I’ve been working and thinking on and off about this project for the last eight years, so I’m very excited to be able to finally share with you some of my work from this.
Since 2013, myself and fellow illustrator, Oliver Jeffers had been collaborating on a scale model of the solar system. It began with a conversation one evening in Spain. We were sitting out having a beer after a long day of workshops in the town of Valladolid. I was working on a book about scale at the time which zooms from a tiny mouse all the way out to the planets and the stars. We got wondering if any scale model solar systems had been made. The models on google all looked quite uninspiring and we had had a few beers by that stage so that was that: We decided to make one ourselves.
Oliver and I were emailing back and forth here and there over this time continuing this line of thought. In 2017, I released ‘Little Earth’ a virtual reality app that explores earth and a very not-to-scale solar system and that same year Oliver published the excellent ‘Here We Are’ which is also on a similar theme.
I thought it could be funny to call our solar system project ‘We Are Here’ or ‘You Are Here’ as a play on Oliver’s ‘Here We Are’ book. I began to work on it by figuring out the sizes. If the solar system is 8km long (the sun to Neptune’s average orbit) the earth is still only 22.8mm, the size of a marble. It seemed to us that the best home for this would be a pedestrianised city location with a very long, straight line of sight. We were thinking of London and New York but no locations really stood out. I thought of the Poolbeg lighthouse in Dublin, it’s a lighthouse at the end of a 1.5km pier that goes straight out to sea. The pier follows the south quay of the river Liffey inland and goes straight through the centre of the city. All a straight line. To start us off I visualised it here so that then we could pitch it to potential funders and festivals. I still think this is one of the best locations for it.
I ended up making seven different versions of these PDFs in different locations and with different plinths…
The other advantage to this is that Dublin bay itself is semi-circular bowl. To the north, Howth head arcs around. To the west and south are the Dublin mountains and Killiney Hill . The very centre of the bay is Poolbeg lighthouse. From all these surrounding hills and mountains, which are popular walks for Dubliners, Poolbeg lighthouse and the south wall are clearly visible. And of course the lighthouse can be seen all across the bay at night. Its easy to imagine the size of the solar system mapped onto the city. If the earth is the size of a small marble, the solar system would be bigger than the whole city of Dublin.
The pier is facing east so as the sun rises from the sea at dawn it would appear exactly the same size as the 2.5m globe when it is viewed from the model of the earth.
I really liked these statistics I calculated to go with our 23mm marble earth:
- The speed of light at this scale would be the same speed as a very slow walk, light takes 4hours 15mins to get from the sun to Neptune …which probably would be roughly the time you might walk the 8km distance with children.
- At the same scale the next nearest star to us (Alpha Centauri) is 80,000 km away, around twice the circumference of the world.
- Betelgeuse, which is the orangey star in Orion (his left shoulder) and is one of the brightest stars in the sky, would be more than a kilometre across.
Only by experiencing these things physically in space can we really begin to understand these unimaginable scales.
Oliver roped in the brilliant Richard Seabrooke on board to help us produce it. Myself and Richard walked the Poolbeg pier on a freezing, windy day in March 2018.
We together spoke to the Science Gallery in Dublin and The Festival of Curiosity, CBI and others. One issue with the Poolbeg location was that the route crossed a number of different Dublin city council regions. As a compromise it was suggested that we should do it in the Phoenix Park instead. That way only one permission would be needed. I went back to the drawing board and mapped it to Chesterfield avenue, a perfectly straight 2km of road through the park. Oliver also tried his end by asking the High Line in New York. I proposed to make it in conjunction with Newgrange in Ireland too because theres a nice Irish/Astronomy connection. I had a chat with Hay Festival and Edinburgh Festival. I even sent it to NASA. They said they couldn’t fund it but kindly offered help in other ways and put us in touch with the Goddard solar system division. I’m so grateful for all the people who have put their time and input into this.
It’s such a nice idea I think. It’s a way to get people out and walk and provides a beautiful, free day out in any city. It a relatively simple thing to make and I think that it can really set children’s imaginations soaring. Every city could have one, I was living in Madrid at this time so of course I also thought to visualise it there. The bank of the Manzanares river has recently been landscaped and there is a running track and playgrounds and cycle lanes along the entire length of it, this park ends at the Matadero, an enormous cultural space. The sun and inner planets could all sit within the Matadero while the outer planets could run the length of the Manzanares. I visualised it here too and was pitching our project to everyone I could think of in Madrid too.
THE AR APP
As I mentioned, I’d been working on a VR project, Little Earth the previous year. VR is an incredible medium but its almost too immersive. You lose all bearings and sense of reality and so scale and distance is not something you could show with VR. I had spent the day plotting the solar system along the river and that evening I went for a walk in the same area… I looked down at google maps to get my bearings… and saw the very same map I had been looking at all day. I had an idea! Augmented reality could work really well with our project! It would add a completely different dimension to the project. Seeing the planets mapped to the map is what makes it tangible.
The signage and interactivity would need to be limited on the plinths and the planets at this scale are mostly small marbles so an augmented reality app could provide something interactive and exciting. There could be unique animations that encourage children to walk the full length and visit each planet. I emailed Oliver and Richard the next morning and they really liked the idea. I then spoke to my app maker friend, Egmont at Red Rabbit. He suggested that animations within the app could be ‘unlocked’ at each planet. It would be nice to have informative, interactive animations and something novel to explore at each point in the walk. Perhaps these ‘unlocked’ animations could remain in the app afterwards as a reward. If all the planets were not visited on the day out, it would be a reason to return and unlock the other planets. I love this idea. I know if I was a young child I would have got really excited about something like this.
I imagined the app would maybe have two modes.
The first mode would be a street map of Dublin that operates a little like Google maps and shows you where on the route the next planet is. You could also play around with it, the distance from Earth to Neptune is 4.3 billion kms which doesn’t mean too much to anyone. However when viewed through this app it would tell you the driving time, walking time and speed of light times. It’s a thousand year drive, an eight thousand year walk or four hours at the speed of light.
The second mode would be the planet mode where you are travelling through space. The planet mode would say ‘Welcome to Jupiter/Earth/Mars’ and show facts about the planet and a sped up animation of it spinning to see how long its days are and its moons. The atmosphere, temperature and the probes that have orbited or landed there. It would be inside this mode that I would imagine you could unlock the planets by visiting them.
For the design of the plinths, one of my main concerns was vandalism. I grew up in Dublin and I couldn’t imagine this thing surviving one night without being covered in graffiti or all the planets disappearing. Especially Uranus. We tried to design it with as little surface faces as possible. I roped in my landscape architect friend, Rowan D’arcy to help. It also seemed to me that the plinths should be as simple as possible in order to focus attention on the planets themselves. The problem is the planets are absolutely tiny, most are invisible from a hundred metres away. They need signage to be seen from a distance. A spotlight would also be good so that they are visible at night much like they are to us in the night sky.
I was quite happy with my solution here to have a single downward arrow for each planet that would also house a downward spotlight. It cannot be climbed and the whole construction has a no bigger footprint than a lamp post. That way they can function from a distance in day and night. And if we do each planet with a different colour we can identify them from even the greatest distance. In order to avoid the huge cost of digging up 8km of road we would put a solar panel all the way along the vertical post. That should provide enough power for the LED bulb and the trigger for the AR proximity sensor.
I asked another friend of mine, Alex Kaiser at different to create these visualisations:
Over this last year with COVID I assumed that this project was on pause. But three weeks ago I got some news. Unfortunately, things seem to have progressed on this without my knowledge. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but a different scale model of the solar system was pitched to a festival and is now being made. It’s been quite a surprise to hear this.
However. This now gives me the opportunity to share my own work here and so hopefully bring my own version of this to life.
I’d love to bring my version of this to other cities. Especially Dublin. I think theres so much potential for projects like this one especially in conjunction with augmented reality. Myself and Rowan have found some exciting leads already. Please get in touch or share this if you know of a place or institution that could help create it. We’d love to make it happen.
To me, this idea is all about the power of illustration. As a young child I loved to read science fact books. I remember reading one that compared the size of planets and their distance. If the sun is the size of a beach ball, then Earth is the size of a pea a hundred yards away, Jupiter is a grapefruit a mile away and so on and Pluto is a speck of sand 3 miles away. I probably wouldn’t have known what that really meant but my Dad had explained it to me. That means if the sun is a large beachball at our front gate, then earth is a pea at the bend in our road, Jupiter is a grapefruit at the Ballinclea Y-junction, and Pluto is a speck of sand in Dun Laoghaire. I may not have really been able to understand what 3 miles is but I knew how far Dun Laoghaire was and how big a speck of sand is. My Dad brought it home to me. I realise now how lucky I was to have things explained to me like that.
That thought made such an impression on me. I remember sitting in the back of the car on subsequent trips to Dun Laoghaire, picking out all the landmarks and imagining being in a spaceship flying past grapefruit Jupiter. And the vertigo of imagining a tiny speck of sand floating in space when I was in Dun Laoghaire with Mum doing the shopping. To me, thats the power of illustration. It’s a tool to visualise something abstract so that it becomes vivid in the mind.
I can’t wait to have these solar systems made. In the meantime I made this printable scale model. It can be used in the same way and isn’t too different from the one that inspired me as a child. You can download it here. Print it out on A4 paper and it will be the correct scale for a 4km model. I thought it could be an interesting activity to do with children. You could map the planets to the surroundings they are familiar with. You could take a walk and draw the planets on the ground with chalk using the sheet as a size template. Or maybe you could bring it to a beach or park and find the right sized stones and place them along a 4km track. Send me pictures and please let me know if you have other ideas with this.