The Solar System Perspective Project
Stinson Beach
Labor Day Weekend, 2004

The Set-Up

Undaunted by shark warnings and a projected temperature of 94 degrees, Pat, Syd and Dave hit the beach shortly after the parking lot opened Saturday morning and began to set up the sun at the eastern end (Pat got a really good parking space). The sun was a "pilot" balloon, which we inflated to 56 inches (just under five feet) in diameter in only a few minutes using a portable Coleman air mattress pump. We put it up on a tripod of PVC poles and attached it securely with string and duct tape. In the lower right of the photo you can see part of the wooden frame we used to ensure an accurate measurement of the size of the sun.

The Sun
Photo by Anna, who got there early, too.


Then we began setting up the planets, represented by objects of appropriate sizes for the scale (which was about a billion to one) and placed at the proper scale distances from the sun. The first few were easy because they weren't that far away. Here's Mercury - it's a peppercorn, mounted atop a good sturdy pole with some wire and a chopstick. The sun is a mere 195 feet away, so it still looks pretty big.


Here's Venus, a small orangey marble 364 feet from the sun, which is that obvious red ball towards the lower left. You can't see Mercury, but you can sort of make out a small white rectangle just barely down and to the left of the sun - that's the sign on the Mercury post. Did I mention we put up amusing signs with each of the planets? I suppose I'll put those on the web site as well, the next time I'm feeling ambitious.
Next stop: Earth, another small marble, blue this time, which appears to be hovering near the end of the chopstick. A piece of wire extends out fifteen inches to the right and bends upward, where you can sort of make out a little spot at the end. That's the moon, a little grey bead slightly smaller than a peppercorn. The sun is now 503 feet away.

Earth and Moon

That's Tim at the Mars station, pretending not to notice the attractive women camped a few feet away. Mars is a little smaller than the Earth. In this model it's an allspice berry. You can still see the sun, a red dot to left of Tim's drink, under the colorful umbrella. You can't see the Earth from here, but it's right next to the big pointy white tent.



Hey, a LARGE planet! The biggest one, actually: Jupiter, a whopping six-inch styrofoam ball. We're about a half mile out now, and Syd has been carrying several rather heavy eight-foot wooden poles the whole way. We've just gotten started.

This was the middle of a populated area, and it wasn't possible to see the sun or any of the inner planets from here - just too many people in the way, even though there were shark warnings. Did I mention the shark warnings? Yeah, but the weather was beautiful, and it wasn't anywhere near 94 degrees.


The crowds had thinned out quite a bit by the time we got to where Saturn goes - nine-tenths of a mile, or about a third of the way up the beach. Still, there were a few onlookers.



Uranus, a cue ball, was really quite lonely at a distance of one point eight miles. And we were getting kind of tired.
At last, there was Neptune, this small rubber ball all the way out at the far end of the beach, a bit shy of three miles. We could see the sun from here, but we had to use binoculars.


Whoa, hey, wait a minute! We just ran out of beach and there's still one planet left - isn't there? Never fear: while we were hiking up the beach, Anna took Pluto and drove to the nearby town of Bolinas, where it was placed on the bar at Smiley's Saloon and Hotel. You can sort of make it out in the photo. It's the head of a pin.

Much Rejoicing

Pluto at Smiley's

So the set-up was done, and it had only taken a few hours. There was much rejoicing. Syd even took a celebratory swim in defiance of any large toothy fish that might happen to have been nearby.

On the walk back to the sun, Cheryl met us coming the other way with a plate of hamburgers. I didn't get a picture, I was way too busy eating.

Now it was time to settle back for the rest of the weekend and see what would happen.

Shark Bait

What Happened

Thankfully, the temperature never got anywhere near 94 degrees. It was pleasantly sunny all weekend long. Pat's poorly protected feet sustained a mild sunburn, which he wanted to be sure I mentioned. I declined to take a picture (I would like to stress that this was not because of any ugliness or deformity on the part of Pat's feet). This was the only physical injury sustained by the crew during the installation.

Many, many people visited the beach over the weekend, and a lot of them looked at the inner planets and said nice things to us. A few brave souls ventured to the outer reaches in search of the gas giants.

Through the day on Saturday the sun expanded in the sub-94-but-still-significant heat, and it gradually became rather lopsided, as you can see here. Then, at about 5pm, the unthinkable happened: the sun


People Enjoying a Bloated Sun

The real sun is scheduled to do this in about five billion years, but even at our reduced scale of a billion to one, it was rather premature. We'd hoped it would at least last the weekend. Natural causes may have been at fault, or it may have had something to do with the small children playing nearby (none of us actually saw it happen, we were voyaging in the asteroid belt at the time).

Fortunately, Pat had arranged for a backup sun, which was put up Sunday morning. This sun was sturdier - a bit too sturdy for the pump, in fact, which meant that Pat and Syd wound up having to inflate it manually, or whatever the corresponding word would be meaning "using your lungs." Unfortunately it was also a good deal smaller than the original sun, so the sun was out of scale for the rest of the weekend, but as Aesop famously said in his fable The Sun and the Grasshopper, "better a small sun than no sun at all."

Backup Sun

Sometime during the night the Venus pole was knocked over, whether by accident or design, and the small orangey marble disappeared completely (it was just glued on there). Sunday morning we replaced it with this unripe blackberry, which remained for the rest of the weekend. The other inner planets were unmolested.

Slightly Modified Venus

Monday at about 2pm we set out to take down the installation, and we found the shark.

It was a little smaller than we expected.

End of the Shark Warnings

Sign of Trouble

The first indication of trouble came when we reached Saturn. Someone had torn the signs off of both sides of the pole and carried them off. Of course, the sign was a gem of modern American humor, refering to Saturn as "the Liberace of planets." Note for next time: make the signs more boring so people won't steal them.
Then, when we reached Uranus, we saw this:


Uranus had been planet-napped!

Have You Seen This Planet?

Yes, poor little Uranus, seen here in a picture taken with close friends Syd and Pat during the set-up, had vanished, pole, signs and all. No ransom note was ever received. Milk carton manufacturers will be receiving a copy of this photo soon.
At the end of the beach, we discovered that Neptune was gone as well. Pat, Anna and I wish we'd known ahead of time, we could have stopped at Saturn and saved ourselves two-thirds of a rather tiring hike.


Although we did find some cool beach art left by someone or something else.

Evidence of Visitation?

Reports that filtered in later from those who'd made the hike out to the end of the beach informed us that Uranus and Neptune had both disappeared on Saturday afternoon: they'd been up no more than a few hours.

The incidents of callous thievery and vandalism point out a basic truth about the solar system: it's not only large and desolate, it's also a dangerous place where you never really know what's going to happen. We hadn't really intended for that point to be part of the project, but sometimes even your own art will surprise you.

On the way back to let the air out of the backup sun, as we uprooted the remaining planets, people kept coming up to tell us how cool they thought the installation was and to thank us for sharing. The general outpouring of curiosity and enthusiasm, coupled with the fun we all had, moves us to declare the project a complete success. More security next time.

Collapsing to a White Dwarf

Pat and Dave would particularly like to thank:

  • Syd Bellige, for stoically carrying heavy objects very far
  • Tim Louis, for helping Syd carry heavy objects
  • Anna Embree, for chauffeuring Dave and Pluto and helping with the takedown
  • Cheryl Moody, for the hamburgers especially
  • Morgan Powers, for weather balloon contacts and keen suggestions
  • Steve Davis, for letting us use his GPS, even though we couldn't get it to work
  • Katy Haun, for Jupiter
  • Gina, Jan, Di, Greg, Ellen, Chris, Jessica, Margaret, Katie, Michael and everybody at the Asteroid Camp
Whoops, I almost forgot. There was one last thing that happened:
Oh well.