Learning about the solar system

Isn’t this cute?  I saw it on Pinterest, and it really is adorable.  Unfortunately it also gives the impression that:

  • All the planets are bunched around the sun such that they jostle each other as they orbit
  • In fact, Mercury, Mars, Neptune, Earth, and Venus seem to share the same orbital distance, as do Uranus and Saturn
  • All the planets are close in size – Mercury is about half the size of Jupiter
  • There are stars sprinkled amidst the planets (though arguably those are distant stars in the background, I suppose)
  • We’ve sent the space shuttle zooming out to visit Jupiter and Uranus
  • Maybe the astronauts were visiting the one-eyed green aliens out in that vicinity
  • And of course, Pluto is a planet

Now, I know this picture isn’t meant to be Serious Science Education – the planets all have adorable little faces, after all.  But I do think kids get very wrong ideas about the solar system from popular media (check out Bad Astronomy!), and this made me search out some fun and illuminating ways to show them how things really are.

For a fabulous demonstration of the scale of our solar system, check out this half-mile-wide web page.  Make sure your scrolling hand is in good form first!

For a more hands-on demonstration, you’ll need a roll of toilet paper and about 120 feet of space to work in, if my guesstimate is right.

On a nice day,  you could find an outdoor area where you can go 1,000 yards in a straight line (good luck!) and make a model of the solar system in which the Earth is a peppercorn, Mercury is a pinhead, and the sun is an 8 inch ball.  At Home Astronomy also has some other fun astronomy activities for kids.

If you have an old car that’s got 230,000 miles on the odometer, you can tell your kids the car could have driven to the moon!

You can read stories and watch movies, and talk about how science fiction writers have attempted to deal with the ridiculous amount of space between us and other planets – warp drives, cryogenic “sleep,” mass effect relays (yes, I’m impatient for the new game to come out), and so on.  And don’t forget to talk about the problem of communication over vast interstellar distances, which inspired Ursula K. LeGuin to imagine the ansible, a device which has become a standard part of scifi writing.

And regarding Pluto, you can watch the charming and funny Neil deGrasse Tyson in The Pluto Files.

I’m not saying don’t watch dumb Hollywood movies that get astronomy all wrong, or buy cute prints for the nursery with goofy aliens on them.  Just that it’s a good idea to balance out the “facts” that get mangled for dramatic or artistic purposes with some fun and amazing education on how things really are.

(Since I criticized her solar system piece, I should point out that Steph Says Hello has a lot of really cute, fun artwork you should check out.)

About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on February 13, 2012, in Parenting, Skepticism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Delurking just to mention http://scaleofuniverse.com/ , showing the solar system and so much more.
    (Warning, it doesn’t have a mute button)

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