HONEY, I SHRUNK THE SOLAR SYSTEM

 

Provided here is information to present a scale model of the Solar System.  I have used this exercise with many groups, both small and large, with ages ranging from upper elementary school students to adults.  It always has a very powerful impact.  I usually start by briefly introducing the idea of a scale model with reference to the movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids.  I begin with the Earth, which seems so large to us, talking about how we reduce it in size from approximately 8,000 miles in diameter to about a tenth of an inch.  Then I start with Mercury and ask people to identify each planet going out from the center and have someone take the scale object and hold it up while I share some information about it, generally relating it to Earth.  When all the planets have been identified I take out the balloon for the Sun and start blowing it up, asking them how big they think it should be.  Then I ask how far Mercury should be from the Sun.  The answer is usually quite a surprise for most people.  If you are indoors, depending on the size of the room, you are limited in how much of the Solar System you can set up to scale.  If you are outside with a large field, try to go as far as you can (I have gotten as far as Saturn with a group – it is more than a fifth of a mile).  Then talk about the scale distance to the next star, and that our galaxy, the Milky Way, has over 100 billion stars and that there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe!

 

Body      Actual     Actual      Scale    Scale     Object used to

         Distance   Diameter   Distance  Diameter   represent Body

         from Sun   of Body    from Sun  of Body

         r(1012m)    D(108m)     (Feet)   (Inches)

 

Sun          -       13.9         -       14       Large Yellow Balloon

Mercury    0.058      0.049        48      0.05    Head of a shirt pin

Venus      0.108      0.121        90      0.1     Head of a map pin

Earth      0.150      0.127       125      0.1     Head of a map pin

Mars       0.228      0.068       190      0.05    Head of a shirt pin

Jupiter    0.779      1.427       649      1.5     Golf Ball

Saturn     1.429      1.208      1191      1.2     Ball/Cardboard Rings

Uranus     2.868      0.511      2390      0.5     Marble

Neptune    4.493      0.492      3744      0.5     Marble

Pluto      5.850      0.023      4875      0.02    A typed period

 

NOTE: At this scale, the next nearest star, Alpha Centauri, would be 6260 miles from the Sun!

Also, at this scale, the Moon would be about 4 inches from the earth and would be a tiny ball about 1/32” in diameter. This scale model provides a powerful witness to the incredible size of God’s creation.  Our Sun is an average sized star.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains over 100 billion stars.  Astronomers estimate that there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe.  When we understand this, the words of Psalm 8 are so appropriate:

 

O Lord, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.

When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

                         (Psalm 8:1, 3-4 NRSV)

 

Three thousand years ago, the psalmist looked at the stars and was filled with awe and wonder.  Throughout the centuries, many have shared this experience.  Immanuel Kant declared, “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe - the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”  Modern science has made known to us a universe filled not just with sun and moon, stars and planets, but also with nebulae and galaxies, quasars and black holes.

 

Science reveals a world filled with wonders and mysteries.  Many scientists find that their work inspires in them a strong sense of wonder.  Yet, as a pastor, one of my great concerns is that so many Christians nowadays seem to lack a lively sense of awe and wonder in their faith and life.  “Been there, done that” seems to better express their feelings.  The results are devastating.  Without a sense of awe towards that which is greater than ourselves drawing us out of ourselves, our vision seldom goes much further than our own interests, experiences and struggles.  Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted.  Indifference to the sublime wonder of being is the root of sin.”  Faith calls us to encounter the living God, Creator of heaven and earth, the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.  Without a sense of awe and wonder, without “the fear of the Lord’, faith loses depth; it is at risk of becoming a one dimensional caricature of itself.

 

I believe that one of the greatest contributions science can make to faith (although certainly not the only one) is to help inspire in us a sense of wonder and awe.  It can help renew in us the thrill of mystery and the adventure of discovery.  It can give us perspective on our life and experience.  Albert Einstein said “The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious.  It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and in science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind.” 

 

On the other hand, our experience of science and technology can also serve to diminish our sense of awe and wonder.  Science can be pursued as a playful, awestruck adventure of discovery, or it can be pursued as a means to control and dominate.  Technology can help open up to us the wonders of the universe or it can tend to obscure them, while soon becoming itself just one more thing to be taken for granted.  As an amateur astronomer, I experience this graphically.  Telescopes reveal the incredible beauty and majesty of nebulae and galaxies.  City lights, however, can reduce the number of stars visible with the naked eye to an uninspiring few dozen.

 

The call is not that we should somehow try to capture or create a sense of awe.  That would be pointless, since awe is experienced in encountering that which is greater than us.  I believe, though, that we can learn to open ourselves to awe, to seek such encounters and respond to them so that we live standing in awe rather than sitting in apathy.  We must also, by faith, take the step the psalmist took, from a sense of wonder at creation to awe before the Creator.

 

We can do this individually to enrich our own faith.  I would also encourage you to look for opportunities to share with groups, in your congregation or on your campus, ways in which science has helped you experience awe and wonder.  Reading the works of authors who express a strong sense of wonder helps greatly.  Loren Eiseley is one of my favorites.  Take time to experience the beauty and majesty of creation.  If you live in the city and are traveling on a clear evening away from city lights, find a dark stretch of road, pull over for ten minutes and enjoy the dark sky with thousands of stars.  In leading small groups, I have asked people to remember and share times they have felt a strong sense of awe and wonder.  I have also handed out nature pictures (calendars are great source of pictures) and had people discuss their reactions to them.  Clearly it is not enough to just present some “Gee whiz” science, but I think that for this sort of thing, we must do more than just talk about awe. We must do what we can to help people experience awe.  This is an ongoing interest for me and I would enjoy hearing any ideas you might have.