The Broomstick Hoax and the Truth About Galileo

The idea that the Catholic Church and science are at war is nonsense.

Cristiano Banti, “Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition,” 1857
Cristiano Banti, “Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition,” 1857 (photo: Public Domain)

Students came into my high school class on Monday claiming that it was the only day a broom would stand on its own because of the moon’s position. Since I am their physics teacher, they thought they should let me know about the phenomenon they had discovered and the proof that was flooding social media. Pictures and videos of people standing brooms on end (#broomstickchallenge) flooded the internet. My students asked me to explain how the moon could bring about such a fascinating result.

When I was first asked about it, I was perplexed because I understand the physics behind gravitational pulls and the phases of the moon. I thought briefly about it, and then I told my student I didn’t quite know how to make sense of it. I would have to check it out and get back to her.

It came up again the next day in another class. I took the time to look it up right then. As I was looking it up, I could overhear vigorous discussions. “No! Really! It’s true!” I quickly realized that it was a hoax. I asked my students to find the original statement from NASA, which they were unable to do. Thankfully, scientific authorities also started correcting the misinformation and news channels explained the error. Brooms can be stood on end any time of the year because of the base and the low center of gravity, and it has nothing to do with the moon.

But someone HAD in fact claimed that NASA said it. And a whole population of social media users were convinced of the statement’s veracity. Most of my students probably never would have seen the response statements from NASA and other news outlets if I had not alerted them to them.

This event reminded me of how easily bad information can become a part of “what everyone knows.” Imagine the same situation happening at the end of the 1800s. A book is published that makes an unsupported or out of context claim, and a whole generation of people are convinced. The claim, though, has to do with history, and it would take a scholar to spot the mistake and check out the evidence. So, the misinformation goes unchecked.

This is exactly what happened with the invention of the idea that science and the Church have been at war since ancient times. I have already written about how this idea was disseminated through the books of Draper and White here. It was in those books that another idea that is related to the moon was invented and spread: the fable about Galileo and his persecution by the Church.

The story is told that the Church held it as dogma that the earth does not move. Galileo proved that the earth does move with his telescopic observations, but the Church persecuted him because he dared to oppose Church teaching. Here was an honest, brave, intelligent and wise scientist trying to shake free the shackles of superstition.

An intriguing tale, and one easily believed.

But it is a fable. It has never been Church dogma that the earth does not move. A tribunal of the inquisition called it heresy, but that tribunal was wrong and the times were touchy when it came to biblical interpretation after the so-called Reformation. Galileo did not prove anything. In fact, he wrongly based his arguments on telescopic observations (which proved nothing) and the tides, which he thought were caused by the sloshing of the water on the earth due to its movement. (Perhaps if Galileo had a broom, the whole difficulty would have been cleared up — the tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational force, not the earth’s movement as Galileo argued.) The Church did not persecute him. The tribunal placed him under a very comfortable house arrest, but only after he had been respectfully asked to be more reasonable in his conclusions and the way he promoted them.

This is a complicated story, very difficult to summarize in a paragraph and not nearly as simple as the fable or the idea that a broom can stand on its end because of the moon. Nevertheless, in the spirit of this blog’s claim regarding the gullibility of the masses, I encourage you to check into the matter for yourself. Here are a couple places to begin: Lawrence Principe’s Science and Religion lectures and Stephen Barr’s book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.

You should not be convinced, after all, simply because you read a blog on the internet.