If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Thursday
By Allan Eastman
First Time Round The World
In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set out from Spain under a Royal commission with 5 ships and about 270 men to find a route westward to the Spice Islands.
Like most voyages during the so called Age of Exploration, Magellan’s journey was really a predatory quest in pursuit of riches. The dominant European powers of Spain and Portugal were in battle with each other and with Asian Muslim regimes for control of the trade in pepper, cinnamon and cloves – commodities which at the time were worth far more than their weight in gold.
Magellan may have had a map derived from the epic explorations of the great Chinese sea expeditions of 1421. But his own voyage quickly degenerated into a disaster. After failing to find an inland water route through Brazil, several of Magellan’s subordinates mutinied so he ruthlessly executed or marooned many of the rebels. One ship deserted to report his tyrannies back to the King. During the terrifying passage of Cape Horn, another of the small wooden ships sank in the towering storm tossed seas.
Magellan finally arrived in the Philippines with 2 ships. He himself was killed by hostile natives during a beach battle on Mactan Island. The Portuguese captured another ship and hung most of the crew for poaching in their territory.
The one remaining ship – the Victoria – with a hold full of spices, crept back westward toward home. In July 1522, it made landfall in the Cape Verde islands. And there, the crew made a very curious discovery. Like most sailors, they had kept scrupulous records during their voyage with numerous entries in their daily log. According to their well kept records, the date was Wednesday, 9 July. But the local authorities informed them that No, it was in fact Thursday, 10 July.
An entire day had disappeared somehow. What had happened?
In September, the 18 remaining survivors of Magellan’s circumnavigation limped into their home port in Spain, the first people ever to complete a planned around the world journey. The crew’s reports of their strange Time distortion caused a sensation and a special commission was empanelled to investigate and report to the Pope.
Well, the answer is actually relatively simple – it was just that no one had ever experienced the phenomenon before so no one had ever really thought about it. Magellan’s crew had traveled westward all the way around the planet and in effect, had caught up with an entire day’s rotation of the planet by arriving back in the same place.
My first experience with the “Crossing the Date Line” paradox was back in 1999 when I was flying across the Pacific to Australia for the first time to prepare a new television series. And I was actually looking forward to the fifteen plus hour flight.
Fifteen hours of being legitimately out of contact with the world is a deluxe bonus in the day to day hurly burly of television production. There would be no telephone calls, no e-mails, no long list of questions to be answered and best of all, no not really necessary meetings to sit around in where production minutiae could be endlessly rehashed for hours with little ultimate resolution. Settle into the massive armchair seat in the nose of the 747 where one can even see forward a little bit as the Jumbo flies on, test its impressive recline capability, accept the flute of golden champagne from the smiling flight attendant, throw a blanket over one’s legs and stuff a pillow behind one’s head…yup, this was the good life.
The fuel heavy jet liner waddled down what seemed like the entire length of the runway before reluctantly rising into the night sky. Seconds off the runway at Los Angeles, the flight winged out over the California surf and it wouldn’t cross dry land again all the way southwest until seconds before arriving on the tarmac at Kingsford Airport in Sydney. I settled back, prepared to enjoy this extended journey but something had been nagging at my mind all along about this trip and now, over the dark Pacific, it surfaced with a vengeance.
Our flight had departed on the evening of the 16th of March. We would cross the International Date Line right around midnight and then land on the morning of the 18th of March. The 17th of March would never happen at all. It would vanish completely from my life forever, like that vintage hot rod in David Copperfield’s magic act. I had mused about this fact the first time I came across it but now, actually experiencing it for the first time, I found it kind of disturbing.
Where does that day go? And what were the implications of losing that day? Did it mean that you were going to live a day longer in your life? Or a day less? I reclined further into my recliner to ponder the whole paradox.