This is a reprint of an earlier article of mine from March 8, 2008. I thought it would have a good home here. Hope you enjoy it.
Are We There Yet?
We’ve all seen the grade-school models of the solar system. Maybe you made one in science class. Out of painted styrofoam balls or colored construction paper. Maybe you saw one of those giant models hanging from the ceiling of your local science museum. Big colorful globes, some with rings around them, some painted swirly colors, others looking more like pitted rocks. For most people, that’s their impression of the solar system. Yellow sun in the middle, then all the different colored balls swooping around it. Maybe some people know all the names, if they remember them from third-grade science class. Maybe even in order. (My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies?) If so, scratch-n-sniff stickers all around.
One thing that these models and illustrations we have become used to seeing can’t show us is the scale involved. We’ve all heard of “space”, it’s the place “up there”. Where the guys with the right stuff get to go, and eat rehydrated meatloaf from a Capri-Sun bag. Where our TV satellites are, and where the Star Trekkies drive around at warp speed, visiting strange new worlds like one might visit stores at the mall. But how much space is in space? That’s an easy question to answer – a lot – but a very hard one to really understand. We’re just not made to comprehend sizes and distances like that. We don’t have to. We live here, on Earth, and always have. It’s a finite place, and even then we have a hard time comprehending the size of it all. We know about these other places, beyond our planet, as any grade-schooler does, and we hear the numbers representing the miles between……240,000 miles (to the Moon), 34 million miles (to Mars), 93 million miles (to the sun), etc etc. Big numbers. But just…..numbers. Regular people don’t work in those numbers.
We might know it’s 5 miles to work, we get 28 miles to a gallon of gas (hwy) and Auntie Louise lives in Boca Raton, about 900 miles away. Maybe we can even convert to kilometers. But 34 million miles? Okay, great. That’s far……right?
Yeah, it sure is. And you know what’s there to do in between?
No Applebee’s, no rest stops, no trees, no rocks, no air, no nothin’. Just space.
Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of space.
No kidding right? I mean, that’s why it’s called space. Duh. Well yeah, duh, but still, it’s really difficult to picture. It’s real, and it’s there, right now, but it’s hard to picture. Hard to imagine, with our monkey brains and grade-school models.
It’s hard to do in print, and unwieldy as a model, but as a web page it can be done. This smart fella made a scrollable web page that accurately shows the sheer distance between the planets, in relative scale size too. Consider that the sun makes up 98% of all the matter in our solar system, and you see why it’s so big on the first page. Even fat old Jupiter is inside that remaining 2% of matter (and a good portion thereof). At the bottom of the page, there should be a scroll bar. Use the right arrow to start your trip on a horizontal track across the span of space separating the planets. If you try to drag the bar yourself you’ll be going too quick…..use the arrow. Just start scrolling.
*Bink*. Mercury. Closest planet to the sun. Not so “close”, is it? Keep going.
*Bink*. Venus. Nasty place. Second one in. Scroll scroll….*Bink* Wave hi. Earth. Scroll scroll scroll……*Bink* Mars. There’s the 4 “inner” planets. You’ve done a lot of scrolling but have only covered a tenth of the space of the page. Keep going…………………………………*BINK.* Jupiter. Big huh? Well, compared to Earth yeah. But probably not as majestic as you’d have thought, based on the models you’ve always seen. The sun could eat it for a snack. (And someday it will.)
If you have a minute or two you can scroll to Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and finally little old demoted Pluto. And the page stops there. It doesn’t keep going out to all the other rocky little worlds they keep discovering, and giving boring string-of-numbers names to, and the swarms of ice balls that sometimes become comets, all still held in the sun’s gravity. Even way out there where the sun looks like nothing more than a kinda-bright star in the sky and sheds slightly more heat than the pad of sticky notes on your desk does, it has the gravitational upper hand.
And that’s just our solar system. Our family. Our painted styrofoam balls. There’s a lot more out there, even farther away. Some of the stars you see at night may have their own. Many do, they are finding. With their own planets, their own Jupiters and Uranuses and maybe even their own Earths, named differently of course, with their own little models of their solar systems and monkey brains trying to figure out what it means.
All this space.
“I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
– Douglas Adams
© J. Major 2008. Image credit: NASA/JPL/ASU.