Monday, September 7, 2015

Awe and Wonder: Space is BIG

In my science methods class today, we were talking about how to foster a sense of awe and wonder in students. I was sharing with my students how I hope science teachers help their students to have moments in which they simply stand amazed at the way this world has been shaped and created.

As an example, I shared with them this illustration of just how BIG the distances are in astronomy. I actually had all of the balls I describe here collected and ready for illustration. I hope this might foster a bit of awe and wonder for you too!


Space is BIG.

How big is it? Let’s make a model…

Image that the Earth is a super-ball about 1 inch across.

On that scale, how big is the moon? Bigger than Earth? Smaller than Earth?

The moon should be a pea (1/4”), and to be accurately placed according to scale, it should be about 30 inches away from Earth.

(Most students already gasp their disbelief at this point.)

On this scale, how big should the sun be?

Students suggest a basketball. I tell them this is too small.

A beachball? Now they are getting closer. I tell them it could be a beachball...if that beachball were 9 feet across!

And where should it be located? Would it even be in the same room?


Our 9-foot-beachball-sun would have to be placed 976 feet away from the Earth on this scale.


In fact, Earth is far enough away from the sun that if the sun suddenly exploded, we wouldn't know it had happened for about eight minutes, because it would take that long for the light from the no-longer-sun to reach us here at Earth, about 93,000,000 miles away from the sun.


How about the other planets? As we move outward from the giant-beachball-sun...

Mercury is another pea (1/4”) located 378 feet from the sun.

Venus is a super-ball (1”) located 705 feet from the sun.

(Our super-ball-Earth would be located here, about 976 feet from the sun.)

Mars would be a marble (1/2”) located 1486 feet from the sun.

Jupiter would be a basketball (10”) located about 1 mile from the sun.

Saturn would be a volleyball (9”) located about 2 miles from the sun.

Uranus would be a softball (3 ½”) located about 3 ½ miles from the sun.

Neptune would be another softball (3 ½“) located about 5 ½ miles from the sun.

Pluto (no longer a planet, of course) would be a peppercorn (about 1/8”) located about 7 ½ miles from the sun.

Remember, in between these planets there is basically NOTHING. (Space is...empty space!)


Now it gets crazy…

Proxima Centauri is the next closest star to the Earth after the sun. It is about 4 light years away from the sun. That means, if it blew up right now, we wouldn’t even know about it for four years…because that’s how long it would take the light of the explosion to reach the earth!

If we shrink our solar system model so the sun is the size of an orange, the Earth would be a grain of sand. If you would place the sun-orange at the center of a basketball court, the grain-of-sand-Earth would be out under the basket.

Where would Proxima Centauri be?

Would it be in the same town?

In the same county?

In the same state?


That next star-orange would be sitting in another gymnasium...about 1200 miles away.

For perspective...

If that sun-orange were here at center court of the De Wit Gymnasium at Dordt College...the Proxima Centauri-orange would be in...oh, say, Paterson, New Jersey.

And that's just the closest star. The rest are all much, much further away.

As I said at the is BIG.


Doesn’t that change your perspective a little? Maybe gives you a little different perspective singing, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands?”

This is what I mean about giving students the chance to stand in awe and wonder.

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