Sweeping away equinox silliness

By Phil Plait | March 19, 2012 10:03 am

Tonight’s the equinox! Yay!

The timing of this is a bit funny. It’s actually March 20 at 05:14 UTC, so it’s 01:14 for eastern US folks, but actually on March 19 at 11:14 p.m. for us Mountain Timers. So I’m posting this now to make sure everyone gets a chance to see it.

Outside of astronomy, the equinox isn’t that big of a deal. There are lots of ways of looking at it, but perhaps the easiest is to say that it’s when the Sun rises due east and sets due west. It also means day and night are the same length, but that gets complicated: the Earth’s air bends the light from the Sun so that we see it before it physically rises over the horizon and can still see it after it physically sets, adding a couple of minutes to the length of daylight. Another way to think of the equinox is that it’s when the center of the Sun’s disk is at the point on the sky where the Ecliptic (the path of the Sun on the sky over the year) intersects the Celestial Equator (the Earth’s equator projected onto the sky).

I explain all this stuff in various earlier posts I’ve made on the equinoctes (which is the correct plural of equinox, it turns out). See Related Posts below.

One thing the equinox does not not NOT NOT mean is that you can balance ungainly objects on their ends on this day! This used to mean egg standing — more on that in a sec — but for reasons beyond my ability to parse the newest version of this involves standing brooms on their bristles. Don’t believe me? Here’s a gallery of people doing it. I’ve been hearing a lot about this, but it has nothing to do with the equinox (or the recent solar activity, another odd idea that’s going around). It’s actually a simply matter of center of mass and flat bristles. Honestly, it’s not more mysterious than standing a brick up. Here’s a good video explanation of it.

The picture above of the broom standing? That was taken on October 27, 2009. So there ya go. Also, you can try this: if you have a broom you can stand today, wait a week and try again. It’ll stand then, too, if you try hard enough.

If you replace the word "broom" with "egg" then we’ve heard this all before. It’s not hard to find more, too.

And finally, I’ll leave you with this: how to stand an egg on end, equinox or equinot:

Image credit: Puuikibeach’s Flickr photostream, used under Creative Commons license.


Related Posts:

Happy first day of spring… Mars!
Today’s the vernal equinox!
Fakequinox
It’s the eggquinox!
How to stand an egg on end
Infernal equinox

Comments (28)

Links to this Post

  1. Happy March Equinox | March 20, 2012
  1. ERic

    I’m disappointed. It’s not in 3-d.

  2. Tony

    the fact that anyone would actually *believe* this make me want to find a cave on a deserted island somewhere and just hide until I die.

  3. Georg

    I thought that “equinox” means a night-horse in latin.

    BTW this is the most important holiday for state employees in Germany,
    because it separates hibernation from spring tiredness.
    Georg

  4. Woodtick

    Great bar trick. (or anywhere) Bet that you can balance an egg on its end on any day of the year. (hard boiled, raw, no matter)

    Take the egg and lightly tap the fat end on the bar/table enough to crunch the shell without breaking the inner membrane and hold it there. It will stand on the flattened, crunched shell easily…

  5. OneofNone

    when the Sun rises due east and sets due west.

    I’m not sure this is true.
    If you live on the equator, it is true. But what about distant from that line?

    OTOH, I’m not good in spherical trigonometry.

  6. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Ahh, one of the two days a year I’m bipedal.

  7. madwad

    Why use sound reasoning when you can just believe the first thing you read on Facebook?

  8. I heard it was possible due to the pole shift :)

  9. RAF

    So, Phil…how did you manage to tilt your kitchen? :)

  10. Chris P

    @OneofNone #4

    Imagine yourself in space looking at the earth so that the equator appears flat and is pointing toward the sun. All the lines of latitude are parallel with the equator; they are all pointing at the sun too.
    Now imagine yourself at home and face east. You are looking along the line of latitude. On the equinox, if the sun is in the east at sunrise on the equator, it must be in the east at any point of latitude at that same moment.

  11. Hevach

    @Tony

    It’s not that surprising, really. How many people would actually try to balance an egg on a normal day? It’s just something that sounds like it won’t work.

    It’s not so much about buying into the idea that it’ll work on one day, but reinforcing the preconception that it doesn’t work. People like being told they’re right, it establishes what they think was right as actually right. After that’s agreed comes the suggestion that while usually true, there is an exception. People can accept that one extraordinary exception, but they don’t like the idea that the agreed-upon truth was wrong to begin with.

  12. Doug S.

    Well, it’s 2012, Phil, and YouTube IS in 3D. But it’s still not quite getting pumped directly into my brain… But hey, one out of two ain’t bad. Right?

  13. Sharon Hill

    Hey, Phil. I sent this to you about a week ago. People were claiming it was related to the solar flares. http://doubtfulnews.com/2012/03/stiff-as-a-broom-standing-household-items-are-not-mysterious/

  14. Crux Australis

    Woodtick; It’s easier to balance a raw egg, I think (not that I’ve tried it). By the time you actually succeed in balancing it, the contents have settled a little, lowering the center of mass and making it easier to balance. This doesn’t happen in a cooked egg.

  15. Years ago I had a group of 5th graders enter my science classroom on the vernal equinox, fresh from having done a marvelous egg balancing “experiment” with their social studies teacher. They were enthralled, telling me how the equinox is celebrated in China, and that according to their teacher there was some magical physics at work in the universe… “That’s so cool! How does it work?!” So of course I had to go buy eggs, and for the rest of the school year *someone* in class discovered they could balance eggs… on ANY day.

    Then I found this from Dr. Phil: http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/egg_history.html which I dutifully sent on to the kids’ teacher. She didn’t speak to me for over a year. It’s hard to learn that the pagans and Chinese didn’t compare notes while developing O.M. (Ovo-astronomical Methodology).

  16. Sahron- Yeah, I got about a dozen emails and tweets about it. Thanks for the link; I’ll add it to the post.

  17. Infinite123Lifer

    For Tony: sorry, but I think those caves are already occupied by others with similar feelings.

    For Hevach: pesonally, I am wrong about things, a lot…more than i wish to be. I try to find out how things work. I am just overwhelmed, I mean to appreciate knowledge of all types and to fall so short of being able to comprehend is . . . semi-maddening. I have to remember that it’s just the way it is, I cannot understand everything and my given and earned abilities are just something that I must accept. People? Well, people are ubiquitous. And certain mainstays of misunderstanding are ubiquitous throughout certain groups of people handed down from generation to generation and perhaps freshly created on a daily basis. For me, I think, whenever I type something about “how people are” I find that almost 100% of what I say is formed on assumption and judgement (not to say what your saying is wrong) I am just saying there is so much going on in the world in such a diverse spectrum of activity and thought that nothing I say about “people” seems to be anywhere close to 99% factual.

    On a different note, a sad thing for me is almost everything that is understood in science is a click of the mousepad away, but that is not so much true for me. Sure, I can read all I want about anything on this web, BUT what I desire is to go to a cave where Tony and others are and learn what they know first hand with my fingers in the dirt. I believe its called school.

    I am refreshing my equinox understanding, let me correct that I am doing my best to understand exactly what various terms mean when defining the equinox and in order to understand something you must understand the building blocks of which it is derived from. If the derivative is a measure of how a function changes as its input changes and I try to differentiate my ability to understand knowledge as I research various topics I find that . . . I really cant be certain at any point in time . . . what I am saying :)

    (i find i resort to humor when confronted with inevitablity either conceptual understanding and especially when I am in physical pain, I suppose its a coping mechanism learned from childhood years)

    Iam going to stop, because I can hardly ever make sense to a crowd. But, before I do I would just like to say thank you to all of those out there who are dedicated to a Life of understanding and who do not shy away or fear to condemn their own misconceptions or misunderstandings, to all of you who endeavor to make the world a better place by determining how things work from curiosity alone. For me, you are the hero’s. You are my role models.

    Later I am going to go get an egg throw it on the floor and sweep it up with a broom. If anything special happens I will make sure to report it . . .

    for now though this brick is going to stand up and go outside and enjoy the parts of Life which I truly understand, such as the feeling of the sun shining on my face, equinox or no equinox :)

  18. Wzrd1

    Now, what would be REALLY impressive is if a chicken balanced an egg on end. ;)

  19. Hakan

    I don’t get people, why talk rubbish about balancing eggs. Instead celebrate the equinoxes! There’s four of them in a year and all the loved ones should receive a Happy Equinoxes message! We should stand against the War Against Equinoxes and spread the message! :)

  20. I find just firmly putting it down on the table is much quicker.

  21. Fry-kun

    “the Earth’s air bends the light from the Sun so that we see it before it physically rises over the horizon and can still see it after it physically sets”
    I know what you were trying to say, but I thought that the length of time it takes for light to reach Earth from everyone’s favorite fusion reactor compensates for it and you see the sun rise almost exactly when it’s actually there (even though you’re just seeing its 8-min-old image, displaced)

  22. Beau

    “One thing the equinox does not not NOT NOT mean is that you can balance ungainly objects on their ends on this day! ”
    I see by your use of a 4th “not” that you’re telling us that the only time we CAN balance things like eggs and brooms is on the equinox. Thanks for clearing that up for me ;)

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    Equinox already? Where does time go?

    I thought the equinox dates were always supposed to be the 21st though – or was that the solstices?

    @4. Woodtick :

    Great bar trick. (or anywhere) Bet that you can balance an egg on its end on any day of the year. (hard boiled, raw, no matter) Take the egg and lightly tap the fat end on the bar/table enough to crunch the shell without breaking the inner membrane and hold it there. It will stand on the flattened, crunched shell easily…

    Pretty sure I read a story somewhere – possibly apocryphal – that Christopher Columbus did that one, first challenging a group of his critics with them all failing to suceed inthe task then him doing exactly what you suggested. His critics then said something like “But that’s obvious!” and Columbus replied, “Yes – once you know how its done!” Just like sailing west to go around the world and bump into the Americas along the way which seems obvious inretrospect but which he was first to do.* :-)

    * Well Vikings aside – but they didn’t know of them at the time.

  24. dersk

    @4 / @23 – Yes, that’s the origin of the term ‘egg of Columbus’ – a simple solution to a problem that’s obvious when you see it, but not before.

  25. K

    It’s also Extraterrestrial Abductions Day.
    Don’t ask how I know.

  26. xtulmkr

    @Hakan
    On planet Earth there are only two equinoxes per year, vernal and autumnal.

  27. It’s in reality a great and useful piece of info. I am glad that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »