January 18, 2004

Visualizing the Solar System

If you're like most people (and who isn't?), the image of the solar system stuck in your head looks something like this:

...and it is wrong, puny hu-man! But you knew that, didn't you? Somewhere in the junk drawer that is your memory of school lies the knowledge that all the representations of the solar system you've ever seen are squished together and out of proportion, because that's the only way the picture will fit in the book. In actuality, the difference in size and the distance between the planets is huge.  

So! In the interest of sticking a more useful incorrect picture in your head, let us imagine that the small frozen broccoli floret to the left is our wonderful earth. That would make our moon about the size of this lima bean — a little more than a quarter the diameter of the earth. But farther away.




That would make our warm, life-giving sun about the size of this 1960 Buick le Sabre convertible. (Note our old friend Broccoli Floret by the right front tire).

Only, the Buick would be about 970 feet away from the broccoli. Could you actually see a Buick from three football fields away?

I don't know — ask me next month after I've bought the GPS device I've promised myself as a post-Christmas present. So how come you can see the sun? Well, because it's a luminous body, a ball of flaming gas, a fifth magnitude star. Though, certainly, 1960 was a plenty stylish model year for the le Sabre.

Now the scale expands and graphics fail us, so you'll have to use your imagination, if you have one.

Mars, our nearest neighbor that isn't the moon, is slightly smaller than Earth. So picture it as a slightly smaller broccoli floret. And make those two bits of broccoli 500 feet apart. If we're going, we'd better get started (are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?).

Pluto, the poor dark cold little bastard at the very outer edge of our solar system, is the size of a pea and it's seven miles from the broccoli floret we call home. And some want to take planetary status away from it. C'mon, guys, hasn't Pluto been through enough?



Okay, are you holding all that in your head? The broccoli floret, the 1960 Buick le Sabre convertible, the eight or so miles from one end of the shebang to the other? So how far to the nearest star, then?

That would be Alpha Proxima, or Alpha Centauri (take your pick, the Robinson family sure won't be there). In the real world, they're about 25 trillion miles away, but that's the type of silly, made-up number that brings so much discredit to science.

In our broccoli-based universe, the nearest star would be 45,000 miles away.

But, cheer up! If the distance from the nearest star makes you feel small and lonely, remember, at least, that there are lots and lots and lots of stars out there.

How many? That's a subject for another day. And I'll need more groceries.

    < alley oop!
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