Who’s your antipode, baby?

22 November 2006

Ah, happy, cartographic, world-dominating Google: endlessly searchable information and maps, downloadable Google Earth. Unfortunately, none of it could tell me what I wanted to know; namely, what the antipode of Uganda is. My sister Carrie’s good friend Mariah and Mariah’s daughter Jaelyn are spending a month in Uganda doing research for a writing project. Check out her blog (with photos) here.

Anyway, the Africa connection got me thinking about how much we know about the other side of the world from ourselves. Many cartographically-inspired pilgrimages are delightfully tweedy historical studies but likely not to broaden our cultural horizons dramatically. Our all but arbitrary system of latitude and longitude is a fascinating academic study and useful tool, but far from the only way to describe locations and navigate to them. Polynesians, for example, used a vast and interrelated knowledge of time of year, astronomy, ocean currents, regular winds, animal behavior, island locations, and weather forecasting in their navigation, sailing on blue water journeys for thousands of miles. And all that without instruments or a written language–it’s enough to make any biographer of Bligh blush.

One feature of geography independent of the system used to describe it, though, is the concept of the antipode. It’s a little hard to illustrate in two dimensions, which computer screens remain despite all evidence to the contrary. But it is stupendously easy if you have a globe: set it on the floor to rest on your current location and the point on top of the globe is your antipode. From Hilo, on the island of Hawai`i this falls somewhere in Botswana in sub-Saharan Africa. The latitude and longitude of an antipodal point can be found by flipping your latitude across the equator (changing the sign, as it were, from minus to plus or vice versa). Then by take the complement of the longitude (subtract the number of degrees from 180) and flip the East/West direction to the opposite of the original. Thus, Hilo, Hawai`i at about 19 degrees North and 155 degrees West transforms to about 19 degrees South and 25 degrees East, in northeastern Botswana near the border with Zimbabwe.

Identifying the antipode so you can find it on Google Maps turns out to be a little tougher if you live someplace where landmarks are even fewer and farther between. And by this I mean that Uganda, which runs from roughly 1 degree South of the equator to about 4 degrees North, and from about 30 to about 35 degrees East, is antipodal to a big empty swath of the Pacific Ocean. The closest speck of land seems to be Malden Island, an atoll and part of the Line Islands controlled by Kiribati. It’s about five degrees of longitude off (more than three hundred miles at that latitude) from the real point, but hey.

In a more generalized case, the all-volunteer Degree Confluence Project is attempting to visit all the intersections of integer latitude and longitude lines and take pictures of them. They have a list of pairs of antipodes with pictures of each. I found their website via that of Dan Jacobsen, who has a really neat geotrivia page. The point of all of this being that, seeing a similar view from (literally) the other side of the world might induce some empathy with those who live there. Or maybe it’s just a really geeky project.

To take the geekiness down a notch or two, here are two points about the Pacific region to consider, one humorously faux-colonial and one tragically obscure.

First, when I searched Google Maps for the Marquesas Islands (located at about 10 degrees South, 140 degrees West), flailing around to get in the ballpark, I got the following sponsored link:

Looking for Marquesas Islands?
Find exactly what you want today.

I wonder what the Buy It Now price is?

Secondly, Malden Island was the site of three British hydrogen bomb tests in 1957. While Malden was uninhabited except by sea birds, Marshallese students on campus occasionally put up a table on the Campus Center Plaza to educate people about American nuclear tests in the 1940s and 50s in the Pacific, when people were displaced and poisoned. We need to remember these events. I recently saw some physics students agog at videos of the American tests, but to the students, the tests were context-free displays of raw power. No nuclear tests are free of either context or harm. When we think about the lives of others on Earth, it is perhaps easier to worry about them when we feel connected. Who lives opposite you?


3 Responses to “Who’s your antipode, baby?”

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