A cosmic scale crosses the U.S.

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The latest addition to the Ithaca, New York, Sagan Planet Walk is a female representation of Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to the Sun, located in Hilo, Hawaii, making the exhibit the world’s biggest. // photo by Vasyl Kacapyr/Cornell University
Most of us are pretty aware, at least on an intellectual level, of how big the universe is. Even light, traveling at the fastest possible speed something can go, takes eight minutes to reach Earth from the Sun’s surface. And that distance is nothing compared to the scales of the outer solar system and the nearest stars.

It’s always a challenge to think of ways for people to “get” just how big our cosmic neighborhood is on a gut level, though. Humans aren’t naturally used to understanding the very large or the very small. So one of the best ways to convey enormous distances is with scale models of the solar system, which can stretch out for miles.

Now, the Sagan Planet Walk has gone one better. By adding Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to the Sun, this exhibit named after the legendary astronomer has become the largest in the world. At a 1:5,000,000,000 scale (Earth’s diameter measures just 0.1 inch [2.5 millimeters]), most of the planets lie scattered across Ithaca, New York. But with the latest addition late last month — in Hilo, Hawaii! — the model solar system now stretches about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers).

So while it’s not exactly a site you can entirely see on your next trip to Ithaca, the Sagan Planet Walk is the latest way to help understand our tiny place in the huge cosmos. As Carl Sagan himself said, “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. … To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Next time you’re in upstate New York, or Hawaii, you can check out part of the exhibit and ponder the hugeness of the universe.

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