The other theory of relativity
Posted by Peter Rasmussen on March 17, 2007
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the notion of scale. Drawings or models of the solar system always ignore this because it’s too hard. They make the planets the right size relative to each other but ignore the distance between them or draw the orbits alone.
I had a crack at this myself using game authoring software called 3DGameStudio. My first attempt had all the planets stationary with the camera free to fly around. I made the Earth as small as possible but not so small that you could not seed the continents. The resulting model was so big I could only fit in the inner solar system out to Mars.
For the first time I started to get a powerful sense of how gobbsmackingly vast our solar system really is. It all happened in the building process. If you pulled back too far from the Earth and lost your orientation in the star-field you would never find that planet again. So I made a button that automatically turned the camera to home and took you there.
I made the sun, Big! Hot! I made a circular arc to show the orbit of Mercury. The scale of the huge diameter of the thin arc was so extreme it was too much for the software. The result being that the arc had jagged steps in it. As thin as I could make it the arc still was many times fatter than the diameter of Mercury. With the lens size I was using, at Mercury the Sun is a dot.
The sense of how mind blowingly big the solar system is continued to develop with the construction of the model. You have to hold down the forward button for a hell of a long time just to travel from the sun to Mercury.
As well as the arc for Mercury’s orbit I built giant pointers to each planet. So even if you can’t see the tiny planet you can head for the pointer and track it down this way.
But then with these artificial aids, the pointers and the auto homing system, the feeling that I understood the scale of the solar system started to diminish to the point where I knew that anyone looking at this final model would be hard pressed to get it at all. It was in the doing.
There is a very nicely made 3D Model of the solar system at:
It does not do the scale thing but it’s still very pleasing to move around in.