Analogy The Size of the Solar System

Ages 6+

Materials: a soccer ball, several peppercorns, several pins (w/pinheads), a ping-pong ball, a marble, and an open field

It has been said, and rightly so, that people who see themselves in a human-centered universe "are able to do so largely in proportion to their inability to do math."9 Even without much math, analogies can take us a long way. The immensity of space is difficult to grasp, but not as abstract as time, so even kindergarteners can give it a go. There are countless ways to help kids begin to grasp the size of the universe and our infinitesimal place in it. I offered this example in Parenting Beyond Belief:

Find a large open space. Put a soccer ball in the middle to represent the sun. Walk ten paces from the ball and stick a pin in the ground. That's Mercury. Take nine more full steps and drop a peppercorn for Venus. Seven more steps, drop another peppercorn for Earth. An inch away from Earth, stick another pin in the ground for the Moon, remembering that this inch is the furthest humans have been so far. Another fourteen steps, drop a very small peppercorn for Mars, then continue another 95 steps and drop Jupiter, a ping-pong ball. 112 paces further, place a large marble for Saturn. Uranus and Neptune are still further apart, and recently demoted Pluto would be a small pinhead about a half mile from the soccer ball.

So how far would you have to walk before you can put down another soccer ball for Proxima Centauri, the very nearest star to our Sun? Bring your good shoes—it's over 4000 miles away at this scale, New York to Berlin.10 That's the nearest star. And there are about a trillion such stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and roughly a hundred billion such galaxies, arrayed through billions of those light years in every direction.

See also: An amazing video on YouTube comparing the relative sizes of planets and stars: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tfs1t-2rrOM (or search for "relative size of planets").

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