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NASA dusts the biggest myth off the viral broomstick challenge

By Benjamin Bullard
Mickey and the broom in Fantasia

If Twitter’s been distracting you from your housecleaning duties over the past 24 hours or so, then you probably already know all about the viral “broomstick challenge.” Social media’s photo-sharing fad of the moment has swept up people everywhere in a mad rush to recreate the visually arresting feat of making a perfectly-balanced broom appear to defy gravity by standing upright on its own.

While not quite on the same level of sorcery as Mickey conjuring a broom to carry water in Fantasia (shown above), or Harry Potter whisking through an airborne Quidditch match, seeing a real-life broom do a balancing act without any trickery — well, it’s the sort of thing that carries just enough mystery to entice some people to reach for plausible-sounding, yet totally bogus, explanations. Inevitably, as the challenge kicked up a social media dust cloud, so too did some good old-fashioned (if totally harmless) misinformation about how and why it even works in the first place.

As the challenge took off, the erroneous explanation that Feb. 10 is the only date on the calendar when a broom will cooperate with gravity — evidently because of some vague belief that the Earth’s gravitational pull must be optimized just so — took off along with it. That is, until NASA, which some users were crediting with providing that phony bit of non-science, decided to step in and seize the handle.

Getting brooms to stand at attention, it turns out, has nothing whatsoever to do with time or larger planetary movements, NASA explained: it simply has to do with a broom’s bottom-heavy low center of mass. To prove it, NASA scientist Sarah Noble and astronaut Alvin Drew tweeted out this short demonstration today, with Drew explaining “it’s just physics.”

Other NASA accounts, including the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center and the Johnson Space Center, expanded on things further. “It’s actually its low center of gravity that allows a broom to balance on its bristles today and any day,” explained Kennedy:

Whether everyone grasped the science behind it, though, plenty of people have been more than eager to show off their own broomstick challenge success stories. One of our favorites came from the set of Superstore, but the NBC comedy definitely was in good company:

At least it’s reassuring (or as reassuring as a challenge as low-stakes as this can be) that the hourglass hasn’t expired on your chance to grab a broom and delicately position it until it impersonates a scarecrow. And we all have NASA to thank for setting the record straight about what makes it happen.


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