By Jaclyn Lipp
Most people have a hard time grasping just how vast the universe is. And let's face it, the foam ball models of the solar system often found in middle school classrooms simply don't do the cosmos justice.
"Although you think you're on a big planet, it's actually quite small. And then when you compare it with the distance to the sun, it's absolutely tiny," said Mangala Sharma, an Ohio University research assistant professor of physics and astronomy.
The problem inspired Sharma to create a new museum exhibit that could bring the relative size and distance of planets in our solar system into focus. In her role in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the scientist spearheads such outreach initiatives to engage the public in astronomy and space science.
Sharma developed the original idea and basic design for the project. In partnership with area amateur astronomers and the Athens Public Library, she secured grant funding from NASA. Sharma asked Tom Statler, a professor of physics and astronomy who leads the university's Astrophysical Institute, and John Sabraw, an associate professor of art, to help her bring the exhibit to life.
The team saw an opportunity to create an exhibit that would appeal to all ages, address a topic people had some familiarity with and help the public gain a deeper understanding of the cosmos.
The result, "Planet Panorama," is a traveling exhibit that represents the solar system on a scale many Americans can grasp: a football field. The 12 panels in the display show the relative size and location of the sun, the planets and other bodies as if they were lined up on the field, at a scale of 1:44 billion. The team positioned people across Ohio University's Peden Stadium to represent the locations of the planets and then photographed the scene.
In close-up images, tiny specks between human fingers show just how small most of the planets would be in relation to the whole solar system. At the top of each panel is a vivid photograph of each planet or body, taken from spacecraft. These sets of panels now are available for museums, schools, libraries and others to borrow, free of charge.
"The whole idea is to get the feeling of how really vast the whole solar system is, how tiny we are within it, but also how structured it is -- with all the inner planets crowded together, the outer planets farther apart. It has a certain rhythm to it," Sharma said.
The creative process
The project relied on the astronomers' scientific knowledge and Sabraw's artistic talents. As the trio gathers in the room where the panels are being stored, they admire the finished product and chatter enthusiastically about it, sometimes finishing each other's sentences.
There's cause for the excitement: The team received encouraging feedback about the exhibit from the Athens and Nelsonville public libraries after its local debut. And now 14 museums around the country have made requests for either the display itself or a DVD of the project to print and assemble their own version of the exhibit.
The scientists and artist, who also teamed up previously on the "SCALE" museum exhibit that blended art and astronomy, have become great collaborators.
"The multidisciplinary approach and the communication between the three of us have absolutely led to something that's unique in its approach to the subject matter, the problem at hand and the application," Sabraw said. "And in doing so, we're proving again and again that these kind of collaborations need to be happening more and more."
Many hours of work went into creating the exhibit -- which has been in the works since summer 2007 -- especially on the day of the photo shoot at Peden Stadium.
Sabraw took photographs from the roof of the stadium's press box, taking multiple shots to capture the entire length of the field. Students, physicists and amateur astronomers were among those who posed with the planets for the photo. Sabraw recalls the extreme humidity that day and the big task of getting all the overhead and close-up shots. He later created the panels in Photoshop, using as many as 60 digital layers on some of the images.
Another challenge for team members arose after their decision to list the names of the planets in 13 different languages, including Arabic, Japanese, Spanish and Hebrew, at the bottom of each panel. Although the idea of an American football field may not translate as well to foreign countries, the team wanted the project to include different cultures to reflect the fact that astronomy is an international effort.
Because some languages read from right to left, the team was dangerously close to printing some of them backwards. But a few stops at fellow staff members' doors helped save them from that mistake, Sharma said.
"The deeper lesson here is what a wonderful thing it is to be in a university community where you have a population of international students and scholars who can help us do projects like this," Statler added.
On the road
The panels now are traveling across the country to other museums for display. NASA's Goddard Visitor Center, the Buffalo Museum of Science and California's Discovery Center for Science & Technology are among the venues that will use the exhibit. The team suggests that each museum space the panels at the scaled distances of a football field for visitors to get the full effect.
The exhibit coincides with the United Nations' International Year of Astronomy 2009, which celebrates the 400th anniversary of Galileo's discoveries. The exhibit is linked as a resource on the organization's Web site.
"We are happy to share the exhibit, and I think it's been seen as something valuable," Sharma said. "Everybody who writes to me always loves it and has plans for how to use it."