At a recent outreach event, a group of intrepid cyclists found that it is possible to cycle faster than the speed of light, with just a little help from a large golf umbrella, a melon and some blueberries.
As part of a collaboration for the Manchester Science Festival, a scale model of the solar system was set up along 4.5km of the Fallowfield Loop, a cycle track along a disused railway in Manchester. The planets were arranged along the route at a scale of one to a billion. The planets were represented on flags at the same scale, and by various fruit and veg, with the golf umbrella for the Sun.
Two group rides took place along the route, guided by astronomer Dr Megan Argo of the University of Central Lancashire, and with additional commentary by Nick Sayers, a Brighton artist who developed the activity. As well as getting a sense of the vast distances to the outer planets, attendees heard fascinating facts about the unique features of each, and about the missions which have travelled to them to further our knowledge.
Visitors also got to eat some of the planets: Mercury was represented by a peppercorn, Venus and Earth by blueberries, Mars a caper, Jupiter and Saturn by melons, and Uranus and Neptune by plums. Travelling the 4.5 billion km to Neptune in around two and a half hours makes for a scale speed of about 1.6 times the speed of light – no wonder it was felt that a good afternoon’s cycling had taken place.
There were plenty of questions and lots of discussion along the way. I think everyone who had not seen the solar system illustrated in this way before was surprised by contrast between the closeness of the inner planets compared to the vast distances to the outer planets. I suspect that many of us have grown up with a false impression of the solar system from not-to-scale diagrams in books.
Volunteers were also on hand at the inner planets during the day to talk to passers by about the ride, thus reaching more people, and there were also volunteer marshals with the guided group.
The unusual format, using the hook of a cycle ride, attracted people who would not otherwise have attended a science event. Non-science community groups also played an important part – the Friends of the Fallowfield Loop played a vital role in ensuring access, measuring out the distances and providing marshals, and the Coffee Cranks Cooperative provided fabulous refreshments from their mobile cycle-pulled coffee cart.
It is now hoped that a permanent installation can be made along the Fallowfield Loop to allow users to visit the solar system at any time – it would be a great enhancement and encourage more people to use the route recreationally.