Minute by Degree.

I have the kind of mind that often wonders about the ‘why’s of some everyday things – things we normally just take for granted for most of our lives never considering, just accepting… until one day your 6 year old asks you something like… “Mom (Dad), What pulls me back down to the ground when i jump up high?” “Gravity” “What’s Gravity?” “Why doesn’t it make the birds fall down?”

For reasons i may explain in another post, recently i’ve been putting some thought into ‘degrees’.

Not the kind of degree that measures temperature – nor the kind smart folks get from Universities or dumb folks get from Russian internet sites for $15.

The ‘Other’ kind – one that is used to measure ‘angles’ (No Billy, not measures Angels – angles!) 🙂 Initially the kind that measures places of latitude or longitude on a map or globe that defines a place’s position.

‘Everyone’ knows the North Pole is a very cold place where Santa lives and works and writes his Naughty/Nice list and the South Pole is at the opposite end of the planet where penguins waddle, freezing their tootsies off and where ‘Summer’ is briefly held for a couple of days during the middle of Winter.

Both these places are located at the only point on the entire planet that is defined as being at 90 degrees latitude, one 90 North and one 90 South – the two Poles of Earth through which an imaginary line or axis of rotation passes. Every other place on the surface of the earth has a latitude measured at less than 90 degrees, which means if you take a line from the very centre of the earth and draw it out to the Equator (another imaginary line that circles the world around the middle – it’s waist) which is given as the ‘starting point’ for the measurement of degrees of latitude and so is set at zero, and then take another line from the centre of the earth that passes through the place you are at or measuring, those two lines form an angle of less than 90 degrees. (The four angles in a square, also called ‘right-angle’s)

Lines oF LATitude are flat, like layers of a sponge cake

To help picture this, take an object you are very familiar with – a watch, or a clock with two hands. At 12 pm the two hands are together and have an angle of 0 degrees (no angle) between them. At one oclock the hands have an angle of 30 degrees between them; at two oclock, 60 degrees and at 3 pm exactly 90 degrees. With a clock you can keep on going as the hour hand always moves in one direction away from the 12 at the top, increasing the size of the angle from 90 degrees all the way to six oclock when the hands form a straight line and the angle (measured through the centre of the clock) is 180 degrees. Then, depending on your mood or perspective, you either change the side you measure the angle of the hands through and ‘shrink’ the angle back through 90 degrees back to zero, or, you can keep measuring from the same place (the centre up to the 12 then back to the centre and the hour hand) and get answers of up to 360 degrees between the hands when they come ‘full circle’ and are together again at 12 am. A ‘full’ circle has 360 degrees. Skaters, skiiers, boarders and BMX/motorcycle stunt riders do stunts referred to as 360’s or multiples of a full circle or one complete rotation.

So what is there to consider about these degrees you may be wondering? (if you are still reading without your eye’s glazing over by now).

Well, it’s this: we only have up to 90 degrees North or South – when we get to 90 degrees we can’t go any further! If we keep moving in the same direction we don’t get to 100 or 110 degrees but we move back down through 89, 88,.. 80, 70 degrees latitude, etc.

So why don’t we do that with the degrees of longitude East or West??

Why is there no East and West ‘pole’??

“Well,….” you answer, “the earth does not rotate through an East/West pole axis like it does through the N/S poles!”

And you’d be quite right to say so.

But if you think about it – that makes NO sense whatsoever.

Because, no-one can actually locate either a north pole or a south pole (if someone had not previously done some seriously heavy mathematical work combined with surveying and actually built a marker at the South Pole. You can’t build one at the North Pole because it is below a floating ice sheet that ‘moves’ (and lately even melts) at different times of the year!).

The North and South poles are far more of a ‘theoretical’ place that is only ever seen on a picture of a map or seen on a model of the globe for almost all of us, whereas all of us are able to ‘see’ a point both East and West every day we can ‘define’ as a ‘pole’ which is marked by the rising and setting of the sun. It is far harder to locate a North or South Pole direction for any place that you don’t already have a map for. (Spend a whole day and night outside and try pointing to where the North or South pole lies without any other aid but what you see with your eyes and see how well you go!)

Those of us who actually pay these events any attention know that there is a very slight change in these positions of sunrise and sunset each day for 182 days or so, from mid-winter to mid-summer (they move from South to North, for those in the ‘Northern’ hemisphere, before reversing back over the rest of the year), but this is ‘negligible’ on a daily basis and would not prevent their use as locating the direction of an East or West ‘Pole’ for a particular place on the globe that does not vary for that place on any given day.

So just why is it that we have up to 180 degrees East or West of the imaginary line called the Prime Meridian (that passes through London and Paris as well as parts of North Africa, South Atlantic Ocean, The South Pole, large parts of the Pacific Ocean and back through the North Pole to London again) and not just 90 degrees like we do when moving North or South of The Equator?

Lines of Longitude 'divide' the earth into slices like a peeled orange (he chewed)
Lines of Longitude ‘divide’ the earth into slices like a peeled orange (he chewed)

Especially when both are measurements around the surface of a sphere (Earth) – which is almost perfectly symmetrical North and South and East and West?

Why is it if you walk along the line of zero degrees longitude from the equator to a pole (or swim cos a lot of it is over water!), when you finally pass through the Pole you instantly change from zero degrees longitude to 180 degrees??

(At this point i’d just like to point out a weird fact: if you stand at the North Pole then try to move in ANY direction, whichever direction you take, you will be heading due South – you can’t move in any other direction from the North pole BUT ‘South’; same as you can’t move in any other direction than North at the South Pole! If you start to move one way then turn 90 or even 180 degrees from the first way you were facing you are still heading in the ‘same’ direction! Once you’ve taken your first step then you are able to move north, south, east, or west again but for your first step it can only ever be in the one direction ‘opposite’ to the pole at which you are standing.

So, we can only move through 90 degrees around a globe north or south but we can move through 180 degrees east to west?

Does that not seem strange?? They are, in effect, the same measure; one degree of angle measured through the centre of the earth; measuring (for all intents and porpoises) 🙂 a symmetrical round ball.

So why can’t they both stop at 90 degrees if one does?

Well, rather weirdly, i think, if we DID have an East and West Pole on our globe like we have the North and South ones and only measured up to 90 degrees away from a zero degree line before moving back around the ‘other side’ of the world back down to zero.. every place on the globe would have a ‘twin’ location with another place, each having exactly the same co-ordinates! (With the exception of the now ‘four’ Poles).

You could not navigate from one location to another, defined by their N/S and E/W degrees of latitude/longitude, without becoming confused as to exactly which location of two ‘equal but different’ ones you were starting from and going to!

Hard as it might seem to make sense out of, our degrees of Latitude (which are like flat slices cut through an apple or round melon) make ever decreasing circles around the surface of the planet starting at it’s widest distance around the equator and becoming ever smaller the closer you get to a Pole (90 degrees) where they effectively become just a single point on the ground with no diameter at all!

Whereas our degrees of longitude (which, remember, are the ‘same’ degrees) all make a circle of the same size (one the circumference of the Earth) but which ‘rotate’ through and around the earth’s North-South axis.

At the Equator an angle of one degree  either North, South, East or West is covered by traveling about 67 miles in a straight line along the surface of our planet.

This remains the case as long as you move in an East-West direction (latitude) for as far as you can move until you eventually end up back where you started.

However, the further you are away from the Equator, degrees of longitude get ‘smaller and smaller’! At a latitude of 45 degrees (Portland, Oregon; N/S Dakota border; Middle of Maine; Switzerland) one degree of longitude ‘shrinks’ from 67 miles to a mere 45 miles or so!

If you were 67 miles from one pole you would be one degree away in latitude but the same mileage in an East-West direction would cover over 60 degrees of longitude!? ( That is more degrees than there are between the US East and West coasts!)

One final bit of weirdness caused by our system of selectively choosing different ways of measuring degrees West to East versus North to South…

If you walk out of your door and head due south for one mile, then turn 90 degrees and head due west for a mile then turn another 90 degrees and head due North for one mile you would have covered a ‘U’ shape and would be a mile from (West of) your home. But if you moved your house so your front door was right at the North Pole and tried that… you’d be exactly back at your front door again! You would have walked in a triangle – with two (three) angles of 90 degrees each!

So – that’s just a little more of how my brain works.

Anyone remember the Wizard of Oz? and the Scarecrow?

I’d be quite happy to change places with him before he got his brain – sometimes! :mrgreen:


  1. I think you may have exhausted most of your readership on this one. 🙂 I was right there with you, though. My brain, too, ponders things like this. It is interesting how our earth works. If you’re asking a question as to ‘why’ it is the way it is, I would say it would be because of rudimentary navigational needs. Several centuries ago, when mankind discovered that there was some sort of magnetism that could show them consistently one point on the compass (from which they could figure out all the other points) it defined where ‘north’ was in terms of some kind of actual place, and not just what was agreed upon by stars and maps. (Eventually of course, we learned that the magnetic North Pole is not actually right at the North Pole.) Consequently ‘North’ was a direction that could always be found, whereas ‘East’ and ‘West’ were always (and still are) only relative to one’s current position. There is not one ‘place’ where you could say ‘that is East’ and everything beyond it is West. It is not possible from a physical or a navigational standpoint. So the North and South poles were defined by the point of an axis (which is definable) whereas East and West (and the lines of longitude) are only definable in terms of their relationships to the sun. The time zones (and therefore longitude as well) are arrived at by virtue of when that particular ‘slice’ of the earth encounters the first rays of the sun after night (or visa versa – the first shadow of night after daylight). Therefore the things which define the North and South are intrinsically different than the things which define East and West. And there is no getting around this. It is not possible to define (with any amount of clarity or logic) the North and South poles in the manner in which East and West longitudes are defined, and it is not possible to define East and West in the same way that North and South are defined. So … they are ‘equal’ points on the compass, but they do not operate in the same way at all. Therefore identifying them, measuring them, and calculating by them are going to be completely different as well.

    Good brain food!


  2. Wow. I am going to guess that you and Annie were those smart kids in Math class who held up their hands to answer every question, while the rest of us dummies tried to hid in the back row. 🙂

    It is important that people do ask questions about what the rest of us just take for granted. Most of us can just memorize formulas and calculations to pass test. It is far more important to understand where the math comes from and why the formulas work.

    The people who change the world are the ones who don’t just accept what they are told, and try to work out their own, better answer. Off course most ot the time no one pays any attention to what they say and they get locked up in the looney bin.

    Love, I did try to think about your question but the only thing I can come up with is “What she (Annie) said.”


  3. Annie – Thank you for offering your wisdom 🙂

    I agree with all you wrote but my main ‘curiosity’ was to do with the ‘doubling’ of the maximum degrees longitude to the ones of latitude when they are both measuring identical angles between each respective degree and you can’t move ‘more’ east to west than you can north to south on a map?

    Seems to me we should have either both up to 180 degrees or both set to a max of 90?? Why would we set things up so as to fix a difference?

    Michelle! – wake UP sis! 🙂

    Nahhh – i forgive you – you need to conserve your strengths…this is basically frivolous rubbish i wish i could ignore sometimes 😀

    Ed – LOL 🙂 you got it right -it’s more important to know where the formulas come from – and be able to see how they are also present in the everyday parts of life we all live in and mostly just let ‘slide by’ without ever fully appreciating the interconnectedness of all things.

    Maths sometimes goes way way over my head, but i also appreciate , perhaps more than many, just how it is contained in, and unites through, every thing in life – kind of like i feel God does 🙂

    There is definitely a close link between ‘simple’ mathematics and God.(and Nature). There is just as definite a link in complex maths and God but i’m too dumb to explain or understand most of that 😉


  4. Joy Renee! 😀 where you bin Hun?? Thrashing your brain and voice at college i bet?

    I have an ‘enquiring’ mind – what can i say? 😉

    Never really lost that from being a kid. Always something new to ponder and wonder at – and hopefully find answers for. 🙂

    I’ll see if i can keep this sort of stuff to a mimimum for my poor long-suffering readers :mrgreen:


  5. haha, well, my time, yeah. But I grew up on old movies. 🙂 Have you ever seen Support Your Local Sheriff? With James Garner, Harry Morgan, and Walter Brennan? (among others) If you haven’t … check it out. Hilarious old-time humor. 😀


  6. I Loved that Movie! 🙂 – and the follow-up Support your local Gunfighter I thought James Garner was excellent.
    “They’re willing to pay One thousand dollars. We’ll split it fifty-fifty. That means four hundred for you. ” 😀

    i used to enjoy ‘Maverick’ too.


  7. Used to enjoy Maverick? The new one? I like that one too. Jodie Foster is a great actress, and did a good job with the role … but I think I would have cast it differently. Don’t know who. Maybe Debbie Reynolds. 😉 Fantastic story line.


  8. James Garner who starred in both the TV and later movie “Marverick” is one of my favorite actors.

    He was great in both movies you mentioned Love, as well as one of my favorite Detective TV shows “The Rockford Files”, from 1974:

    He was also in the best movie about auto racing “Grand Prix”, from1966.

    He also is fairly unique among actors with being married to the same women, Lois Clark, since 1956.


  9. Annie – i’m sure there will be reruns on some channel somewhere. It may be shown in black and white!(?? i used to watch on a B&W tv set so not sure if all episodes were in colour or not – it is contemprary to I Dream of jeannie and i know the first series of that was in made B&W with the later series going colour) and it might seem a little ‘corny’ by today’s standard but i think Garner was a good enough character actor to make it enjoyable none-the-less. 🙂

    Ed – i have seen and enjoyed all those too. i loved his ‘dry’ humour, i found him very funny – even when his show was not intended to be strictly a comedy.

    He seemed to work with some understated but brilliant sidekicks too. ( Jack Elam, Dub Taylor, Noah Beery, etc) who helped him shine in his roles.

    And i did not know about his marriage – you are right – i don’t know of anyone else who’s been married to Lois Clark since 1956 😉


  10. I love James Garner too. Great placid, dry acting. Always well done. And I appreciate a corny movie. (Corny by today’s standards.) Today’s humor is dull and terribly UNfunny. I like good humor – wherever it comes from. (I tend to love British humor too. SO dry! hahaha)


  11. You have an interesting point about the earth having a north and south pole but not an east or west. The problem with having an east or west pole is that they would constantly be moving at as much as 1000mph. The reason we have a north and south pole is because these are the points on the earth that are never rotating. Imagine having a foam ball. Now take a string and put it right through the middle of the ball. Hang it by this string and fasten it into place with the bottom ot the string too. If you were to spin this ball, the poin were the string went in would remain stationary(aside from the swaying motion). Another interesting point you brought up was why there are only 90 degrees to the north or south as aposed to 180 degrees to the east or west. This happens for 2 reasons. IIyou think about it, it all comes back to the poles for reason #1. You see, if there were poles on the east and west, we probably would have stoped at 90 degrees and started counting back down. The prme meridian has an end along with all the other longitude lines. The latitude lines however have no end and never meet. Another reason why there are 180 degrees around the earth is because of time. If you were to divide 180 by 15, you would get 24(the number of hours in a day). If there were 90 degrees, that would require the prime meridian to continuously go around the world. If this happened, there would be 2 spots you could cross the international date line(the prime meridian). For this reason days would tn have to be 12 hours long which, with the earth’s current speed of rotation, is not possible. Hope this helps calm your active mind.

    P.S. I also have a wandering mind


  12. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. That is a very smartly written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your helpful information. Thank you for the post. I’ll definitely comeback.


  13. Welcome Jerry – and thank you!

    Not all my posts are as confusing as this one – you are a star indeed if you followed it all! Sometimes i ponder things more deeply than i should and have to write it down to get it out of my head. Hopefully you might find some more interesting and less challenging fun stuff here also – or things to get you thinking if you wish?



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