito.  At 2850m. (9350 ft.), Quito is the second highest capital city in the world after La Paz, Bolivia.  Twenty six kilometers north of the city is the highest point in elevation along the equator; 4690m. (15,387 ft.) on the southern slopes of Cayambe Volcano.

images-1A monument erected to mark the equator is a thirty five minute drive out of Quito.  It was built to commemorate the 1736 scientific expedition by the French Academy of Science.  Besides marking the spot, they determined the earth actually bulged at the equator contrary to the prevailing thought of it being egg-shaped.  The expedition’s measurements also led to the development of the metric system.  However, in reality, the equator is located several hundred feet to the north of the monument.  Still, you have to admire how close the expedition was given the date of 1736.



A few kilometers from the monument, is The Intiñan Solar Museum.  It is a privately owned and managed museum located at zero latitude (although GPS tests lead to varying results).  It’s a funky little museum with a typical hut of the Huaorani culture and a display of shrunken heads from native tribes of Ecuador.  It has a collection of totems from all over the Americas.  Guides also invite visitors to witness various “scientific experiments” involving phenomenon which only happen on the equator.

One of these demonstrations focuses on the Coriolis Effect which refers to the directionality of storms as a result of the Earth’s rotation.  Storms generally swirl clockwise in the southern hemisphere and in a counter-clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere.  IMG_0093To demonstrate this effect, the guide places a sink directly on the equatorial line.  She fits the sink with plug and pours in several inches of water.  When she pulls the plug, the water drains without swirling in either direction.  She then moves the sink five or six feet to the north and repeats the process.  This time, the water swirls down the drain in a counter-clockwise direction.  When she moves the sink to the south and repeats the process, the water drains in a clockwise direction.  Amazing, right?!

The first time I saw this, I was amazed one could see this effect with such a slight movement one side of the equatorial line to the other.  The second time, I became more skeptical.  The Earth is 40,075.16 kilometers in circumference at the equator.  Therefore, moving the sink 2 meters one way or the other is 0.000005% of that distance.  Seems pretty negligible to me.  I also remembered seeing our guide gently encouraging a leaf floating on the water to move by nudging it with her finger floating on the water.  I later tested this idea in a sink at home.  Sure enough, if I filled the sink and waited until the water was still, pulled the plug straight up, the water drained without swirling.  If I filled the sink by pouring water in on the right side and pulled the plug before the water settled, it drained in a clockwise direction.

IMG_0098Another “experiment” was a test of strength.  Standing to the side of the equatorial line with my arms stretch out straight in front of me, I was able to resist the guides pressure when she tried to push them down.  However, while standing on the line, she was able to push them down quite easily.  Again, the distances involved are minute but the same happened to everyone in our groups except one young man.  I have yet to discover how this trick was done; perhaps it was simply the power of suggestion.  Or maybe you really are weaker while standing on the equator.

We were also encouraged to celebrate the fact that we were 2 kilograms lighter while standing on the equator than at our home.  This has to do with the fact the the Earth bulges at the equator.  Therefore, you are further away from the bulk of the Earth’s mass so the planet exerts less pull on you.  Investigating this fact, I found it to be true but the actual difference amounts to about 5 ounces rather than 4.4 lbs!

UnknownAnother activity we were invited to try was balancing an egg on a nail.  We were told that this could happen only at the equator because the forces of gravity at this point were auspicious.  Both of us were able to accomplish this task at the museum.  I was also able to balance an egg on a nail at our house which is about 660 km (420 miles) south of the equator.  That distance represents 6.75% of the distance between the equator and the south pole.

IMG_0091We were visiting this museum a couple of days before the autumnal equinox on September 24th.  It was also quite close to noon.  On any other day of the year, either the southern hemisphere or the Northern Hemisphere tilts a little towards the Sun. But on the two equinoxes, the tilt of Earth’s axis is perpendicular to the Sun’s rays.  The sun dial wasn’t throwing much of a shadow.

Regardless of whether the demonstrations at this museum were just parlor tricks, it spurred me to investigate further.  I had forgotten what the Coriolis effect was.  I was reminded of the earth’s bulge at the equator and found out where the highest point along the equator was.  I came across many facts about the equator I hadn’t seen in many years.  I was able to experience the equinox while virtually on the equator.  I’m sure many visitors are gullible enough to believe these amazing phenomenon which happen at the equator.  Well, they do …  but they also happen elsewhere.  And I’m sure there are skeptics which scoff at it all.  But, in the end, we had a lot of fun while there.



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