The Myth of the Flush
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.
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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.
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 Records Hall 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?