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Voyage to the middle of the world

November 16, 2010

Quito: Flat-Earthers had, by the 18th century, been relegated to the loony fringe of scientific discussion(which today accommodates everyone from Creationists to Climate Skeptics), however there remained much debate, particularly in France, about whether the globe was perfectly round or bulged more at the poles or at the equator. In order to settle the conundrum, King Louis XV commissioned two scientific expeditions to measure the Earth’s circumference: one to Lapland (close to the North Pole) and one to Quito, then in Spanish Peru. A degree of longitude would be calculated from each measurement and the results would be compared.

With one foot in each hemisphere

In 1736, some time after the Lapland group had confirmed that the Earth is flatter at the poles, the equatorial contingent of the French Geodesic Mission – who had been embroiled in various adventures, including infighting and deaths, and the ‘serendipitous’ possession of Incan gold – reported their findings: the earth does indeed bulge at the equator.

The official equator marker is in fact 300m south of the actual line.

The scientists had selected their Equatorial marker, a few kilometres north of Quito, after finding that all the logical longitudinal points of reference from the Greenwich Meridian were either in an ocean or on an inconvenient rock in the Galapagos.

Quito, named after the Quitu people that lived there a millennium ago, was the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978.

It is the only capital in the world to be directly threatened by an active volcano, which last erupted in 2006. Eruptions to date haven't affected buildings, but over the past decade, people have started building homes in the safety zone.

Pululahua volcanic crater a few kilometres outside Quito,, is the second biggest in the world. People live in the village on the crater floor.

Ecuador, the Spanish for ‘equator’, got its name from the scientific expedition, and it was also the source of the new metric system – 1 metre was calculated as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole.

Latitude: 0º0º0º

Quito is above 2400 metres

It was a highly valuable calculation to cartographers, even if it turns out to be 300 metres further north than the French positioned it, and we visit the marker, some 20 kilometres north of Quito. There’s something quite magical about hopping between the north and south hemispheres, of knowing you are standing in the middle of the earth.

We experiment with the Coriolis effect, watching water evacuate a basin without the usual plughole vortex when on the equator, but spiralling clockwise and counterclockwise just a metre into either hemisphere.

The plughole experiment is demonstrated

It’s great fun, but we suspect there may be more to Quito than its geography. We navigate the dangerous streets with caution – every traveller we speak to has some gruesome tale of muggings or worse – and among the impressive colonial buildings and plazas, we discover the Chapel of Mankind (Capilla del Hombre). The beautiful building is, I realise, the first memorial we’ve seen on the continent that is dedicated to the misery and suffering of the indigenous population.

Mestizo ('mixed-race') by Oswaldo Guayasamín

Tears Of Blood by Guayasamín

Pinochet by Guayasamín

The incredible museum perfectly complements the paintings it displays by celebrated Ecuadorian indigenous artist Oswaldo Guayasamín. The cubist styled paintings show the AmerIndian it his most wrought and we leave the gallery heavy with the sorrow of millions.

My brother David stands next to Guayasamín's vintage Ford

Head in Guayasamín's garden

Nick is menaced by a snake

The altitude, continual rain and chill combine to create a rather depressing experience. The leaden skies, similar to Lima’s panza de burro ( donkey’s belly grey), make me long for relief. It’s not far off: tomorrow we fly to the Galapagos.

Me and Nick on the middle of the Earth

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. attila permalink
    November 16, 2010 7:25 am

    The jumping video is so charming, but the talk about Coriolis effect is pulling legs. No, no, no! See please http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/Bad/BadCoriolis.html

    • Gaia permalink*
      November 16, 2010 3:18 pm

      Oh no, I’ve been conned again!

  2. Nicola Jones permalink
    November 17, 2010 12:37 am

    No way the Coriolis force affects a basin of water… no no no, simply no. Do they really try to pass that off on tourists (and/or science journalists)??

    • Gaia permalink*
      November 17, 2010 3:32 pm

      They are VERY convincing scamsters!

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