Visualizing Vastness

The New York Times:

In the funky, crunchy, slightly gritty college town where I live, we have a pedestrian mall called the Ithaca Commons. You can probably picture it: A gem store. A hemp shop. Lots of places to buy hand-made candles.

And a scale model of the solar system … five billion times smaller than the real thing.

Built in honor of Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer, author and science communicator, the Sagan Planet Walk offers lessons that reach far beyond astronomy. It’s a case study in visualizing vastness.

Admit it. You have no real feeling for the size of the solar system. That’s O.K. Nobody else does either. Even knowing the numbers doesn’t help much. If I tell you the Earth is about 8,000 miles in diameter and 93,000,000 miles from the Sun, does that give you any sense of the distances involved? No, because the numbers are too big. Things that are so far removed from our daily experience — like quarks, and dinosaurs, and Kim Kardashian — are inherently hard to understand.

Read the whole story: The New York Times

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