Alton Baker Park solar system model sparks scientific curiosity

(Justin Hartney/Emerald)

On a 1:1 billion scale model of the solar system, it would take about 7,320 steps to reach pluto from the sun. That’s 3.66 miles. In reality, that would equate to roughly 7,320,000,000 steps.

At Alton Baker Park visitors can walk through a scale model of the universe to provide perspective on its vastness. On this scale, Earth is only a 1/2 inch wide and a human is the size of a molecule. The sun is a large 4-feet-6-inches in diameter.

The inner planets — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars — are located inside the main area of Alton Baker park. The outer planets are located northbound on the Willamette River bike path, ending in Springfield. Each model planet is made of steel and rests on the head of large markers displaying their name and an arrow pointing to the next.

The model was originally painted on the path by Jack and Ben Van Dusen. Jack started the project in 1990 when his son Ben was in the fourth grade. After gaining media and community attention, the pair decided to recreate the model with steel balls. On the model’s website, Jack writes, “The project grew out of a desire to show my son the relative smallness of the planets compared [to] the great distances between them.” 

It’s hard to truly conceptualize the vastness of the universe, but this model provides a way to spark curiosity about our solar system and the universe as a whole.

Scott Fisher, an Astronomy Lecturer and Outreach Coordinator in the University of Oregon’s Department of Physics, said this curiosity about the universe is natural.  

“We’re all explorers,” Fisher said. “We all explore in different ways, and we all have different ideas about it, but there’s just this need to explore somehow.”

Despite our dependence on and natural affinity for science as kids, many people today seem disinterested in pursuing scientific endeavors, after middle or high school. Fisher’s goal is to make science fun and accessible for all.

“Most humans have a bad negative experience with either math or science as they were going through the school system,” Fisher said. “That beats it out of us.”

Part of Fisher’s mission as a teacher is to give students a positive experience with science and spread science literacy. “Being science literate,” he explained, “means that you can look at a science article in the newspaper or in Wired Magazine or in the New York Times… and that you can read through that and not be scared.”

Generating this interest doesn’t just expand the number of scientists, but encourages all people to think on a deeper level and work to understand the world around them.

Astronomy is a good place to dive into science literacy for most people because, as Fisher said, “astronomy is unique in all sciences in one way, and that is every human on this planet is a little bit of an astronomer.”

Fisher cautions newly fledged astronomers to take small bites and avoid jumping into big ideas without solid foundation, and not to get overwhelmed by the flood of information that will ensue. There’s a lot of misinformation on space, spread by obvious conspiracy theory sites, and blogs resting in a gray area of expertise. It’s important to find undeniably credible sources; and when information can’t be confirmed, there are sites online like Ask an Astronomer, where you can ask a professional astronomer any burning questions about space.

For people interested in science literacy, Fisher’s class can offer a good jumping off point into science, and Alton Baker park’s model of the solar system can offer a thought provoking look at our place in the universe.

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