Tours of Model Solar Systems

Peoria Model Solar System May 22, 1999

Well the question of the day is why did Bill and Ellen go to Peoria on their first tourist trip in Illinois (other than Chicago and environs)? Turns out you can't find out by reading the AAA Guide Book for Illinois since their Good Guy tourist hit is not mentioned there.

Hint-1 During our Road Trip we were often traveling at 10.3 times the speed of light with occasional bursts up to 11.3 times the speed of light.

Hint-2 On Saturday night we slept within a few million miles of the planet Pluto.

OK, OK--what we were doing was making a complete tour of the World's Largest Model of the Solar System (cf. Guinness Book of Records). In this model both the distances and the planets are to the same scale (roughly 1: 126,000,000).

We opened up our tour by visiting the Sun which is the planetarium dome (36 feet) of the Lakeview Museum of Arts & Sciences. A quiet, gentle little museum set in a very green park.

Then we headed out on foot to Mercury. Ellen was opposed to this but I said it was part of the scientific purpose of the expedition to get a feel for solar system distances so off we went to School's the Rule (a stationary store) in the Metro Shopping Center. There was a grove of trees in our way so we had to make a very indirect orbital approach. This was clearly the slowest part of our trip--we dropped a good bit below the speed of light--to about .38 the speed of light by my rough calculations (excluding the time Ellen spent buying gift pencils in School's the Rule and the time Bill spent in the bakery that was 10 or 20 million miles away from Mercury!). The clerks in School's the Rule were just a bit surprised when I put a big planet label on my chest and Ellen took my picture (Ellen had thoughtfully provided names for each planet in 124 point type.). One of the clerks didn't even know Mercury was in their store (it's about an inch and a half in diameter). The older clerk was surprised to find out that she had been to the locations of Earth and Saturn and hadn't even realized it. Apparently Doing the Solar System is not a hot item in popular American culture--the older clerk said they didn't have more than 1 or 2 interplanetary visitors per month.

We walked back to the Sun, picked up our trusty light speed 1989 Toyota, and headed for Venus at the US Cellular office. Another very surprised clerk when I pulled out my planet label and Ellen took a picture of Venus.

Then off to see Earth at Beacher's AMOCO. Ellen was unhappy she couldn't get the car on the lift to fit into the picture frame.

We had been told that doing Mars was going to be really tough. It is in the WMBD TV station which is locked on Saturday. However, our luck held--a reporter came out of the building while we were working on our plan of attack. She did not believe my story that they had Mars in their lobby, but when I showed her my 124 point planet label she said, what the hey, and let us in. We all looked around the dark lobby and eventually Ellen found Mars. After we took our archival picture the somewhat abashed reporter said she didn't want to appear ignorant but could we please explain what Mars was doing in their TV station. We did.

Next off to Jupiter at Bradley University. I had a bad feeling about this one since as an academic I know that university buildings are often locked up on weekends, especially when school is not in session. Sure enough the Olin Science Hall was locked tighter than a drum. It looked as if we were going down to defeat on the largest planet. However, the force was with us and as we circumnavigated the buildings looking for unlocked doors Ellen peered into one window and saw Jupiter in the distance! A little more exploration led us to a large plate glass window that gave us a good view of Jupiter (about the size of a small weather balloon).

Now it was off to Saturn at the Kroger Store in East Peoria. We failed on our first pass but Ellen (our planet spotter par excellence) found it outside under the overhang of the cart return area. Quite a few Saturday shoppers must have gone home talking about the crazy tourists taking pictures of the front of Kroger's. Ellen was getting hungry and a bit worried about food prospects in the outer solar system so we bellied up for pork chop sandwiches being sold by the East Peoria Knights of Columbus.

Now the distances really get serious. We head south for Uranus in the town of Pekin, Illinois (whose H.S. football team use to be fondly known as the Pekin Chinks). Here we score our only outdoor planet in Mineral Springs Park. We find that Mr. Schafer has done well and Uranus is properly tilted so that it's rings are more vertical than horizontal.

It is now about 2:30 PM and Ellen is now getting nervous about meeting our 5:00 B&B reservations--there is a lot of universe still ahead. She suggests skipping Neptune and hitting it on the way back to Urbana. Bill is incredulous--that would mean not seeing the planets in order--there are rules to a proper Solar System Tour you know. We head north to Neptune in the little town of Roanoke, Illinois. We zip into Roanoke Motors, Bill whips out his planet label, Ellen shoots, and we are back on the road before anyone even has time to ask us what type of car we are looking for.

Now it is the long haul west to Pluto in Kewanee, Illinois. Bill keeps us at a little above 11 light speed, and we only get caught behind farm machinery once so we find ourselves at Good's Furniture Store a little after 5:00. Grab the keys to our Good's Furniture Store B&B (sic) and head out across the skywalk (sic) looking for Pluto. Turns out it was back on the West side of the skywalk--we look at the little marble sized Pluto and enjoy the warm feeling of having succeeded in doing the whole solar system in one day. Our intrepid interplanetary travelers trot down to their B&B for a well earned rest.

Now you might think that our trip back to C-U was made at a terrestrial 65 mph, but not so. In the trunk of our Toyota was an official registered Lakeview Planetarium comet which was being relocated in the Ort cloud of comets that surround the solar system so actually we were traveling many, many times the speed of light all the way out to the Ort cloud (aka Champaign-Urbana).

Peoria's Model Solar System

Boston Museum Of Science Model Solar System July 1, 1999

Boston has the 2nd largest model solar system in the U.S. Our Summer 1999 Harvard Sq. trip was coordinated with one of my ex-students, Clark Chinn, and his family (wife Yoko, and daughter, Lisa). They had never visited Cambridge/Boston so with a straight face we explained that when visiting Boston it was traditional to do the MOS run and visit all the planets in the MOS Model Solar System all in one day. So on July 1 Clark, Yoko, and Lisa are taken on a crazy zig-zag dash around Boston. (At various times both Ellen and Clark wondered if perhaps the planets could be done out of order--Bill explained that there are Rules to these things.). This solar system is roughly on a 1: 400,000,000 scale so is about 3 or 4 times smaller than the one in Peoria. (The honorable folk at the Museum of Science have noted on each planet plaque that the model solar system you are touring is the largest east of Peoria--quite an admission from the "Hub of the Universe".)

The inner planets were a snap. The Sun is outside the entrance to the Hayden Planetarium in the Museum of Science. Mercury is out in front of the Museum. Venus it on the roof of the garage, on the steps near the Observatory. We then headed out from the Museum with Lisa in the lead moving along at about twice the speed of light (At each planet there was a raised planet symbol that you could use to make a rubbing to show you had scored--only the two youngest, Bill and Lisa, actually made rubbings.) We found the Earth at the Royal Sonesta Hotel and after much hard work by the entire crew finally found Mars in the Cambridgeside Galleria (it's on the 3rd floor across from Filene's *not* on the 2nd floor as described in the MOS booklet). Ellen says "Why is Mars always the hardest?" (cf. the Peoria Report). Note that with the smaller scale of this model we were able to do the first four planets on foot. We then continued our hike to the Kendell Sq. T stop and headed out for Jupiter in South Station (near the food court). Then back on the T in the middle of rush hour (Yoko says it doesn't even come close to Tokyo rush hour) for Saturn which is in the Cambridge Public Library

To take in the full image of this expedition consider that at each planet not only do Bill and Lisa make rubbings, but multiple pictures are taken with various people holding 128 point planet labels (cf. the Peoria Report). We are quite a show.

Now we shift to our car and hunker down for the far planets. (Apparently our rented Ford was much faster than our trusty Toyota--on this solar system trip we peaked out at about 40 times the speed of light.) We are after Uranus at the Jamaica Plain Library (the fates are really pulling for us--the library closes at 6 or earlier most days--we get there at 7:30 and find that on Thur. it stays open til 8:00). Then we head north to Neptune at the Square One Mall in Saugus. It is almost 9:00 when we locate Neptune. Clark was planning to leave after supper for the long drive to New Brunswick and so it looks as if they are not going to make Pluto. A real bummer. However, as Clark and Bill and Ellen plan Clark's route out of Boston we realize that he has to pass within a quarter of a mile of where we think Pluto should be. We drive down to Cambridge and leave Clark, Yoko, and Lisa at their car. Bill and Ellen say their good-bys and then head for Pluto out to the west at the Riverside T stop (the end of the Green line). At 11:30 PM , to the amusement of a train load of passengers, Ellen takes a picture of a tired, but happy Bill giving the thumbs up sign at Pluto. As we head back to Harvard Sq. Bill notices a familiar station wagon and realizes that Clark, showing a mild crazy streak, has decided they have come too close not to finish the planet tour. So Bill and Ellen turn around and follow Clark and family to Pluto where at about midnight we take a picture of three tired but triumphant space travelers who may have second thoughts about ever vacationing(?) with the Brewers again!

Boston's Model Solar System

Sweden Solar System July 14, 15, 17, 2000

The Swedes have just about finished the Sweden Solar System, running about a third the way up the peninsula from Stockholm (1: 20,000,000) that will soon take over from Peoria as the World's Largest Model Solar System.

Our travels up the Sweden Solar System were hard, but fun. We really strained the usually efficient and well organized Swedish Information Offices. Bill had obtained from the founders of the SSS (Nils Brenning & Gosta Gahm) a brochure that gave instructions only in Swedish. Before we left C-U Ellen used her rusty Danish skills and a Swedish dictionary to try and translate the crucial parts of the brochure. She produced a rough translation, however the brochure gave only general locations for inner planets (e.g. at a particular shopping center) and for outer planets usually just the name of the town, this often made the search quite a challenge.

We began the solar system run on a gray, rainy day. The Sweden Solar System is modeled on a scale of 1: 20,000,000 so is roughly 6 times larger than the Peoria Solar System (1: 126,000,000) and 20 times larger than the Boston Solar System (1: 400,000,000). In the Sweden Solar System Pluto is 300 km from the sun. The Sun is the Globen, the world's largest spherical building (71 meters in diameter) and Sweden's largest indoor arena (a Bruce Springsten concert pulled in over 16,000 people here). We had no trouble finding the Globen via the metro, but once we got there and asked if there were a plaque or something none of the information people had any idea that the Globen was the Sun (so we don't know to this day if there is a special place at the Globen that indicates that it is the Sun).

Next back to the metro and off to Mercury This was without a doubt our easiest planet. The instructions said it was at the Stockhoms stadsmuseum (City Museum) and once we recovered from having come out the wrong end of the subway entrance we found the Stadsmuseum and there was Mercury, about the size of a basketball, sitting outside in the forecourt of the museum. Bill pulled out his trusty planet labels (that Ellen had constructed for the Peoria trip) and Ellen took his picture. We were lulled into thinking that this solar system was going to be easier than it had looked.

We hit the metro and headed for Venus at the Old Stockholm Observatory. We were worried about this one. We were doing the planet run on a Thursday and Bill had information that said that the Observatory Museum was only open 12-2 Sat & Sun so we hoped Venus was outside--it wasn't. Bill got a scientist from the building to come to the door. Once he understood what we were up to he was very sympathetic, but didn't have a key to the Museum. So Ellen takes a picture of a very wet and dejected Bill in front of the Observatory door.

(However, the night before Ellen was to leave she pointed out to Bill that her plane was going to leave late morning on Sunday so that after taking her to her flight he might have just enough time to catch the train down to Stockholm and get to the Observatory during its Sunday opening hours before he had to get to his Conference. So on Sunday he drops Ellen off at Arlanda Airport, catches the train to Stockholm, takes the metro to the closest stop, climbs the hill to the Observatory, and is there just as the person in charge shows up. He tells his story to someone who really appreciates it, and asks her to take a picture of a wet but decidedly not dejected Bill in front of Venus.)

Next stop Earth--we were off to CosmoNova which turned out to be planetarium and Omnimax theater in the Swedish Museum of Natural History. July is vacation month for most Swedes (employers are required to give 4 consecutive weeks of vacation!) and so all over Sweden there were families in little cottages in the woods and by the sea. However, this day was very dark and rainy and so CosmoNova was filled to the ceiling with thousands of Swedish family groups looking for something to overcome cabin fever (as far as we could tell we were the only nonSwedes there). We asked about Earth at the ticket office--no luck. We tried some other staff and eventually one staff member said she thought it was near the entrance to the planetarium. Even though we didn't have tickets (they had been sold out since early morning) we talked our way in to see a colorful model Earth.

Back to the metro. We take the red line to its most northerly stop at the Morby Centrum shopping center to find Mars. We thought this might be a hard one since last summer we had had trouble finding Mars in the Galleria shopping center in Cambridge, but the fates were with us on this one, as we came up from the metro there was a Morby Centrum poster telling us that Mars was near the Post Office. So soon we had a picture of Bill hugging Mars to the puzzlement of a number of Morby Centrum shoppers.

Back to Stockholm to pick up our bags and take the train out to Arlanda, the international airport for Stockholm, to pick up our rental car. Arlanda is also the location of Jupiter. It shouldn't be too hard to find Jupiter, even at an airport, since on the scale we are traveling Jupiter should be 7.3 meters (24 feet) in diameter. Bill queues in one of the information lines. He asks where Jupiter is and gets the usual uh-oh-we-have-a-crazy-here look. However when he pulls out the nicely printed SSS brochure which says in Swedish that Jupiter is suppose to be at Arlanda (actually it says that in 1998 a planting of Jupiter was put in as a place holder until they could construct the giant planet). Soon Bill is passed to another information person. Eventually that person calls a more senior person to the counter. Soon calls are being made to information people on vacation, to the Stockholm information office (Bill has already been there and asked about the SSS and knows that they are not going to be able to help). During this time long lines have formed at the counter full of people wanting to ask mundane questions such how do I catch the bus to Stockholm, etc. (Bill hopes they can't hear the animated discussions about Jupiter going on among the information folks.) Eventually the usually efficient information folks come up empty--they are very apologetic and clearly feel they have failed with a question that they should have been able to answer. Bill goes to other parts of the airport and this scene is repeated. No one knows about Jupiter (though one representative recalls reading about it in the newspaper and noting that one of the planets was going to be at Arlanda) but several say the only large planting they know about is out in front of SkyCity. We find the planting. It has no information about the SSS and isn't quite the right size and shape, but does have a red spot of brick leading to a bench. We decide not to take a picture in hopes of that we will find the real Jupiter later. (Later when we return our rental car, we circle the entire airport and decide that the SkyCity planting is the only planting that could possibly be Jupiter so we give in and take our photograph.)

We head out for Uppsala (73 km or 45 miles north of the Globen) looking for Saturn. Here we know there may be trouble. The SSS brochure (written around 1998) says Uppsala hasn't resolved the issue of where to put its model of Saturn. Two of the options given are: at the Old Observatory and at a new planetarium to be built at Angstrom Laboratory. Bill goes into the Uppsala information office, asks about Saturn, gets The Look indicating that they intend to be polite even if the questioner has a loose wire. He brings out the brochure and we do the Arlanda routine again (with only 3 information people this time). The Uppsala folks are truly embarrassed that they have never heard of the SSS or the model Saturn that is or is to be in Uppsala. They actually call several astronomers at the University (it is July and they are all on vacation). Later Bill and Ellen find the Old Observatory and the Angstrom Lab and take pictures of the missing Saturn, only this time in the pictures Bill has his thumb emphatically down. (When Bill makes his second trip to Uppsala a week later he goes in and gently harasses the Information folk--he tells them to pass along the message that they had a very disgruntled American tourist on their hands and that if Delsbo, a town of a few thousand people, can have Pluto in place a famous University town such as Uppsala ought to be embarrassed not to have its planet.)

We get into our rental car and head north (apparently these Swedish rental cars are not as fast as our trusty old Toyota since we were only averaging a little less than twice the speed of light here whereas we had been doing up to Warp 11 back in Illinois). After about an hour's drive we find ourselves in Gavle looking for Uranus. Bill goes to the Gavle information center and gets The Look. While they don't know anything about Uranus they do know how to direct us to Furuvik which is where Uranus is located. Furuvik turns out to be a local amusement park. The sun had come out and so we joined a steady stream of vacationing Swedish families into Furuvik. The people at the ticket office gave Bill The Look and suggested he ask at the Information Office. Bill goes to the Information Office gets The Look again, shows his brochure. The person on duty calls a supervisor. They aren't sure about Uranus, but they say there is something weird over by the Tea Cup ride. As we round a corner Ellen spots the unmistakable large blue sphere--we have found Uranus. We stop for lunch and since we are the only nonSwedes there we try to fit in and order in Swedish (just out of pride, since we knew that everyone there could speak English if we broke ranks and gave ourselves away). Ellen was quite surprised when she found she had ordered a nice traditional Swedish taco salad.

We continue north heading for Soderhamn and Neptune. In an hour or two we find ourselves at the Soderhamn Information Office. Bill has the routine down pat now--The Look, the brochure, the distraught discussion among the people in the office. Once again they weren't too sure about Neptune, but when Bill said it would have to a sphere taller than he was they brightened up and directed us to the Iron Park. (As we left the office Bill was amused to note in the very bottom of one of their racks were several copies of the SSS brochure--the only ones we ever saw, other than the ones we received by mail in the US from the scientists who developed it. As Bill parks the car Ellen sees a big translucent sphere in a park and there was Neptune. It was made of blocks of transparent plastic and it looked as if there was a light beneath it to make it glow from inside at night. Soderhamn was a delightful little seacoast town, very appropriate for Neptune. We stopped for an ice cream break but were feeling the lust for completing the planet run so we soon piled back into our car and headed north.

We are looking for Delsbo, a small town of about 2,500 inland from the coast. We pull up at 4:30 in the afternoon in this very small town; there is an Information Office, and it is open (this is clearly a well ordered society, even if they are a little weak on the SSS). Bill goes in and asks about Pluto. The information person actually has heard that Delsbo has a model of Pluto! But she doesn't know where it is! She suggests we try looking at a conference center. We find the building, drive around it twice, and see nothing promising. The person in the home nearest comes out to ask what we are doing. Bill tells him we are looking for Pluto. He gives a very suspicious version of The Look despite the SSS brochure. Bill agrees it might be best to go back to the Delsbo Information Center. We pull up right before 5:00 and it is still open (clearly we are in Northern Europe). The young woman is embarrassed and digs deeper into her resource material and finds a brochure saying that Pluto is in a park near the conference center. As he is leaving Bill asks her how many people ask about Pluto. She pauses for a long moment and says she has been working here all summer and we are the first! (Later at the Conference in Stockholm Bill tells some of this story and one of his colleagues says--If you build it they will come) We find a lovely little park with a stream running down into a pond with lilypads. On the far side are two obelisks. We walk over and find that toward the top of one obelisk is a small carved crystal sphere--Pluto! But what about the second obelisk. Bill realizes that the artist who made up this model was showing off and the smaller crystal sphere in the second obelisk is Charon, Pluto's large moon. Ellen quickly builds a new label for Charon and the final ritual picture of Pluto and Charon is taken.

A tired but triumphant Bill and Ellen sit on a bench amidst a bed of flowers. They are probably the only couple on earth to have managed the Triple Crown of Model Solar Systems (Sweden, Peoria, Boston). It is getting cool as the sun drops lower in the sky. They can see the two obelisks with birch trees behind them. They can hear the sounds of the little stream flowing down to the pond. It is lovely out there at the edge of the solar system.

Sweden Solar System

Well Dear Reader, until our next interplanetary romp.

Other Scale Model Solar Systems

In the US: Maine 1:93,000,000 (under construction); Eugene 1:1,000,000,000; Ithaca (1:5,000,000,000); Pasadena (planned); and Boulder 1:10,000,000,000 (at this scale a slow walk is many times the speed of light and Bill was there)

Outside the US: There is one in the Alps, near St. Luc (1: 1,000,000,000) that has views of the Matterhorn! And there are several in the UK, including the one in York.

The Scale Model Solar System Meta Page has lots of interesting links.

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Last updated January 19, 2001 by EFB