'X-Files' coriolis error leaves viewers wondering.

From: Skeptical Inquirer  |  Date: 5/1/1995  |  Author: Emery, C. Eugene, Jr.

The Jan. 17, 1995 episode of the 'X-Files' TV series contained a serious error. The episode featured FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully who were investigating a ritual murder in a New Hampshire town, whose residents claimed sensing an evil presence. In one scene, Mulder expressed amazement on the counterclockwise motion of the water draining from a fountain. He stated that the motion of the water should be clockwise because of the effect of the Coriolis force in the area. The writers presented incorrect scientific data since it was normal for water to drain in such a motion.

Was it an honest mistake, or was it a deliberate attempt to spook viewers?

The January 27 episode of the ever-ominous series "The X-Files" (see Media Watch review, SI, March-April 1995) had FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully probing a ritual murder in a small New Hampshire town where the residents had the eerie feeling that a malevolent presence lurked.

At one point, a thirsty Mulder turns on a water fountain in the local school and stares at the draining water in amazement.

"The water," he says.

"What's wrong with it?" Scully asks.

"It's going down the drain counterclockwise," Mulder responds. "The Coriolis force in the Northern Hemisphere dictates that it should go down clockwise."

"That isn't possible," Scully says.

"Something is here, Scully," says Mulder, suddenly convinced that a supernatural force permeates the town. "Something is making these things possible."

There's only one problem: the supposedly brilliant Mulder and Scully (a physician with an undergraduate degree in physics) got it wrong.

All things being equal, water going down the drain in the Northern Hemisphere is supposed to spin counterclockwise. Under less than ideal conditions, the shape of the sink or the original flow of the water can easily overpower the Coriolis force, which is caused by the rotation of the earth.

(The water drains the way a tornado - and a hurricane - spins, which is counterclockwise north of the Equator and clockwise to the south.)

This wouldn't be the first time the show's writers have gotten their scientific facts wrong, especially involving cases of paranormal phenomena.

But in this case, were the people behind the show intentionally giving the wrong information in a mischievous attempt to spook plumbing-conscious viewers into believing that their neighborhoods are also permeated by supernatural forces?

Attempts to contact the writers through the show's publicist were unsuccessful.

If nothing else, the Coriolis reference generated some viewer interest.

On the Internet forum alt.tv.x-files.creative, a fan in Vancouver, B.C., asked if Mulder's reference was scientifically accurate.

"The reason I ask is that, as expected, out of pure curiosity, I immediately checked the two sinks in my apartment, and much to my surprise both drained counterclockwise," the viewer wrote.

It shows why Fox Mulder deserves his nickname of "Spooky."

Gene Emery is the science writer for the Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

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