Supersonic Man

January 9, 2020

Just how Game-of-Thronesy was Olde England?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 10:59 am

All the scheming and backstabbing and murder in Game of Thrones was famously inspired by a power struggle in fifteenth century England known as the Wars of the Roses, in which the rival houses of Lancaster and York repeatedly waged civil wars to overthrow each other. The timeline went like this:

1399: Henry of Bolingbroke overthrows Richard II, ending the Plantagenet dynasty and founding the Lancaster one. (But Henry was himself a Plantagenet, making this house a “cadet branch” — the Lancaster name is from his mother’s side.) His army confiscates land and spreads ruin on all who oppose him. From now on, the court speaks English instead of French. Richard II dies imprisoned in the Tower of London, supposedly by starvation, which may have been self-inflicted.

1400-1410: Henry IV fends off numerous rebellions, plots, and assassination attempts, greatly aided by the ever increasing military prowess of his son and heir, Henry of Monmouth.

1410: Young Henry pressures his ailing father into handing over the majority of his power.

1413: Henry V succeeds his father. In the next few years he more or less conquers France. This, combined with concessions to anti-Lancaster factions and a general attitude of forgive-and-forget, cements his legitimacy and diminishes rebellions.

1422: Henry V dies young and is succeeded by the infant Henry VI. His father’s conquests start to unravel. The child is crowned King of France but never gets to rule it.

1453: The Hundred Years War ends with England almost entirely expelled from France. Henry VI suffers a mental breakdown and becomes unfit to rule (if he wasn’t already). For the next eight years he goes in and out of lucidity. His mother consolidates power behind the throne.

1455: Richard of York (another cadet Plantagenet) launches the first War of the Roses in an attempt to take the throne. Much of England decays into warlordism. He is executed in 1460.

1461: Richard’s son wins the war and takes the throne as Edward IV, establishing the York dynasty. Crucial backing came from the wealthy and powerful Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker.

1470: Warwick, having not quite mustered enough clout to depose Edward himself, changes sides and joins the Lancastrians. With his resources, supporters of Henry VI march on London and retake power. Warwick apparently intends Henry to be his puppet.

1471: Edward IV deposes Henry VI for the second time, killing Warwick at the battle of Barnet. This time Henry dies in the Tower of London… whether accidentally or deliberately is not known.

1483: Edward V succeeds his father at age twelve, but a political scheme promptly leads to him and his brother being declared illegitimate. His regent the Duke of Gloucester seizes power as Richard III, and Edward and his brother go into the Tower for “protection”, and never come out. Edward’s loyalists attack, but Richard defeats them. Both sides of this battle are Yorkist.

1485: Henry Tudor (a distant cousin of the Lancasters) defeats Richard III in battle, and marries Edward V’s sister Elizabeth of York to unite the claims, ending the Wars of the Roses.

Yep, that is pretty darn game-of-thronesy (minus the HBO pornification factor, of course). Now, is this exceptional or is it typical?

Turns out, there’s quite a lot of this crap spread over the centuries. In Anglo-Saxon times, for instance, there were about five kings who gained power by conquest (some of them Danish), and two who found their paths to the throne cleared by their rivals suffering suspiciously convenient “accidents”. Several more won the throne through covert political struggles where we’ll probably never know what really happened.

The story is not too different in the time of the Normans and Plantagenets. Three kings took power by conquest, King John barely retained power in the first Barons’ War (which nearly resulted in Louis VIII of France seizing the country), Empress Matilda semi-deposed Stephen of Blois for a while before both factions were booted out by Henry II (the first Plantagenet), and in the second Barons’ War, Simon de Montfort seized power from Henry III for a couple of years but did not claim the kingship. Henry I was helped to power by another convenient death, and Edward III had to stage a coup against his own regent. And just as in Saxon times, the plots or rebellions or invasions that succeeded were just a fraction of the ones that were attempted. Henry II once put down a rebellion led by his own wife and sons.

In Tudor and Stuart times, things calmed down somewhat, but this time included the English civil war, which saw Oliver Cromwell and then Charles II win power on the battlefield. It was also during this period that “Bloody” Mary I seized power at the head of an army without needing to fight, and Elizabeth I had to fend off Mary Queen of Scots. A century and a half after Bloody Mary, William of Orange also arrived with an army. It may have been more or less ceremonial, but its presence is what persuaded the unpopular (and Catholic) James II to skedaddle. The important difference is that this time, William and Mary took power only on terms set for them by Parliament, which had essentially just used them as a lever to dislodge James. Traditional games of thrones were now generally a thing of the past.

The period was brought to a close by Anne, the successor of William and Mary, and last of the Stuart dynasty. It was under her that the component British countries were turned into the Kingdom of Great Britain (at a time when Scotland was in economic crisis and in no position to decline). Since that time, the succession has remained orderly and lawful, though George II did have to fend off one last failed usurpation in 1745, backed by Scots who’d been promised independence by the Stuart descendant they called “Bonnie Prince Charlie”. Under the Hanovers and Windsors the power of the throne has been steadily reduced, making it more ceremonial with every generation, and no longer worth fighting and killing for.

I hope I live to see the day when the process is completed, and Britain becomes a Republic in which there is no longer any such thing as a royal house.

January 4, 2020

the edge of space

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science! — Supersonic Man @ 11:32 am

There’s a controversy about where “space” begins. The internationally accepted standard is the altitude of 100 km, which is known as the Kármán line. But in the USA, many advocate for the more lenient definition which says you’ve been to space if you rise to an altitude of only 80 km, or more traditionally, 50 miles. Which view is more correct? Well, when an orbiter reenters the atmosphere, the point when reentry heating starts to get significant is around 120 km, so in my view the 80 km line is definitely the less valid of the two.

In the end, I say both are bogus: you aren’t really in space until you get to at least 200 km up, high enough so that it’s possible to orbit the Earth a few times without promptly falling down from drag. You can’t orbit for very long at 200 km up — useful satellites start at about 300 km — but it is at least possible to orbit for a little while, like a day or so, at that altitude. At 100 km altitude, you are in the ionosphere, not in space, and probably won’t make it around the Earth even once. In fact, the ionosphere actually extends above most satellites… which is intentional, as this means they will eventually come down. Keeping most satellites this low is a policy which reduces the long term risk of “space junk”. But I would say that if you can orbit, you’re in space.

March 27, 2019

what makes one programming language better than another?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology — Supersonic Man @ 2:26 pm

Every programmer who knows more than one language has opinions about which languages are better than which other languages. I’m no different from anyone in that aspect, but I realize now that I’ve never taken the time to clearly think through what criteria to use in such a comparison. Of course there are times when different language features and styles are suitable for different tasks, but some generalities are pretty universal, and I think different situations mostly just change the emphasis and priority between them.

What got me to take a closer look was hearing someone state the opinion that the measure of the better language is simply the one which forces you to write less repetitive boilerplate. That turns out to be a surprisingly valid and comprehensive metric, despite how plodding and un-abstract it sounds, and I had never thought in those specific terms before.

So, what are some useful criteria for distinguishing a good language from a bad language? Here’s what comes to mind for me:


January 29, 2019

how it works

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,science! — Supersonic Man @ 1:19 pm

Step 1. The water in the northern Pacific Ocean reaches excessively warm temperatures, peaking in La Niña years.

2. This creates a high pressure zone as the warming air above it tries to expand.

3. As it rises, the expanding air pushes back against the jet stream.

4. Because of the coriolis forces that make storms rotate, this high pressure air starts turning clockwise as it spreads outward. This deflects the jet stream to the north.

5. As a result, clouds that would normally bring rain to California also turn north. They get pushed up toward the arctic circle, bringing heat up to polar latitudes.

6. The jet stream and storms strike the polar vortex, distorting it. It deflects them south again, now chilled.

7. The winds and moisture which were supposed to water California crops now dump excessive cold snow across the Great Lakes and down the east coast.

8. Politicians bring snowballs into the Capitol building and deny global warming, at the same time that large parts of Alaska have no snow.

November 6, 2018


Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,life,Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 10:38 pm

Dang it, when writing this blog, I rarely see how bad the ads are when someone else is reading it. I just got a reminder. I’ve never liked this platform much, and now I’m thinking I should move this content elsewhere. Which would be a pain.

[Later update] And now some of the platform’s other problems, which for a while had seemed to be gradually improving, are getting worse again… the hamhanded destruction of careful formatting and layout, the shitty app which can’t even keep up with one-finger typing on longer posts, the utter failure to connect with a wider audience compared to either social media or my ancient personal website… I need an alternative.

All I ask of a blog platform is, just let me write. And don’t fuck it up after I do. This one fails to meet that requirement. Why can’t the market leader do this simple job as well as LiveJounal did fifteen or twenty years ago?

Time to take a look at Medium, and if that’s still a thing. The only reason I ever used this was because other people I knew did, but the social interconnection value coming from that has been negligible.

…Hey, it turns out they both support exporting content through json, which would enable embedding it in my own site with my own styling.

September 6, 2018

the last SLR holdout

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Photo,technology,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 11:41 am

Mirrorless cameras are officially taking over; everybody wants the slim camera bodies and short lens registry distances that are made possible by electronic viewfinders. Nikon has come out with a new Z mount and almost simultaneously, Canon has come out with a new RF mount (which looks to me like it will be a real “RF” of people who bought into their smaller and older EOS-M system, as it is not at all compatible, and it might not even be possible to make an adapter to mate them). Meanwhile, in the medium-format world, Hasselblad also came out with a mirrorless camera sporting a new short-flange lens mount a while ago — I think they call it XCD — and Phase One put together a mirrorless bodge setup branded as Alpa, which must have something that counts as a lens mount. This means that almost every camera company that didn’t already have a short mirrorless lens mount (Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, and formerly Samsung) has now added one to their product line. As far as I can see, there is only one holdout which still offers only a long-flange lens mount and traditional SLR cameras: Pentax. As it happens, I’ve got Pentax.

Does this mean that Pentax needs to do a me-too and come up with their own short mount, to keep up? It does not. There are lots of reasons why it might make perfect sense to offer a mirrorless camera without changing the mount. They’ve already updated their existing mount so it can operate in a fully electronic fashion with no legacy mechanical linkages. Lenses made for mirrorless use can still have their back end close to the sensor; they’ll just have the mounting flange further forward, with some of the glass hiding inside the body of the camera. This will create a pancake-like appearance for lenses that are not actually thin. Another possibility is that filters can be placed into the gap. Or the protruding barrel can be a place to mount a control ring. I think it’s a perfectly viable way to do mirrorless, though for some it won’t win aesthetic points.


August 3, 2018

ethnicity of presidential names

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 3:24 pm

For a country which is built on immigration and (usually) welcomes exceptional ethnic diversity, the United States of America has tended to be very narrow about what sort of ethnicity it looks for when electing a President, even beyond the fact that all but one of our presidents are white males.  For most of its history, America chose people whose last names originated either in the British Isles or in Holland, or failing that, had been well assimilated into a British-sounding form.  The first president to break that pattern was Dwight Eisenhower, and Barack Obama was only the second.  Even within that group, names from England were heavily favored over those from neighboring countries.

There have been 44 presidents, with 39 distinct last names.  (If you think there were 45, you counted Grover Cleveland twice.)  The high number of repeats counts as a statistical anomaly in itself.  Let’s tote up their ethnicities:

ENGLISH:  Washington, Adams (2), Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Harrison (2), Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Lincoln, Johnson (2), Grant (could be Scottish), Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Truman, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush (2), Clinton.  That’s 26 names — two thirds of the total.

SCOTTISH:  Monroe, Polk, Buchanan (Scots-Irish), McKinley (Scots-Irish).

IRISH:  Hayes (anglicized), Kennedy, Reagan.

DUTCH:  Van Buren, Roosevelt (2).

GERMAN:  Hoover (anglicized), Eisenhower, Trump (anglicized).

KENYAN:  Obama.

Some other statistical biases we notice by looking at the list of presidents: most are taller than average, and very few regularly wore eyeglasses (just Bush the elder, Truman, and Teddy Roosevelt when he wasn’t avoiding them purely for vanity).  And as has been noted elsewhere, nowadays it seems like about half of presidents are southpaws.  In fact, we recently had three in a row: Reagan, Bush the elder, and Clinton were all left-handed.  So were Hoover, Truman, Ford, and Obama; that brings the total since 1929 up to 7 out of 15.  But before then, only a single leftie is known: James Garfield.

But the most important statistical anomaly may be the frequency and clustering of cases where the electoral college managed to reverse the outcome of the popular vote.  It has now happened four times (not counting the four-way election of 1824, which was decided by the House of Representatives): 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.  In all four cases a Democrat convinced more voters but a Republican won the electoral vote.

In the first case the result was the end of Reconstruction and the start of the Jim Crow era in the south (a price demanded by southern Democrats in exchange for conceding).  In the third case it was the invasion of Iraq, and arguably the September 11th attack preceding it.  In the fourth case it’s been a nationwide revival of nativism and fascism, with additional horrors no doubt to come.  The second case, though, turned out well: Benjamin Harrison admitted new western states, created national forests, modernized the Navy, passed the Sherman antitrust act, fought for education and voting rights for minorities, and raised a budget surplus.  Oddly, it was the latter point which led his party to defeat in the following elections: raising and spending a lot of money was unpopular, even though the means by which the new revenue was raised, namely protectionist tariffs which were denounced by his opponent, was exactly what had convinced people to vote for Harrison in the first place.

June 21, 2018

hydrogen economy? how about methane instead?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science!,technology,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 4:52 pm

Ever since the seventies, there’s been an idea floating around that someday, in order to replace fossil fuels, we’d start using hydrogen as our main chemical fuel.  We’d have hydrogen tanks instead of gasoline tanks, and hydrogen pipelines instead of natural gas pipes.  The hydrogen would be produced from water with either renewable or nuclear energy sources, and then whenever we needed a chemical fuel, we’d use hydrogen.  And wherever we needed a portable source of electric power, we’d use hydrogen fuel cells.  Our cars might be fuel cell powered, for instance.

Since then, fuel cell cars have advanced pretty well, and building a fleet of electric cars which get their power from hydrogen fuel cells looks fairly doable.  There are even some demo filling stations which allow you to fill up a fuel cell car with hydrogen, if you have one of the test vehicles.

So that part is doable, though nobody’s sure if there’ll be any need for it.  Cars might do just as well by simply using batteries, and plugging in to charge, as many people do today.  Making a new network for delivering hydrogen to cars might be an unnecessary expense.

But what about all the other things we use fossil fuel for, besides transportation?  What about heating our houses, and fueling our stoves and ovens?  Could we, for instance, substitute hydrogen for natural gas?

I think the answer is that we could, but maybe we shouldn’t, because there’s a better idea.  An approach which lets us keep using the natural gas infrastructure that we already have.  Switching to hydrogen would entail replacing most of it, because a pipe or a valve that safely contains natural gas can easily fail at containing hydrogen.  Since it is the lightest of all gases, one of its properties is that it can find its way through leaks which, to any ordinary gas, aren’t leaks at all.  Every piece of every pipe, and every valve in every appliance, would have to be either carefully tested, or replaced.  Also, the pipes would either have to be expanded for a larger volume, or operated at higher pressure.

We can avoid all that with one simple step: taking the hydrogen we produce and converting it into methane.  Natural gas is 95% methane, and if we make it artificially, it could be used as a direct replacement for gas.  And the way we’d do that is with a process called the Sabatier reaction.  In this process, hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide by means of a metallic catalyst.  The oxygen is stripped off of the carbon atoms and hydrogen takes its place.  The result is methane, plus leftover oxygen.

The best part is where we get the carbon dioxide: out of the atmosphere.  At first, we could take it directly from the smokestacks of industries which still burn fossil fuel.  (Steelmaking, for instance, might have a hard time using anything but coal.)  Later, as the scale increases, we could just separate it out of regular air.  This makes your home’s existing stove and furnace and water heater carbon neutral.  And even your car, because existing piston engines can be modified to run on methane, which might help ease the transition to the time when we all go electric.

With some further chemical processes we could probably convert the methane into longer chain hydrocarbons, producing oils and so on — substitutes for things like butane or kerosene or diesel or gear oil or candle wax… or even gasoline for classic car enthusiasts.

Between battery cars and methane conversion, maybe there wouldn’t be all that big a market for straight pure hydrogen.  It would definitely have some uses, but I don’t think all that big a part of our energy supply would be used in hydrogen form.  We might, however, use hydrogen to store solar energy from midday for use at night.  Such hydrogen might be produced directly by vats of algae, then fed to stationary fuel cells as the sun sets.

If a big methane convertor works, we should of course encourage its use.  We’ll have tax credits for making carbon-neutral methane, and penalties for fossil fuels.  The rival approach of getting gas by fracking might even be banned outright, because of its harmful side effects.  This assumes, of course, that at some point we overcome the reactionary political forces who want to prop up the oil and coal industries, and would let all the profitable advances in renewables be done overseas.

One cool thing is that methane making machines are being developed right now, as part of the space program.  Not NASA’s space program, but SpaceX’s private program.  They’re building it for future Martian explorers and colonists, so they’ll be able to make their own rocket fuel for flights back to Earth.  Who knows, maybe at some point they’ll use the machine to fuel rockets here as well, so they can say they have carbon neutral satellite launchers.  Both of the major reusable rocket companies, plus several small up-and-comers, say methane is the fuel they want to use.  There’s no denying that a lot of older rockets are terrible polluters… compared to some of the chemicals that get used in the rocket business, even kerosene looks very green.

Of course, some other rockets will keep on using hydrogen, which when practical is still the cleanest option.  But liquid methane is the second cleanest, and it has nine times the density of liquid hydrogen and therefore requires a far smaller tank to hold it, and less insulation as well, which may save more weight than is lost by using a heavier fuel.

Perhaps the most ideal would be some kind of blend of the two… but then again, one of the big advantages of hydrogen is its very high specific impulse, which is achieved in part by burning a very fuel-rich mixture so that a substantial portion of the exhaust is unburned hydrogen gas.  Densifying the fuel by dissolving some methane into it might save weight by making it require a far smaller tank, but it would lose some of that very high exhaust velocity.

June 3, 2018

Trends in rocketry

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,technology — Supersonic Man @ 11:07 am

I’ve been taking an interest in the space industry and orbital rockets — a field which is evolving very rapidly nowadays.  So far this year we’ve seen the debut orbital flights of the Electron, the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 Block 5, and seen a new record set for the smallest rocket to put up a working satellite.  In the remaining months, we’re expecting the maiden flights of the LauncherOne, the Kuaizhou 11, the Vector R, and the Starliner and Dragon 2 crew capsules.  We just might see one of those capsules take live astronauts to the Space Station by the end of the year.  And the next couple of years will have plenty of action too, with several lunar landers being sent up by different countries, and more new vehicles making their debut: the SLS, the Vulcan, the New Glenn, the Dream Chaser, and more.

With so much short-term activity, it may be hard to spot the longer term trends, but I think I can lay out a few here: (more…)

May 10, 2018

if the solar system fit in a stadium…

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science! — Supersonic Man @ 12:00 pm

(I wrote a post about this a few years ago somewhere else, but now I can’t find it, so I am redoing it here, and expanding it.)

How big is the Solar System?

Let’s start by assuming that we all have some general idea of how big the Earth is. If we fly from coast to coast in the United States, we’ve gone almost one eighth of the way around it. A day of driving in a car, say 500 miles, goes about one fiftieth of the way around. So the Earth is very large compared to your local town or neighborhood, but it’s of a scale that can be grasped and managed with common means of travel, such as cars and planes. Even preagricultural people sometimes traveled and traded over distances of a thousand miles or more, and that’s not tiny compared to the size of the Earth.

The Moon is a good deal smaller than the Earth, but quite far away from it. It takes well over one second for a beam of light to travel from the Moon to the Earth. The distance to the Moon is enough to wrap around the Earth nine or ten times (I say “nine or ten” because the Moon’s distance varies over that range during each month). It’s the sort of distance that an old car might accumulate on its odometer after twenty or thirty years of driving — over a quarter million miles when the moon is furthest out. People are capable of traveling such distances over many years, or in just a few days with our most powerful rockets.

To appreciate the scale of the rest of the solar system in comparison to this, let’s imagine a scale model, sized to fit into a big football stadium. The scale of this model will be 1/100,000,000,000 of life size.

Let’s look at how each part of the solar system would appear at this scale. The Sun, which hangs over the middle of the fifty yard line, is a bit over half an inch across — about 14 millimeters, to be more exact. It’s the size of an olive. Mercury, the innermost planet, has an eccentric elliptical orbit around it which is eighteen inches (46 cm) from the sun at its closest, and twenty-seven and a half inches (70 cm) at its furthest. The planet itself is a practically invisible speck, only one five hundredth of an inch across, or a twentieth of a millimeter. Venus, the second planet, circles our olive-sized sun at a distance of about three and a half feet (108 cm), so its orbit crosses the 49 yard line on each side. The size of the planet is about 1/200 inch, or an eighth of a millimeter, a speck which is probably big enough to see if you get close enough.

The Earth’s orbit is found at a distance of a bit under five feet (150 cm) from the sun. And the orbit of the Moon makes a little circle around the Earth. The distance from the Moon to the Earth, which in real life is up to a quarter million miles, and is the farthest distance that any human being has ever voyaged, is only about 5/32 of an inch, or 3.9 mm, in this scale model. The entire circle traveled by the Moon around the Earth is barely half as big across as the Sun is. It would fit inside a pea. The distance to the Sun is almost four hundred times as large. The diameter of the Earth itself in this model is about 1/200 of an inch, the same as Venus, and likewise would be a barely visible speck. The Moon, being smaller than Mercury, would be very difficult to see.

Mars circles seven and a half feet out (2.3 meters), and is about 1/400 inch or 1/16 of a millimeter across — a dust speck. The asteroid belt spreads in a hollow disk around the sun, with the bulk of it starting about ten feet out, and then it thins out at a distance of around eighteen feet (3 to 5.5 meters). None of the individual asteroids are big enough to see.

Jupiter, the largest planet, sits a little over 25 feet (7.8 meters) out from the Sun. Its orbit crosses past the 42 yard line on each side of midfield. The planet itself is plenty big enough to be more than a speck: it’s 1.4 millimeters in diameter, or somewhat under one sixteenth of an inch — the diameter of the head of a pin. If the Sun is an olive, Jupiter might be a large poppyseed, or a small millet grain. It has a number of moons, the four large ones being Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. The orbit of Io sits about 5/32 inch (4 mm) from Jupiter, and the orbit of Callisto is about 3/4 inch (18 mm) out.

Saturn is 46 feet (14 meters) from the sun. Its orbit crosses the 35 yard line. It’s smaller than Jupiter, but if you include its rings, it looks bigger. You might model it with a small flat sesame seed. Its major moon Titan sits half an inch (12 mm) out from the planet. Uranus is much further out, 98 feet (30 meters) from the Sun, so it nearly reaches the 17 yard line, and on the sides it spills over the out-of-bounds line into the sidelines. Its diameter is half a millimeter, so you might represent it with a grain of fine sand.

In this model, the orbit of Neptune, the most remote true planet, has a span that just about reaches the one yard line, but can’t quite reach the goal lines, orbiting 148 feet (45 meters) from the sun. Its size is about the same as sand-grain Uranus.

From this you can see that the Solar System is very empty. Besides the olive-sized sun, everything else on the field is just some specks which, all added together, wouldn’t amount to a grain of wheat.

Now the Sun and all the planets pretty much fit onto the playing field, but that’s not the whole Solar System. Beyond all the planets are a number of icy bodies, large and small. They constitute a sort of second asteroid belt. It’s called the Kuyper belt. Pluto is one of these icy bodies, and it isn’t even the biggest one. As far as we presently know, it’s the second biggest.

In our scale model, the Kuyper belt fills the rest of the stadium, beyond the playing field. Pluto is down in a good low seat right near the sidelines, and some of the others are way up in the cheap seats, hundreds of feet from the field.

The light of the Sun doesn’t reach up there very well. It casts a good bright illumination in midfield, but the goalposts are pretty dim, and in the top row of the seats you can’t see much when you look away from the sun. If I have this figured correctly, at this scale, it puts out about five thousand watts of light. But don’t compare that to a 5000 watt lightbulb — your ordinary traditional bulb puts out mostly heat, so the 100 watt lamp in your living room is only emitting about ten watts of actual light, and if you use a modern bulb such as a compact fluorescent, it will say “100 watts” on the box while only actually using about 25 watts. The Sun puts out at least three quarters of its energy as visible light. Think of it more as a 5000 watt welder’s arc than a 5000 watt lamp.

One thing this idea of an arc lamp in a football stadium fails to convey is how slow the light is. You have to remember that the light from our tiny Sun takes minutes to reach Earth just five feet away, hours to reach Neptune, and most of a day to reach the upper seats. If there were a snail crawling around on the grass, it might well be moving at several times the speed of light. And the fastest rockets never approach even a thousandth of that speed. (The fastest moving objects we’ve ever launched into space, or will launch soon, are solar probes that drop inside the orbit of Mercury. That inward fall can give them a speed dozens of times faster than, say, the Apollo moon rocket.)

There’s more stuff beyond the Kuyper belt, also consisting mainly of icy bodies. But I don’t really count this as part of the solar system. This is where long period comets come from (short comets, such as Halley’s, come from the Kuyper belt). This zone is called the Oort Cloud. It’s found out in the stadium’s parking lot, and some thin parts of it probably extend out into the surrounding city, perhaps miles from the stadium. While the Kuyper belt is similar to the asteroid belt in that it mainly lies in the same plane as the orbits of the planets and rotates in the same direction that they do, the Oort cloud is spread in all directions, and appears to have no net orbital direction shared in common among the various objects. For all we know this spread of icy bodies may extend throughout the space between the stars, and not constitute a part of our own solar system at all, except to the extent that the Sun’s gravity causes a thickening in nearby parts of it.

Speaking of other stars, how far away is the nearest other solar system? It would be about 250 miles away at this scale… about the distance you might find between your hometown football stadium and that of a rival team in the next state. For instance, the distance between Cleveland and Cincinnati, or Green Bay and Minneapolis, or Chicago and Detroit.

As an afterthought… What if we changed scales in the opposite direction? What if we magnified everything so that a football stadium engulfed the solar system? How big would individual atoms be then?

As big as a house, it turns out — unbound hydrogen atoms would be around twelve meters across, carbon atoms about seventeen meters… Counterintuitively, heavy metals aren’t much bigger than light elements: uranium is just a bit bigger than carbon, and gold is actually smaller. The stronger the positive charge of the nucleus, the more densely the electrons pull in around it, so the overall size has remarkably little variation.

Green light would have a wavelength of fifty kilometers. One of your intestinal bacteria would stretch from Columbus to Pittsburgh. A red blood cell would sprawl over several midwestern states. If you have a good thick head of hair, your individual hairs might be as big around as the Earth. A flea would reach halfway to the Moon. And if you stood on the Sun, your head might reach past the orbit of Earth.

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