Scaling Down the Solar System

“I sort of missed the science boat entirely,” says Wylie Overstreet, one of the creators behind the new short film To Scale: The Solar System. “It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered science as a story…and it was transformative. I suddenly became totally sucked into the story of nature, and in doing so, in reading more about it, learning about it, I discovered that there’s this massive discrepancy between our notion of where we are in the universe…and the reality of it.”

Representations of the solar system in textbooks and encyclopedias are often unintentionally misleading. In order to present all of the planets on one page, they are enlarged to show detail and crammed together for ease of comparison. But if you could see the real solar system from the outside looking in, Overstreet says, it would look nothing like that. That’s exactly the gap that he and fellow filmmaker Alex Gorosh hoped to address in their video, and to make it happen, they had to think big.

Over the course of 3 days, Overstreet, Gorosh, and a handful of friends constructed a seven-mile scale model of the solar system, from the Sun out to Neptune’s orbit (sorry Pluto). After painstakingly etching the planetary orbits into the desert floor, they set up a time lapse video on top of a nearby mountain and drove around and around their miniature Sun, after the real one had set. In the finished film, the motion of the lights against the dark backdrop of the desert creates a three-dimensional model of the solar system in motion.

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Screenshot from Making the Solar System showing the time-lapse model of the solar system.

Many astronauts attest that seeing the Earth from a distance was a powerful experience, and that’s the sort of out-of-body perspective that Overstreet hopes to evoke in viewers.   “It’s profound to see exactly how small we are.”  By building their massive scale model, have they created a new landmark that an astronaut might see from space?  Probably not, or at least not for very long, says Overstreet, thanks to a shallow lake that appears each winter.  “You go out there and it’s lifeless — seems like a total moonscape — and it turns out that there are brine shrimp eggs in the soil, and so when that lake arrives, the place comes to life and it’s a huge migratory stop for birds to feed on their way south.”

The potential to reach people with practical scale models isn’t limited to the solar system. With a successful film under their belt, the group is already laying plans for future episodes tackling everything from the atom to distant galaxies. “In the same way that [this] film brought a visual understanding of the solar system…we can do that with other parts of nature. That’s our goal.”

Podcast and post by Meg Rosenburg

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