BUENOS AIRES Unseen forces are at work upon us. At least, it's fashionable to say so, as evinced by Jared Diamond's best-sellers Guns, Germs and Steel and the recent Collapse. Both books posit that geography, above all, determines culture. So now I'm deep in the Southern Hemisphere in the dead of winter to settle the debate for once and all with a study of mosh pits. Does the Coriolis effect the famed force that causes hurricanes and sinks to swirl one way in the north and another in the south play any role in mosh pitting?
My control group: the swarms of counterclockwise-rotating circle pits in North America. Nine out of ten of them throw to the left, like sideshow drivers in Oakland. Why? Is it more comfortable to go left, giving the right arm maximum range for punching? Or is it a neuroscientific phenomenon associated with a brain mostly made of water?
A mosh pit is a random event, like water molecules falling down a sink drain. Yet in the Northern Hemisphere, sink water and hurricanes go clockwise and the mosh pits counterclockwise. When you're in the Southern Hemisphere, do they go the other way?
Test lab: El Teatro Colegial a dancehall filled with about 350 Argentine hipsters wasted on a $1 version of Bud Light called Quilmes, as in "I've had too much cheap beer, please kill mes. " They've amassed at 2 a.m. on a late-June Saturday at this 1,300-capacity dancehall on Federico Lacroze. After waiting in line for an hour in the drizzling seven-degree-Celsius night, paying a nine-peso ($3) cover, and tolerating a cursory gun search, the kids are handed little white slips of paper and allowed into the three-story venue. Ceilings loom thirty feet up and look down on a dark empty balcony level specked with locals engaged in deep-tonsil exploration. Below the drunken gropers, 18-to-24-year-old men dressed in jeans, T-shirts, and Converse rock back and forth in imitation dancing, because Argentines are known throughout South America as being unable to dance. Dudes two-step like Screech at the Peach Pit, while the girls get significantly funkier to the sounds of Band Three of a four-band rock-ska bill. Band Three ends, and Band Four begins at much quicker tempo. Finally. It's time. Two-stepping leads to skanking leads to pogoing, and then we see the preliminary arm-thrashing stages of a mosh pit. Elbows begin to poke up. Knees pump near chests. Which direction will they go? The band gets louder and louder, crossing the distortion and tempo threshold separating ska from Sublime-style punk rock. The kids throw themselves at each other, but they're like an engine that can't turn over! No order! What's going on here?
A quick refresher on what my high school teacher told me about the Coriolis effect: The Earth spins, and all moving matter within the rotating system will have its direction affected by the rotation. In the north, hurricanes go clockwise, and in the south they go counterclockwise. Mr. Wizard might've taught me the part about the sinks.
At any rate, the world has latched onto this arcane piece of 19th-century French research, because it highlights a sneaking suspicion we all share: Forces much larger than we are shape our lives. Things like tides, solar flares, supernovas, and deep Earth magnetism control our fate. This suspicion explains why America lost to Ghana in the World Cup: Ghanaian metabolisms were more acclimated to Euro time zones. Look who made it to the finals. All Euros! Coincidence?
My Argentine guide Julian, an American-trained professional drummer and known substance abuser, sheds some light on what's going on in the dancehall. On this trip, I find Julian urinating off Maipu Street in the north of the city and swilling red wine from a box. "Have you seen this stuff? It's cheap!" he tells my friends in English. "Construction workers drink it. Here, have some. You'll go straight to hell!"
The thin, tall, easygoing Julian hangs with the local heavy metal scene and is a fan of "anarchopunk." I mention the Coriolis effect and my theory. He's also heard of it in high school, but he smiles at me as if I'm a moron. "We don't mosh down here," he says. "It's all ... [he makes chaotic swirling motions with his fingers] chaos. Todo."
Indeed, looking into the nexus of fandom front and center of El Teatro Colegial where people are going the craziest it's a half-pogo, half-skank thrashout each kid is acting as his own independent pit. They bounce off each other like uniformly negative particles. The second a direction flow emerges, it hits packs of individuals doing their own thing.
The West Coast circle pit, I realize, is special in the world. It is chaos overcome by learned cultural rules. Geography may enable culture, Jared Diamond, but it doesn't determine it. Culture determines culture. And in Argentina, they haven't gotten the memo that mosh pits are supposed to swirl in spectacular flesh whirlpools. Witness the huge American summerfests where three pits spin adjacent to each other, known as the "Norelco Razor effect," due to its visual similarity to the head of the famed gadget. The circle pit is a uniquely American phenomenon, and in this time of global shame, we should be proud.
Further Press Play research also determined that my high school teacher was full of it, and the Coriolis effect on water in a sink is negligible just a few millionths of the force of gravity. Sink water swirls, but not because of the spinning of the Earth.
Son of a %#&!
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