Scaling our solar system: A look at the universe on campus

William Zingrone Associate professor of psychology

Get a bowling ball. If you’re hardcore, paint it yellow. A soccer ball will do in a pinch.

It’s a hair too big but close enough for our purposes. Head to the Murray State gateposts that stand at the end of 15th Street and Main across from Sparks Hall and set your bowling ball down on the sidewalk by the gatepost across the street from Sparks just up from the Bike Shop.

Take a glance toward campus and the main gates, the library, past Faculty Hall to the next two tall buildings also on your left, Blackburn and Elizabeth College in the distance.

Now, you’re ready. You will need two peppercorns, three poppy seeds, one acorn, two coffee beans and one walnut.

No, we’re not making some perverted nut bread. We are laying out the solar system: sun, planets, relative sizes and distances, across campus, all to scale.

Step out ten paces toward the bike shop and set down a poppy seed. Put it on an index card if you want to see it. That’s Mercury, to scale and the correct distance from your bowling ball Sun.

Now, walk another nine paces, put down a peppercorn for Venus near the low yellow guard rail. Walk another seven paces and plunk down the other peppercorn, that’s us: Earth, third rock from the Sun, right by the bike rack.

Fourteen more steps and put another pinhead-sized poppy seed on the brick planter with the Lassiter Building sign on it for the red planet, Mars.

Glance back down the sidewalk to your ‘Sun’ and get a grip on the scale of the immense distances between the planets compared to their miniscule size as compared to the massive Sun.

The Sun is 1,000 times larger than the Earth and in actuality 93 million miles away represented by the 26 steps you took.

Take a good look at the bowling ball. You may not be able to see it again, not even with binoculars by the time we are done.

From the brick planter and your poppy seed Mars walk 95 paces down the sidewalk into campus.

Across from the connecting street between Sparks and Wilson Hall, put down the walnut, Jupiter, the biggest planet. Looking back, get a grip again on the distance between Jupiter and the four inner planets. It’s incredible: Nearly half a block back to the Sun and the already utterly invisible peppercorn and poppy seed planets. But you haven’t walked off even one seventh of the distance to the outer planets yet.

Leaving your walnut Jupiter, walk 112 steps to across from the corner of Lowry and plunk down the acorn; Saturn. Look back to Main and forward to the library and beyond, you are just about one fourth of the way done.

Another 249 paces and you are at Uranus, by the last lamp post just before the library, more than twice the distance farther than between Saturn and Jupiter. Put a coffee bean down.

Another hike of 281 steps puts you almost at Curris, between the last two benches across from Blackburn and the other coffee bean; Neptune. Try to look back through the library columns past the gate.

See if you can glimpse the traffic on Main. You put the bowling ball Sun down next to the gatepost, but you can’t see the gatepost either.

One more jaunt to the non-planet Pluto, the last poppy seed, 242 paces nearly to Lizo; halfway across the bridge overlooking the far sidewalk below you on Chestnut.

You’ve covered half a mile across campus. Reconcile these distances with even the big ‘ole walnut Jupiter, and the peppercorn of our Earth.

If you walk it back, the immense distances become even more apparent, especially when you finally get back to the planter by the bike shop and Mars, and you can’t make out our peppercorn Earth, barely 30 feet away.

One last surprise, though. The extent of the solar system, where the Sun’s gravitational effect still pulls in dust and comets is just a little off-campus. Not Benton, not even Paducah, neither Illinois nor somewhere in Wisconsin.

The solar system extends another two light years, halfway to the nearest star. On our campus scale, that’s another 2,000 miles straight north of Lizo to Churchill, Manitoba Canada on Hudson’s Bay. We know this stuff. This is not the result of some competing worldview of cold, hard, unfeeling, reductionist, materialist science.

This is knowledge we all share as a species, hard-won knowledge, developed by thousands of our fellow citizens of this third rock, from all over this tiny globe. It is breathtaking, awe inspiring.

While pacing off these steps I noticed for the first time the words above the entrance to Pogue: “The Hope of Democracy Depends on the Diffusion of Knowledge.” I can’t add to that.


Column by William Zingrone, Associate professor of psychology