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Every Solar System Image You’ve Ever Seen is Wrong. Till Now.

So which one are we (we human beings, I mean)?

Infinitesimal

String scale

Nanoscale

Subatomic scale

Atomic

Molecular

Mitochondrial

Cellular

Microscopic

Minuscule

Tiny

Lilliputian

Small

Medium

Bulky

Large

Immense

Massive

Giant

Mammoth

Colossal

Leviathan

Vast

Galactic

Cosmic

Universal

Well, it depends on who’s asking. To a virus, we’re colossal, even vast. To a giraffe, we’re small. If it’s me asking, a virus looks microscopic (minuscule?), while the solar system—ah, the solar system—has gotta be in the colossal-to-vast range, but I really have no idea. I can look up at what might be Mars (the rosy-looking one) in the night sky, but I haven’t the imagination, the metaphor, the math to make sense of that distance. All I know is what Doug Adams says in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.” Yup. That’s how I measure deep space: I don’t. My mind just boggles.

But this week, along with a million or so other folks, I saw the light. Or rather, I saw space. I saw, maybe for the first time, how hugely mindbogglingly big space is. Two wonderful filmmakers, Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh, figured out what’s wrong with every image of the solar system we’ve ever seen. In every one, they say, space gets cheated. Planets get exaggerated. And in their short film To Scale: The Solar System, they fix that.

What they do is build our solar system with the heavenly bodies true to scale, which means the sun, Mercury, Venus, and, all the way out, Neptune (sorry, Pluto) are crazily small. Space, meantime, gets back its vastness. As you see here, their Earth (this is Overstreet demonstrating) is a little marble.

A man holding a marble in his hand against the sky
Film Still Courtesy of Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh
Wylie Overstreet Holding a Marble in His Hand Against the Sky

Using a ten-foot chain-link fence hooked to the back of their car, they created the orbits of all eight planets on a dried lake bed in Nevada (Black Rock Desert, home to Burning Man), carving ellipses into the sand. Then, when night fell, they drove the orbits, Gorosh holding a large lamp out the car window. The resulting time-lapsed film was composed into a carnival-looking, swooshing solar system, with teeny planets poised on poles, each a pinpoint of light.

showing a person holding up a model sun as the real sun rises, appearing the exact same size, in the east
Film Still Courtesy of Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh
Showing Model Sun Before the Rising Sun in the East

The most wonderful moment comes at the very end, when we stand nose to nose with the marble that is Earth and look back at the actual sun coming up in the east and, astonishingly, their model sun and the real sun … match! They’re the same size. So the model suddenly feels real, and that’s when Overstreet takes Earth and tosses it along the desert floor so it rolls into orbit, and you see, really think you see, how small (minuscule? tiny? Lilliputian?) our little planet—home to all of us—actually, really is.

It’s lip-bitingly beautiful.

WATCH: A group of friends build a scale, illuminated model of the solar system stretching seven miles across a dry lakebed in Nevada. Video courtesy Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh

My list of little to big words comes from Michael Hatch’s Order of Magnitude: Methodical Rankings of the Commonplace and the Incredible for Daily Reference, by a Man of Extraordinary Genius and Impeccable Taste. It’s a delightful compendium that jumps from subject to subject, each time with a stack—a very tall stack—of related words. You can find Overstreet and Gorosh’s “how we made this” video here.

18 thoughts on “Every Solar System Image You’ve Ever Seen is Wrong. Till Now.

  1. ‘Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not constant; terms are not final. Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he knows that there is no limit to dimensions.’
    — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

  2. Really enjoyed the video and what a great learning experience. It kinda of made me a bit melancholy to know that there is so much we don’t know and little time to learn what we do know. Keep up the great work!

  3. There is a fairly accurate scale model of the solar system in Maine. That model uses a 1:93,000,000 scale. The sun is in a building in University of Maine, Presque Isle. The planets are all located at various points along Route 1 from Houlton to Presque Isle. This model includes Pluto which is 40 miles away from the Sun in this model. Here is their webpage: http://pages.umpi.edu/~nmms/solar/index.htm

  4. Very very cool!! If you ever do this again—–and why wouldn’t you 🙂
    perhaps you could shoot a HA shot overhead from a drone that would give a birds eye view from directly above. The TL from the mountain is really great but it’d be so satisfying to see the entire thing playout directly below. Thanks for doing this—I really enjoyed it!

    1. I am assuming that the amount of actual time it would take to drive those outer orbits may take too long to use a drone. The drone would have to be airborne longer than I think they usually have the capability to sustain. Just a guess.

  5. Just an FYI~ Bill Nye did this same thing many years ago. I used to show it to my fourth grade classes (I’m retired now) so they wouldn’t think the planets were as close as their textbook showed they were, and it really opened their eyes! Thank you for another look for the people who never got to see the Nye version.

  6. Good stuff, but the claim “every model of the solar system… is wrong” is incorrect.

    Here’s a recent one done as a web page (see if you can make it to the end): http://joshworth.com/dev/pixelspace/pixelspace_solarsystem.html

    And properly scaled solar system models have been sort of a traditional part of astronomical observatories around the world. There’s one along a 3-km path leading to the Westerbork radio telescope array, for instance. An astronomer near me did one a few years ago by setting up the planets in shop windows in the city center.

  7. The “milky way path” is a 5km walking route in The Netherlands, where you start with Pluto near the parking lot, and walk towards the Sun with the planets (including Pluto…) and the Sun to scale along the path. The first time I walked that path must have been over 40 years ago 😉 You finish at the radio astronomy centre next to it.

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