The Solar System drawn to scale

Solar System

Currently I am reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything; recommended heartily by Varnam. The distances in the universe are simply unfathomable and beyond human comprehension. I was particularly fascinated by one particular paragraph in the second chapter, Welcome to the Solar System:

“Such are the distance, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages, to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn’t come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway).”

As you see, our textbook depictions are horribly out-of-scale and all those science fair project of suspending balls in elliptical wire frames were totally false. As taught in any technical field, any diagram not drawn to scale is as useful as sandpaper on a toilet paper dispenser — can use it but you in reality rather not. But of course, how can scientists not try?

As part of the National Science Week, The UK is setting up a scale model of the solar system, built at a scale of 1:15 million (and I thought 1:200 was a big scale for a site map in college). Except you may have to go up in space to get the full picture; nevertheless an interesting exercise in bringing science closer to the truth rather than simply drawing pretty spherical pictures in all hues and tones. It is projects like these that make science interesting and fun.

8 Comments

  1. JK – thanks for that link. I enjoy taking subjects that are generally dull and trying to make them interesting: I loved that lil quip…makes science so much accessible.

  2. With the solar system, it is at least possible. With quantum models, forget about it forever!
    It is a real challenge to make such things simple enough for my grandmother and the kindergarten child next door to understand, without oversimplifying them.

  3. Ashutosh – It is a fine line between making such complex models explanatory and truthful at the same time. I have winced many a time trying to explain something complex to a layperson.

  4. In the worst cases, you can never really explain the ‘truth’ (if there’s any such thing) to the layman. In his famous lectures on Physics, the great Richard Feynman simply says, “I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who understands quantum mechanics” :-)

  5. Ashutosh – You may be right. Let us not get into the “what constitutes truth” argument again :)But then as Einstein said once, “Anything that cannot be explained in 25 words or less is not worth knowing about“.

  6. If we think in evolutionary terms, our inability to comprehend the vastness of the universe is a biological limitation. We live for a few tens of years and anything beyond that is abstract and incomprehensible via intuition.

    Every respectable science writer has made an attempt to impart an intuitive understanding of the scale using metaphors. In the end, I believe each one of us are on our own to catch part of the vastness in our thoughts. Words and models can only get us as far as the brink of understanding. The final step will have to be our own.

    Nice post.

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