By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The first thing I did at the Johannesburg airport was rush to the bathroom. No, no - not to pee, and not because I ate something disagreeable on the flight; this is not a story about what it's like to hold it through turbulence, or about the dangers of consuming airline food. Grabbing my friend Lisa by the wrist, I dragged her into the bathroom to observe the water.
Water, you see, according to a phenomenon called "the Coriolis effect," spins clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, counterclockwise in the North. This is what distinguishes a hurricane in the Atlantic from a typhoon in the South China Sea, a vortex in Greenland from one in Australia. This, I had heard, was once thought to be an independent force (named after early-19th-century French civil engineer Gaspard G. Coriolis), but is in truth a result of the Earth's rotation. Somewhere, I had also picked up the idea that the effect was observable in toilets.
Along with the starscape, which I imagined would be startling for its upside-down constellations and augmented Milky Way, the Coriolis effect would be one of the highlights of our African adventure, incontrovertible evidence of an alien land on the opposite side of the Earth. It would also, like the aurora borealis and the rise and set of the Hale-Bopp comet, invoke that knee-weakening, existential sensation that comes when you realize, with a clarity so complete it's almost physical, that we walk and eat and sleep on a moving sphere, suspended in an expanding universe and subject to various tugs beyond normal human perception.
Where did I learn about it, I wonder. Maybe from my brother, nine years my senior, who sometime in his teens acquired a gyroscope and explained to me what a gyroscope has in common with the Earth. My brother stored a lot of science information in his adolescent head. At the age of 3 I learned from him that the dormant volcanoes of the Cascades were not all that dormant, despite my mother's insistence that there was nothing to fear as we gazed out over Crater Lake (Mount St. Helens, you might recall, exploded in 1980). Years later, he defied Mom's information control again to tell me why our patch of Minnesota suburb had become a tornado belt, and a few months after that, when a tornado swept through our back yard and flattened our garage as neatly as a U-Haul box, I was sold on his knowledge of all things geo- and meteorological.
But it seems more likely that I read it somewhere, in something I skimmed long ago, where someone had written it down as an aside, as in, "That's why, if you observe carefully, water spins one direction in the Southern Hemisphere and another in the North." I have a sense memory of it, almost, of the placement of words on the page, the smell of the library, the feel of the book. Unable to test it in my Northern Hemispheric confinement, I filed it away as a black box, an untethered bit of information to be stored in my deep long-term database, taking its place among other vaguely comprehended points of commoner physics: the Doppler effect and red shift, Keplerian data and harmonic constants, high-altitude baking and the consequences of water resistance on falling bodies. But on the southern tip of Africa, I finally had a chance to watch the Coriolis effect in action. And so there I was, in the airport, flushing the toilet. Flushing, in fact, all of the toilets.
Because, you see, it wasn't really working.
When I was 10 years old, my mother gave me a decorative pillow for my birthday. I wasn't particularly girly at the time; I had little interest in decorative anything. I was mostly interested in the inner workings of the phone system, and in wiretapping, and in tape-recording conversations with DJs, television producers and any stranger who would talk to me. My basement bedroom was dominated by a large reel-to-reel 4-track tape machine that had been wired into a small hole my brother drilled into the beige telephone receiver. The room was otherwise cluttered with a patched-together stereo system, several torn-apart radios, a lot of records and water-damaged paperbacks. Nevertheless, the pillow, embroidered in cross-stitching by my mother herself, fit right in: "Those of you who think you know everything," it read, "are annoying to those of us who do."
I look back on that episode as evidence to guide me in my personal Serenity Prayer, a small bit of self-awareness that gives me the wisdom to know the difference between what I can change and what is, I realize now, encoded in my DNA. I may, on the treacherous path to personal growth, learn to be less defensive, to not apologize for things that aren't my fault and to practice self-restraint, but if I was driving my mother batty with pedantry 28 years ago, I take it on faith that I will always, always be a know-it-all. And so I rattle off anecdotes at dinner parties and correct people compulsively, knowing it's irritating even to the people who love me, utterly unable to stop. But I am no longer a child, which means not only that I get less slack for the errors in my data, but that the purity of my facts has been polluted by the politics of interpersonal communications, the weight of juggling rent checks and car payments, and years more pages of science fiction and popular science. In other words, I am often wrong. And I hate to be wrong.
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