On Monday, videos of free-standing brooms flooded the Internet. Purported to be an elusive miracle owing to a special “gravitational pull,” the broomstick challenge went viral as legions tried it on their own. For anyone so thoroughly entertained by the sweeping craze, we have great news: You can balance a broom any day.
Balancing a broom is nothing more than a test of patience. If you own a broom with bristles relatively uniform in length, it’s easy. Most people just hadn’t thought to try until Monday.
“I tried and it actually worked,” proclaimed one Twitter user. An untold number of others followed suit.
“Shooketh,” wrote another.
One other Twitter user attributed the spectacle to “the polarity of the earth.”
Even singer-songwriter Lauren Jauregui tweeted a photo of a standing broom to her over 4 million Twitter followers:
Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport followed the fad:
And no, there’s nothing remarkable about how long it will stand up, either. Your phone will remain on the table until you move it. Your car will remain in park until you shift gears. And your broom will remain standing until an external unbalanced force such as the wind, a vibration or your hand perturbs it.
The original tweet from a Howard University student claimed that NASA had “said today was the only day a broom can stand up on its own because of the gravitational pull.” But NASA never said that, nor would they have any reason to.
Anyone who has lived on this planet for an extended period hopefully is aware that gravity is essentially constant. In other words, gravity doesn’t noticeably change day-to-day based on the position of planets, stars and other celestial bodies. (It does acutely due to the moon’s position, but that doesn’t readily affect us except through the tides.)
Why gravity doesn’t change
If gravity did fluctuate the way the tweet indicates, our daily lives would be incredibly different. We would weigh vastly different amounts every day, ocean tides would be chaotic, the atmosphere would constantly be expanding and contracting (changing the amount of air we breathe and having dramatic consequences on aviation), and our spines would tire of the incessant gravitational and air pressure changes. But does that happen? No.
Moreover, there are no special gravitational rules that apply to only brooms. If you put a broom, a potato, a person and a feather in a vacuum together, they would all fall at the same exact rate. The laws of physics possess no particular proclivity toward household cleaning tools.
What NASA says
That this ordinary, less-than-unique challenge blew so many minds and went viral left NASA scientists shaking their heads.
“This is another social media hoax that exemplifies how quickly pseudoscience and false claims can go viral,” wrote Karen Northon at NASA’s office of communications. “While this hoax was harmless, it also shows why it’s important for all of us to do some fact checking and research … before jumping into the latest viral craze.”
How does it work?
So why does the broomstick challenge work? Brooms have a low center of gravity. Since the bulk of their mass, and therefore weight, is closest to the ground, it’s relatively easy to balance them. You just have to line things up right.
It’s sort of like driving an SUV: If you placed thousands of pounds of heavy luggage atop the roof and then careened around a sharp curve, odds are your now top-heavy car would be pretty darn tippy. But if you’re looking to make your vehicle more stable, placing items in the trunk or low to the ground is the prudent course of action.
The broom acts similarly, since far more weight is contained in the base/bristle than the shaft.
What this challenge reveals
The broomstick challenge shows how false but seemingly convincing explanations can gain snowballing momentum on social media.
In November, a similar viral “shrink a penny” tweet was shared over 11,000 times. The result? Zero tiny pennies and a fire hazard.
NASA says it’s important to check sources before sharing or attempting any action. Consult with experts. NASA’s Northon wrote that “checking in with @NASA and NASA.gov for real science fun facts” is a good place to start.