Science Takes A Holiday

i had to know the truth.  See it, swirl it and experience it for myself.  While not the primary reason i jumped on the chance for a South American roadtrip, i can geekily say, it was a factor…

All my life, i believed that toilets flush in the opposite direction south of the equator.  And in my inner-nerdbrain, i just knew that AT the equator, they must flush STRAIGHT DOWN.  It made perfect sense.  And i had to seek the truth…

As an experimentalist*, not to mention a highly over-scheduled and disorganized woman, i had done no preparation before leaving the country.  Didn’t even have a chance to read up on my destinations, let alone prepare a scientific research plan.  My strategy?  Flush and photograph as many toilets as possible.  Do the “post-game analysis” later.

no additives

Before long, my travel mates, as well as the other members of our small tour group, got used to my odd behavior.  My first experimental discovery in a hotel room in Quito, Ecuador (just south of the equator)?  It’s really hard to photograph swirling toilet water.   But in Quito, Ecuador – the toilets all went counterclockwise.  Promising….  The opposite of my home toilet.  An encouraging first data point…

Knowing that the construction of the toilet, and angle of the jets would be a factor, i decided to try the sink for better accuracy.  Let the water reach a kinetic equilibrium and then drain it.  But it would still be hard to photograph.  This led to an experiment with additives**.  STILL counterclockwise. 

coffee grounds - sink water at equilibrium

When we arrived at the equator in the midst of a torrential rain storm?  i couldn’t wait and dashed right off for the toilets.  Fortunately, my travel mates knew the story, or they’d have assumed i’d had some bad cuy for lunch… The locals apparently have a sense of humor.  This was the sign outside the ladies room.  Remember, folks, this is the region of the world where true shrunken heads exist.  This sign was just a touch creepy…

boobies.  creepy boobies.

boobies. creepy boobies.

i excitedly lifted the lid, steadied my camera and hit the power flush.  STRONG counterclockwise swirl.  What?  Not straight down?  Hosed – mislead by pop-science and the media****.  Damn.

(sigh)  counterclockwise.  damn.

Now that i’d acquired a new hobby, however, i wasn’t done photographing toilets.  For giggles, i snapped a shot on the flight to St. Cristobal, Galapagos (about 1degree south of the equator) and even in my cabin on the Galapagos Explorer II.  Nope.  Nothing exciting.  Just some toilet pics at this point.  Although shipboard toilets were marginally “straight down”… but clearly due to construction of the porcelain.

don't play with the blue water, kids galapagos-toilet-mystery

So, what’s really going on?  Do toilets swirl in opposite directions above and below the equator?  Lots of good urban folklore says “Yessireebob!”  And, with a spiffy name, the Coriolis Effect***, you just gotta believe it’s true.  So after being back for a few weeks, i finally did some actual research.  OK.  Not research.  i googled it.  Same difference these days…

The way the water in a toilet spins has nothing to do with the Coriolis Effect, and everything to do with how the toilet is constructed.  That’s it.  Pop-scientists disagree on details, though.  Some sources get the direction wrong.  If the Coriolis force were the dominant factor, water would spin counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern.  And my northern-hemispherical commode goes clockwise… Poo…

It’s a myth.  Even if you constructed a toilet a few miles in diameter, it might not happen.  The Coriolis Effect determines weather patterns, not toilet water patterns.  One source suggested a carefully controlled experiment using a large (1m diameter) stationary body of water could demonstrate some Coriolis Effect – lending support to my “sink-based” approach.  A small geek victory in an otherwise disappointing scientific excursion.

The sad truth:  Toilets are simply too small to exhibit the Coriolis Effect.  A rather entertaining explanation can be found via the Discovery Channel “Skinny” link, which i found via the Toilet Musem FAQ.  Well, crap…

ADDENDUM FOR DOUBTING ALEX L SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR:

Clockwise, Baby!  Read it and weep!

Clockwise, Baby! Read it and weep!

* not to be confused with a “mentalist”. 

** coffee grounds in the sink.  geez.  do you really think i’d photograph poo?  that’s just sick… i really wonder about you folks sometimes…

*** Likely to be the name of a future Tom Clancy novel.  Which i won’t read, just like his last several dozen…

**** In what many consider to be one of the best episodes of The Simpson’s (Bart vs Australia), Bart is equally intrigued by this whole “toilet flushing” thing… and it leads to an indictment for fraud from the Australian government, among other things.  In my case, at least the US Embassy didn’t get involved.

 
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19 thoughts on “Science Takes A Holiday

  1. Of course we’re very interested in science here at the WBC – just last week Ms Tutt was demonstrating the Doppler effect (allegedly) with Mr Ern in the
    3rd floor supply cupboard. He seemed quite agitated by the whole episode…

  2. Well, I for one can’t wait until you’ve completed your trip to Switzerland, visited CERN and written a detailed report on the inner workings of the Large Hadron Collider.

    From what I’ve read in the media, they could use some high powered technical resources…such as yourself.

    8)

  3. i’d suggest becoming an alarmist conspiracy theory loon expert… you know in your heart that the myth must be true, therefore it is surely clandestine government spooks who are ruining your day. hey, it can’t be much worse than staring at toilets while on vacation…

  4. I remember, back in the early 60’s – – – Oh doG, now I sound like an old fart – – – when I was working in a Uni Physics Dept, we – the techs and some of the graduate students – spent six months working on this one. We proved it didn’t work as the stats just stayed random. It was fun devising the equipment. 🙂

  5. Colonel – [averts eyes, grovels, makes multiple gestures of humblement…] Welcome to The Park! We are honored to have the founder of the World Blogging Council pay a visit… with all worshipful respect, however, i recommend use of the Doppler Shift as a means to avoid a traffic ticket for running a red light. Suspect there were other experiments underway in your supply cupboard.

    penfold – best not to put a finger on it. lord knows where it’s been…
    i felt an urge to wash up after just looking at it!

    rob – i might be willing to take that challenge… so long as no actual homework, or work of any kind, is involved! kinda like my day job…

    gnu kid – i truly believed this one. it just makes good science sense. of COURSE there’s a conspiracy! there were black helicopters visible from time to time…

    DP – seeking nuggets of truth, wherever they may swirl… that’s my purpose in life…

    unbearable banisment – i wanted to believe this one. wanted the toilet to go straight downwards at the equator. Willed it to be so, in fact… but alas, the truth prevails… damn…

    archie – Wow! You did it AND got paid? That’s as good as it gets! And no, you’re not an Old Fart. Not even a traF dlO…

  6. It’s good to see that there are folks still out there sacrificing for scientific knowledge. I can’t imagine what you had to give up to make this journey just to do these experiments. I’m impressed.

  7. I’ve never seen a toilet drain clockwise or the other direction. The water comes in from the back and swirls around to the front on both sides then goes down into the bowl as the old water is flushed away straight down, thats how mine flushes anyway. I never believe people when they say their toilet drains clockwise.

  8. silverstar – shucks, ma’am…. t’weren’t nothin’… no. seriously. it wasn’t anything… but when the entire group photo collection is up at snapfish? there’ll be no mistaking which ones are mine!

    alex – well, i’ll just have to do some home photography to show you my CLOCKWISE toilets. Three of ’em! Will try to get an ‘addendum’ photo up today… oh ye of little toilet-faith!

    dolce – That’s a good dear… but i recommend you set the bar a little higher… i’m really low-rent, child…

    nm – i should have my own comic book, then…. i was holding out for a sit com, but may have to start somewhere! the ultimate goal? action figures!

  9. uncle keith – one name. small bills, please…

    beth – sadly, i’m quite sure this isn’t the weirdest thing i’ve ever done on vacation. i’d have to think about it a bit… but know there’s been worse. alcohol may have been involved…

  10. Pingback: Doppler Effect « Ærchies Archive - The Curmudgeon’s Magazine

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