By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The toilets in the Johannesburg airport, and, in fact, in nearly all of South Africa, turned out not to be such good Coriolis laboratories. They flush straight down. No swirl, clockwise or counter, just a straight flush from the toilet bowl to oblivion. So we turned to the sinks. I held my hand over one drain until I could fill it with enough water to be useful, and when I let go, voila! Or, at least, it could've been voila; it was hard to tell. "I see it!" said Lisa. "Yeah, me too," I said, with the creepy sense that I was lying. Truth is, the water didn't spin consistently one way or the other. It wiggled and slipped away and disappeared before I could determine which direction it moved. My heart sank, but I said nothing. Lisa, who had begun to defend herself against an endless stream of factoids with the reminder that she'd been to 18 countries, was already weary of my pontificating on historic moments in the struggle against apartheid. I kept doubt to myself.
Weeks later, though, at home in front of the computer, doubt got the better of me. So I turned to the place I go now to confirm suspicions and update rumors: I went to the Internet. Now, you might be thinking here, That's how you get into trouble! Don't you know the Internet is full of false information? And yes, you'd be right. But the thing about the Net is, there's just a lot of information - enough to give you all sides of the story. And at a place on the World Wide Web called Bad Coriolis (http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/Bad/BadCoriolis.html), I found reason enough to believe that, while the Coriolis effect does indeed exist, it has no effect on toilets. Or sinks. Or, essentially, anything smaller than a weather system.
Indeed, according to the Bad Coriolis page's author, Alistair Fraser, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, "The direction of rotation of a draining sink is determined by the way it was filled, or by vortices introduced while washing. The magnitude of these rotations may be small, but they are nevertheless gargantuan by comparison to the rotation of the Earth."
It is possible, Fraser allows, to detect the Coriolis effect in a draining bowl of water, but only if the bowl is perfectly round, the draining hole minuscule and the water left to sit still for hours. The man in Nantuki, Kenya, then, who demonstrates for tourists the changing spin cycle of water as he steps back and forth across the equator is a fake. Never mind that Michael Palin featured him on an episode of his PBS show, Pole to Pole. Palin, notes Fraser, is "shilling for bad meteorology."
Aren't we all?
With a luxury of access known only to reporters and full-blown kooks, I get Professor Fraser's number at Penn State and give him a call. I catch him in a fit of pique. "This is very, very timely!" he exclaims. "In about 15 minutes I was about to go out the door to buy the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue- not because I'm interested at all, I never buy the thing, but because one of my colleagues told me that somewhere early in the magazine, where they're discussing doing the shoot, there's a little section that talks about walking north and south of the equator and watching the toilets flush!
"You could do a whole story," he suggests, "on the great stupidities of the magazine industry."
Instead, I decide to just e-mail Lisa with the truth. "Wow," she writes back. "They must have thought we were crazy at the airport."
If there's comfort in this story, it's this: Phil Plait, physicist and obsessive mastermind behind another corrective Web site, the Bad Astronomy page (http://smart.net/~badastro), has rooted out errors from reputable sources everywhere. CNN says you can view a solar eclipse through film: "Wrong, and in fact quite dangerous." Marilyn Vos Savant, Parade columnist listed in the Guinness Book of World RecordsHall of Fame for highest IQ, has a whole Web page devoted to her wrongness (http://www.wiskit.com/marilyn/marilyn.html), complete with a "Marilyn is Wrong" T-shirt offer. Even Plait gets stuff wrong: "Oops! I blew it here," he writes. "In the following article, I used the wrong number to get the circumference of the Earth at the latitude of Cape Canaveral." I tell Fraser that getting his page some ink might dispel some of the erroneous theories that drive him so mad. He's not convinced. Will and Ariel Durant, he claims, wrote in one of their books that there's not a single piece of mythology that's ever been eliminated. "But it's been eliminated with me!" I remind him. "Well," he allows, "I guess that's progress."
"Be very, very careful what you put into that head," said Cardinal Wolsey, chief minister to King Henry VIII, "because you will never, ever get it out." This quote begins Fraser's Web page, but, funny thing, it doesn't really sound like a 16th-century Englishman's syntax; in fact, this Wolsey fellow sounds even more contemporary than Shakespeare (who did, incidentally, write his own plays). Professor Fraser, are you sure you're right about that?