Close Enough?

Musings about a visit to the Equator – sort of – which prompts me to think about accuracy and what constitutes “close enough.”



It’s April 2014 and our week-long trip to the Galapagos is starting, oddly enough, with a full day in Quito, two hours by air and 2,850 metres above our cruise departure point.

Me, I’m ready to head for Darwin’s islands right away, but we spend the morning touring this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s about what you’d expect: striking cathedrals, tripping-hazard but picturesque cobblestone streets, and the central plazas built by the Spaniards throughout South and Central America, and as far north as Santa Fe.

Montage of 3 shots of Quito basilica, cathedral, and plaza.

Quito Basilica, Cathedral, and Plaza

After a lunch with accompanying live music – something opera-like and requiring actual music appreciation skills, unfortunately – we get back into our bus for the afternoon excursion.

Driving across this sprawling third-world city built on what appears to be an endless series of steep ravines, our progress is slow: our 26 km traverse requires about 90 minutes. Along the way, we get a view of the less-historic side of Quito.

Houses built of unadorned concrete and corrugated metal cling to the hillsides. There appear to be no zoning regulations. Families sell fruit, car to car, at corners with traffic lights. On our air-conditioned bus we are in it but not of it.

Montage of 2 hill scenes in Quito and street vendors of fruit

Hillside and street scenes in Quito, from bus

But our destination – the Equator – is entirely worth it. I mean, how cool is that?

As we arrive, we see that it’s pretty cool. The walkway up to the main 30-metre monument is lined with lesser monuments to the initial surveyors of the equator in this part of the world. They’re mostly engineers, largely French, entirely early 18th century: Louis Godin, Pierre Bouguer, Charles Marie de La Condamine. Not household names, at least not in my household, but immortalized here.

We spend the next hour or so touring the site. I photograph everything worth taking a picture of, and maybe a few things besides.

Montage of 5 shots of equator monument and a pigeon.

Views of and from the main monument, and a pigeon

There’s just one thing. We’re not actually, you know, at the Equator.

Lacking a GPS or, ahem, access to a prehistoric inhabitant of the region, those 18th century French surveyors missed the actual equator by 250 metres. Well, what’s that, you ask. Well, let me tell you:

  • It’s roughly the length of two and a half football fields or soccer pitches.
  • It’s the world record distance in ski jumping, set just this year in February.
  • It’s 136.61202 Mark Harmons, laid head to toe.

I mean, it’s a not-insignificant distance.

Of course, measured against the earth’s pole-to-pole distance of 20,004 km (half of its circumference in that direction), an error of 250 metres is, effectively, a mark of 99.9987503%.

On the other hand, they weren’t playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, stabbing blindly in the dark. Anyone was going to get reasonably close, right? Spatially challenged as I am, even I wouldn’t have placed the equator in, say, Manhattan. Or Miami. So it’s really a judgement call on how much we should spot them.

And, you know, I’m going to leave that with you.

Me, I’m left with two images: one actual, one mental.

The actual one is a picture of myself straddling a line that’s really pretty near the Equator. I mean, how cool is that?

Feet straddling a yellow line supposed to mark the equator

Straddling a Line Pretty Near the Equator

The mental one is of my father, accosting de La Condamine in the Great Hereafter, asking him what the heck happened to the other 0.0012497%. Chuck, old buddy, you’re on your own.

 

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12 Comments

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12 Responses to Close Enough?

  1. I guess it was “close enough for government work” — at work.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Funny how “close enough for His Majesty” doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? Maybe that’s because we trust our governments – no matter how much we complain about them – not to say “Off with your head!” quite so capriciously.

  2. Jim Robertson

    Seems to me that you were “close enough” considering the distance and time it took to get there (even just after lunch….)

    According to Wikipedia there are two spots in/near Quito that mark the equator. We were lucky enough (I guess) to have visited a different one that is allegedly right on the line:
    http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Quitsato_Sundial

    But your monument looks nicer than ours, so maybe I would have settled for yours and not worried about the 0.0012497%.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim R – Go ahead, make me feel even worse! That sundial looks cool! Well done. As for considering the distance and time, the flip side of that is, having come so far, I want it to be right, damn it.

  3. Jim Robertson

    Forgot to mention that I am sure you were much closer than we have been when crossing the equator on various cruise ships. (I remember one trip when we had the King Neptune Ceremony that day after we crossed !!)

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim R – Yes, the cruise ships are a little more casual about it. Hard to see that yellow line in any kind of wave action, I guess.

  4. Jim Taylor

    You were also at the equator on that island in the Galapagos whose name I can’t recall, the one with 397 steps and a view of those two spectacular beaches with a rock plug sticking up at the end. Did you guide bother explaining how accurate that positioning was, by comparison with the Quito monument? I somehow suspect that the equator there was determined as much by the highest point as by planetary precision. As you say, in such matters, inaccuracy doesn’t matter too much. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it is, well, ignorable.
    Jim

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – Bartolome? Well, whaddya know. We knew we were crossing the Equator (twice) when we went around to the far side of Isla Isabela and then returned, but I don’t remember anyone mentioning it in the Island-of-397-steps. And yeah, ignorance is. A good reminder not to get too torqued about anything symbolic, I guess.

  5. Mike Saker

    Ahem. I’ve reread that sentence a few times and I believe that the subject is the size of the “error” (at worst, it’s ambiguous). An error of 250 m in that distance is 0.0012497%, not 99.9987503.

    Mike, (an engineer if you recall).

    • Isabel Gibson

      Mike – Well, I could say “an error of 250m yields a mark (grade) of 99.9987503.” You’re right, it’s awkward – the result of a late edit that removed the repetition (telegraphing) of the size of the error. But you should have seen me checking my percentage calculations! For these numbers, I have no useful intuition as to what the correct result ought to be, not even to an order of magnitude or two! (I felt like one of those little bunnies in the store who enter a wrong number as payment and then try to give you whatever change the cash register says, never mind that it might be more than what you handed them. If the machine says so, it must be so.)

      • Mike Saker

        Ya. I wrote my comment after just getting up this morning and failed to consult my better half (two brains are always better than one); later as I thought about it I wondered whether I was correct in my observation. We agree, it’s a tetch ambiguous, but is it “at worst”, or “at best” ambiguous (which is less critical). I’m definitely out of practice and I should know better than to take you on in this game. Stop digging Mike!

        Cheers

        • Isabel Gibson

          Mike – But where would we be without games? Oh, and tell Gail her cheque is in the mail. I’m so glad I put her on retainer . . .