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.