Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Our Solar System — To Scale

“Space,” wrote The Bard,”is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-boggingly big it is.”

And who can argue with that? But seriously, how big is “vastly hugely mind-boggingly big”?

This website will help you comprehend the size of our solar system. It shows the sizes of each member of our solar system in relation to the others, and also shows the distances between each, which is really amazing, especially on the 1:1 scale. You can also jump from one planet to another if you don’t have time to mouse from one to the other (hint: most people don’t have time for mousing around, but give it a go until your finger gets tired just to get a general appreciation for how “vastly hugely mind-boggingly big” these distances really are).

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    June 30, 2006

    “Space,” wrote The Bard,”is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-boggingly big it is.”

    Off topic : in my class, I was asking the kids if they were familiar with the classics. “How many of you,” I asked, “have read anything by Shakespeare”?

    They nod.

    “Homer?”

    They nod.

    “Douglas Adams?”

    Blank looks.

    Kids these days are not familiar with the classics. It’s so sad.

    I’m happy to see you (or, at least, the quote you choose to extract) refer to him as the Bard, because it just reinforces my delusion that all good nerds should be able to quote HHGtG chapter and verse.

    Back on topic:

    Once you’ve digested the size of the Solar System, it’s worth understanding how *truly dinky* the Solar System is in comparison to the distance between stars… and to extrapolate on out to the distances between galaxies, clusters, and so forth. Here’s a site that tries to do that:

    http://www.atlasoftheuniverse.com/

    -Rob

  2. #2 SkookumPlanet
    June 30, 2006

    Thanks. I can use these.

    Someone should mention what is an early, maybe first, attempt to use media to viscerally communicate size proportions. It goes even beyond these two sites physically, and perhaps conceptually. Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten.

    Youngsters may be unfamiliar so here’s a synopsis.

    Black & white, standard film ratio format, on the right is a vertical control panel sized so the rest of the screen is a square. In it a man asleep on a picnic blanket. Scene is one meter by one [ten?] meter from one meter away. Announcer begins continuous explanation.

    The camera tracks back, targeted on man. Every ten seconds it increases the distance from the man by a factor of 10. The control panel displays the data involved. Eventually we reach a field of pinpoint galaxies and the announcer notes nothing will look different. [This is before we knew about large structure, the walls and bubbles.]

    Then, highly paraphrased, the announcer says, “We’ll now reverse our journey, cutting our distance by a factor of ten every two seconds until we reach our next target, the proton in a carbon atom in the mans arm.” And you start a long, long fall. Once the original 1×1 image is reached, the camera resumes its powers-of-ten journey, cutting the distance by 10 every 10 seconds. The announcer describes what you’re seeing, the control panel odometers spin. The entire thing is one shot. No cuts, no seams.

    Take this concept, and it’s highly successful execution, place it in time [1960s] and context [produced, filmed and edited by two designers], it’s an extraordinary accomplishment.

    Powers of Ten was available in several VHS iterations of the Eames work. There’s a book, and I’d be surprised if there’s not a website recapitulating it in some way. But I taught this film as a grad student so have watched it repeatedly on a fairly large screen in a large, stadium-seating lecture hall. No replica will produce the physical sensations. Especially on the reversal. It’s like you’ve just topped over and are headed down that initial big rise on the biggest roller coaster imaginable, bigger than even your dreams could imagine.

    There’s also an excellent film about them from the same time period. I especially remember the story about their production of the five individual, inter-timed film vignettes of a typical American family Sunday made for the U.S. exhibit at the Moscow world’s fair. One principle interviewed claimed it was the motivation for the famous “Kitchen debate” there.

    This was an extremely important exhibit, the height of the US-USSR competition. The heart of the American exhibit was a multi-story geodesic dome with a monorail running through it. Exhibit designers struggled to solve one problem. Over a bank of extra-long exit escalators was a huge, blank wall, a spot millions of soviet eyes would look at, a captive audience. None of their ideas were satisfactory until someone said, “I’ve go it! Let’s give it to Charles and Ray.” Everyone instantly agreed.

    All the Eames sent to the construction of the Exhibit were highly detailed plans for setting up and linking together 5 film projectors, movie theater scale in it’s entirety. Nobody knew what it was for. They showed up in Moscow at the last minute, a day maybe, before it opened, loaded the films, and everything worked first time. 5 cities, five families, all at the same time breakfast, church etc. The end, on each 5 screens, was forget-me-nots, which translate to the same meaning in both languages.

    The Eames were brilliant designers who loved science and produced many iconic items of post-war American abundance. I forget where, but they also designed the entire math section of a large tech/science museum. It included a motorized arrow traveling the surface of a Mobius strip.

  3. #3 SkookumPlanet
    June 30, 2006

    Whoops…

    Scene is one meter by one meter from one[ten?] meter away.

  4. #4 iloy
    June 30, 2006

    The powers of ten is great.
    I’d love to see more of their work if it is this sort of quality.
    I stumbled upon it via stumble!
    Here is the web site.
    http://www.kottke.org/06/06/powers-of-ten

  5. #5 Astroprof
    June 30, 2006

    Whenever I teach first semester astronomy, I always have a lab exercise in which we construct a scale model solar system. We start at one corner of the campus and measure off the planets. After nearly an hour of walking (and much whining), we are on the far side of the campus. We’ve only made it to Saturn. Then, I tell them that the next planet is about as far as we’ve walked to that point. On that scale, the nearest star is about the size of a stop sign, and is in Greece. It then begins to really sink in how big space really is.

  6. #6 Bob O'H
    July 1, 2006

    In his best Peter Jonesy type voice:

    “…which is why it’s vitally important to get a receipt every time you go to the toilet.”

    Sorry, just drifted off.

    Bob

  7. #7 Thomas Palm
    July 1, 2006

    Those who don’t think a webpage is enough can do a trip through Sweden to see the largest model of the solar system:
    http://www.astro.su.se/swesolsyst/

  8. #8 SkookumPlanet
    July 1, 2006

    iloy

    The Eames did a few films, but where general designers. They had a studio, in LA I think, that itself has become famous. San Francisco MOMA had an exhibit that actually was a physical recreation of the studio, with the real contents, I believe, that have been conserved as history of design. I screwed around and missed it. The Eames are best known for their furniture designs, but had eclectic interests. They themselves have become iconic items of post-war American abundance.

    Design is an area I’m barely acquainted with. There should be abundant material on them. I have a tiny book, images mostly and which I can’t find right now. Just to have some visuals of their work around. I’m sure there are large, expensive design monographs, samplers and career reviews, lavishly illusrated, in print. Try libraries.

    Try amazon for their films. It once had serveral VHS collections, and among those was the film about them I mentioned with the Moscow world’s fair story.

    Also, now having it written down, I don’t think my quote of the announcer is highly paraphrased, I think it’s pretty close. Maybe add “proton in the nucleus of a..”. I last saw Powers of Ten about 30 years ago! It made an impression. Of course, having to corral classes of freshman into a discussion of it helped.