A Wavelength guide to our solar system

OR… Missives from the underworld: A Wavelength guide to a scale model solar system using a TTC Token and a flight to Hong Kong by Doc Pickles

I live in a very big city on a small planet, a very small planet — a planet I will likely never leave and a city I leave seldom. Wavelength’s instalment at Kazoo! Fest in Guelph was a beautiful excuse to hit the road for a brief adventure with my friends, so I was outside preparing myself for the adventure, standing outside of work near the ferry docks. I felt a bit giddy and nervous and excited, I’d been cooped up in the big restless city for a long while and I was missing Wavelength, it sounded like a capital idea for the four programmers to pile into General Chaos’ tiny little hunchback sedan and take a Wavelength on the road. Guelph felt so far away. I looked up and wondered if I could see Guelph on a clear day from in the CN Tower which loomed overhead. I felt very small, Guelph seemed to be on the other side of the solar system. I invite you to join me for the rest of the story, let’s pick up the narrative craning our necks and looking up at the tiny bulging spacepod deck, not to be mistaken with the iconic observation deck, 445 metres in the sky. It does look like an egg — from this angle the spacedeck is an oblongish oval 20m around and 12m high. Big enough to contain a sun 10m in diameter. We will now light the spacedeck up with our imaginations: that concrete ball will become the Sun.  

The inner planets of the solar system extend as far north as Dundas Street but Mercury (3.5cm) orbits about 430 metres from the spacedeck, so it will never quite touch the ground. We can imagine Mercury to be a golf ball embedded in the concrete of the tower 15 metres over our heads. On my hunt for Mercury, I met a plastic McDonald’s playroom ball who in the absence of an actual golf ball kindly agreed to pose for this illustrative photo.

Venus and Earth are both about the size of this CD I found in my backpack. Venus (10.0cm) reaches Union and St. Andrew stations about 750m away, Earth (10.5cm) orbits past King and Osgoode stations 1.1km away.

Earth’s Moon (2.5cm) is the size of a loonie sitting on the sidewalk 9 feet from the CD. Here is Earth at Osgoode Station. I am standing on the moon.

Vesta (3.8mm) and Ceres (6.8mm) are the two largest objects in the Asteroid Belt. Vesta is the largest asteroid and its orbit crosses near Museum or Wellsley stations. I found Vesta near this garbage can at the entrance of Museum Station 2.9km away from the CN Tower, a tiny pebble shaped like a potato.  

Ceres is an orb shaped dwarf planet that lives among the asteroids, its orbit reaches Spadina and St. George stations 3.3km from the tower. The other dwarf planets way out past Neptune are all about twice the size. Ceres also orbits over the Don River near Queen Street East, at the “THIS RIVER I STEP IN IS NOT THE RIVER I STAND IN” bridge. Ceres is represented here by one of the rivets holding the bridge together.  

Jupiter (100.5cm) orbits 5.6km away, near Dufferin, St Clair W, St Clair, and Broadview stations. It has enough gravity to herd the asteroids into stable circles and clear out a vast band of empty space in our solar system, corresponding to the empty space spanned by the Bloor Viaduct over the Don Valley. A scale model Jupiter is near Broadview Station at the entrance of Riverdale Park. Another scale model Jupiter is at Wallace-Emerson Community Centre, north on Dufferin just shy of Dupont. There is a hill nearby with a great view of the tower. Four Jovian moons can be seen from Earth using binoculars. Io (1.63cm) is the size of a dime about 10 feet from Jupiter, Europa (2.23cm) is a nickel 16 feet away, Ganymede (3.78cm) is a golf ball 25 feet away, and Callisto (3.45cm) is a golf ball 44 feet away. Here is Jupiter at Riverdale Park, on the east side of the Don Valley. 

Somebody has removed a plaque from Jupiter. I was tempted to sharpie the rock with a tiny letter J where the plaque had been, but the rock would have been cross with me. I might return with a proper bronze plaque, the rock would appreciate my gesture of granite dignity.  

Saturn (86cm without the rings) is 10.2km away from the Sun and crosses at Old Mill, Lawrence W, Lawrence, and Main St. stations. Saturn can be found behind this park bench across the street from Main Station. Saturn’s strange moon Titan (3.7cm) is a golf ball orbiting 29 feet away. 

Uranus (36.6cm) orbits in an otherworldly band of suburban shopping malls. Uranus’ orbit intersects Square One in Mississauga, the future Vaughan Corporate Centre subway station (if the provincial government keeps that transit commitment and Toronto’s cheque doesn’t bounce), the future subway station in Thornhill (again with the province and the wordkeeping), and just east of McCowan Station, the last stop on the Scarborough LRT near Scarborough Town Centre. Uranus is utterly featureless, has no big moons, overcast, rotating on its side like a ball rolling along the path of the orbit. The diameters of Uranus and the next planet Neptune are both roughly the size of my blue suede shoes, about 13 inches. A little bigger than a standard Men’s size 7 Basketball.

Neptune (35.6cm) orbits 32.2km away, inhabiting the strange cold unlit world of the 905 area code, except for a brief metro crossing at the Toronto Zoo. Neptune would cross near Oakville GO Station, Brampton GO Station, the Toronto Zoo, and Pickering GO station. Neptune has captured a dwarf planet, Triton (1.94cm), the size of a dime and currently 130ft from Neptune, but that orbit is getting smaller and smaller, and a billion or two years from now Triton will crash into Neptune. Hopefully some distant ancestor of our civilization will be around to see that happen, astronomically speaking it will be a quite a show when that dime crashes into that volleyball.

The Dwarf Planets represent the vast expanse of space beyond Neptune which is filled with billions of objects large and small that are bound, for now, to the Sun. Snowballs of comets and chunks of debris, joined by countless undiscovered timefrozen objects that once orbited other stars before our Sun was even born, have found themselves trapped in wide elliptical orbits around our own star waiting for the next ripple of gravity to throw them off in new directions, or to throw their course inward toward the CN Tower to flare into comets when their snow begins to melt, to scatter trails of pebbles and dust, numerous as people walking back and forth through the skywalk, commuter trails of dust that become our annual meteor showers here on Earth like the Perseids or the Leonids whenever our tiny planet passes through their timeworn trail.

There are exactly five objects made by human hands that are outbound to escape the solar system, hurtling out into the forever, five grains of dust named Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and New Horizons. New Horizons is a probe to Pluto & Charon and has traveled 18.3km towards Hamilton, currently 2km west of Long Branch. On July 14, 2015 New Horizons will whiz past Pluto & Charon near the platform of the Bronte GO station. We should all meet there then for a Pluto party.

Unlike the round orbits of the Planets, objects such as Pluto and the newly discovered dwarf planets Haumea, Makemake, and Eris (and other new potential dwarf planets like Sedna) all have elliptical orbits so their placeholders can only be treated as symbolic average distances from the Sun. Pluto (1.72cm) & Charon (0.84cm) orbit around each other and are very close together, just 14cm apart, passing through Bronte, Aurora, and Ajax GO Stations. Haumea (1.08cm diameter, average 46.6km orbit) and Makemake (1.15cm diameter, average 49.2km orbit) range from Burlington GO station in the west, Georgetown station in the northwest, Newmarket station in the north, and Oshawa station in the east. Eris (1.80cm diameter, 73.1km orbit) is a dime perched on the lip of Hamilton Mountain.

Pioneer 10 is 108.5km away, past Oshawa, just 4km west of Cobourg. I don’t have anything interesting to say about Cobourg. Pioneer 10 is no longer actually working, neither is Pioneer 11. We will never hear from them again, they have utterly disappeared from contact with the inner solar system. Poor Cobourg.

Voyager 2 is currently 98.9km away, 10 km west of Guelph. I stop for a second and realize that I’m going to be in Guelph tonight. I’m actually going to get into a tiny hunchback sedan and hurtle off through the cosmos to Kazoo! Fest. I’m going to trace the steps of Voyager 2. I have to figure out when the spacecraft will reach Macdonell street. I should organize a V2 show. But I’d probably be sued by the Virginfest Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre sponsors. So I’m going to anyway. Announcement forthcoming once I sober up. Or shamefaced retraction. We’ll see. Can’t hurry the muses. Voyagers 1 and 2 are still working, sending little bloops to Earth.

Voyager 1 is the furthest object in the solar system we have built, 121km west, made entirely of human hands, containing a gold plated LP of sounds from earth, including the sound of a kiss. V1 moves in a similar direction as New Horizons and Pioneer 11, but left the CN Tower’s solar system further south, by about the radius of Saturn’s 10km orbit, it is 11km east of Woodstock enroute to London. It would be nice to put on a Wavelength Woodstock and see if we can get sued by Woodstock and so yes again how can that not be a good idea to ask the Oxford County Circus guys to find us a barn in Woodstock oh I’m going to call them right now. At 4 in the morning, recovering from a Lullabye Arkestravaganza in Guelph, and meeting the singer from Elbow Beach Surf Club! And she even filled in for Jenny as Wavelength’s door menace for the night, the keeper of the Henri!

This gold phonograph on a speck of dust at the edge of our known universe gives me hope, it’s still too far away and too insignificant – in scale, size, or value to be developed literally or metaphorically, but its presence alone is a gift from our past to our present, we did something right for once in our history and no matter how much we mess up life in each successive orbit can’t undo the presence of a little gold record sailing on into eternity, going on and on to forever where straight lines curve, while we carry on here on our little softball, swooping eternally on the rutmarks of our circle.

The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is about 400 times the distance from the Sun to Neptune. At this scale, the largest star in Alpha Centauri is an object about the size of the Tian Tan Buddha’s head, 12,880km away, in Hong Kong. At this scale we can reach the nearest star and still not run out of planet. And we live on a small planet.

A very small planet. One we will likely never get to leave, ever. All we have is Guelph and the dirt underneath our blue suede shoes, and an abstract idea that can be scaled to a measure that we can all understand and touch for the price of a TTC trip. Using simple scales we can travel the solar system without leaving home, even travel to different stars and universes, or to different times or dimensions, or species, or objects on the periodic table, or whatever an imagination can imagine. If it can be grafted onto a measurable scale like a subway system we can explore these places.

There are very few places on the surface of the Earth that haven’t been mapped and are easily available to be seen on a computer screen, but the next uncharted world for us to explore will be to places where we will never set foot. The next generations of explorers will learn to explore simultaneously outward to places we can never be and inwardly into increasingly fertile imaginations. The technology for this already exists and we’ve been developing it for thousands of years. To go outward, we have to go inward, to go inward we have to learn our scales. To learn the scales, we have to learn to feel what music really feels like, to learn to understand quantifiable measurements intuitively, to bring scale models into our imagination and turn them over and out in our minds. It’s all in the scales. The 88 keys on any piano help us to understand the 88 constellations in the sky, the spaces between the planets can tune an orchestra.

This trip could have continued but Woodstock is so far from home, Soft Copy, Brides and Lullabye Arkestra beckoned, I had to get to Guelph.