Help your kids visualize the awesome vastness of the solar system and the universe

Have you tried explaining to your kids how vast the solar system and the universe beyond is? Chances are you have felt challenged to do so. You need special tools to be able to comprehend how big the universe is. This is because it is very (very^infinite) huge. There are two issues involved.

  • The numbers are always very big and we don’t see those sizes / distances in the immediate world we live in.
  • Compared to the size of the heavenly bodies, the distances involved are unimaginably large. Most pictures that you see on the web actually mislead you – they make you believe that the universe is much smaller than it is.


For example this image from the Western Michigan University website does a decent job of showing the relative size of the planets and

Visualizing the size of the solar system and the universe - useful tools

the sun but is not meant to illustrate the distances involved (it would be off by many multiples if it did so).

Or for example, instead of saying that the Sun has a diameter of 1.4 million kilometres and the solar system has a diameter of 10 billion km, your kids might be able to appreciate it better if you were to put it as follows:

if the Sun were to be a ball with a diameter of 6 inches, Pluto would be 647 metres away, the biggest known star VY Canis Majoris would be 329 metres in diameter and the nearest star Alpha Centauri would be 4423 kms away. Distances between astronomical bodies are many many times the size of such bodies and reducing them to scales your kids can identify with, helps.

Here is a list of resources on the web that help you overcome this challenge. Includes videos / images / exercises.

Tools to visualizing the size of the solar system and the universe

This is a nice model which helps you scale down the solar system and beyond to a level which gives you a better chance to visualize it. Input any number for how big you want to imagine the sun to be (say 6 inches in diameter) and it will give you the size of all planets, their orbital radii, distance size of some stars.
This is a really nice animation of the scale of the universe that helps you visualize you the scale of every thing from the infinitesimally small quantum physical level to the mind-blowing huge astronomical scales. You can also use this very popular video on youtube showing the relative sizes using a moving scale. Both of these tools however only give relative sizes of objects and NOT distances – both of these are likely to make sense only to kids above atleast 8-9 years of age.
However, the best way to teach your kids would be this outdoor the-thousand-yard exercise that I highly recommend as it will give them an understanding of both the size of the objects in the solar system as well as the distances involved. Why this method is far superior is because it actually involves real-world physical objects and distances to get the point across. Trust me, there is still no substitute to taking a DIY approach: pictures / mathematical models and videos all not withstanding. And being an outdoor activity, your kids will enjoy participating in this one too.

Know of any better tools to help me teach my kids?

 

+Amit Jain

Happy to hear your views too!

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