March 19 – Big and Wide

Today’s Factismal: If the Sun weighed as much as a blue whale, then Jupiter would weigh as much as a llama, the Earth would weigh as much as a rat, and a person would weigh as much as a virus.

It is often hard to visualize the vast differences of scale in nature. Though the justifiably famous Powers of Ten film and website allow you to scan through the Universe from subatomic to, well, the Universe by changing the magnification by a power of ten each time, it is most appealing to those who like math. For everyone else, scientists have to resort to any number of strained examples like the one above.

It is all a matter of scale

It is all a matter of scale

One popular example is the “walking Solar System”. Museums and parks will place a plaque representing the Sun at one location and other plaques placed at distances representing their distance from the Sun. These are easy to construct and make good entry-level science fair projects, but rarely give a good idea of the relative sizes of the planets.

Another popular trick is to use small balls to represent the sizes of the planets. This provides a good estimate of the relative sizes, but rarely meshes well with the scale for distance. That’s because even the Sun is incredibly small when compared to interplanetary distances. But then, anyone who has watched a sunset already knows that; the Sun can be blocked out by a quarter as it sets, simply because it is so far away from the Earth.

And this is where you come in. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is looking for clever people (that’s you) to develop new ways of looking at what we know about space. If you’ve got an idea for how to take NASA’s work and make it easily understood and visually appealing, then why not head on over?

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