Friday, March 9, 2012

Traveling Stars and Balancing Brooms

Kiddo and I were outside last night in the hopes of catching some stray aurora in the night sky. After hearing of the solar flares hitting Earth, I had hoped that perhaps enough charged particles would filter down to the Midwest to give us a decent fireworks display. Looking North for a few minutes, we didn't see anything. However, to the West, I spied Jupiter and Venus so close together that they seemed to be engaged in a cosmic dance. I saw this as a great opportunity for some telescope time, so kiddo and I took turns looking at Jupiter and Venus through it. To the naked eye, planets often are indistinguishable from stars in the night sky. Venus is easy to spot though, because it's often the brightest nighttime object aside from the Moon.
Jupiter is the dimmer of the two dots here in the night sky.

It's amazing to think that, some four hundred years ago, Galileo looked at these two planets through a telescope much like the one I was using and, seeing the phases of Venus and four moons around Jupiter, realized that the prevailing view of the Universe was completely wrong. Galileo's discoveries contrasted with the theory that everything revolved around the Earth. It was a theory that had existed since the beginning of science and was endorsed by Aristotle and Ptolemy and the Catholic Church. Galileo must have crapped his pantaloons when he realized what was going on.

This moment of scientific glory came in sharp contrast to the junk science I encountered when we went inside and I turned on the computer. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been buzzing with people balancing brooms claiming that the alignment of these planets (Mercury is also visible in the night sky, but too close to the horizon for me to see it) along with the upcoming Equinox are causing enough of a shift in gravity to allow broom balancing. There's no broom standing phenomenon going on. If the pull of Mercury, Venus and Jupiter could counter the force of gravity enough to make brooms spontaneously stand up, they would also be able to float.

The truth about broom balancing is you can balance a broom on the equinox or at any other time of year. You just have to find the right balancing point. The trick with the broom is to put enough pressure on the bristles which will force them apart enough to form a stable base. That is what allows it to continue to stand by itself. So, if you posted a picture on Facebook of your broom standing up, congratulations: You just participated in a collective study on the science of stupidity.

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