Witt’s Fleisch works to shrink universe ahead of total solar eclipse

Professor’s project is part of university’s observance of solar eclipse.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Dementia is one source of confusion.

But as the April 8 total eclipse of the sun approaches and things astronomical come front and center, we’re at risk for another.

It’s pronounced the same as dementia but I spell it dimensia to describe the confusion many of us feel when we try to wrap our minds around the immense dimensions of the universe.

And who can blame us?

It’s an expanse so expansive that its unit of measure — its inchworm, mind, you — is the light year.

I checked at Lowes and Home Depot and neither has a tape measure that long with Buzz Lightyear’s image on it.

So, let’s just remind ourselves of some basics.

A beam of light goes, like, 670 million miles per hour, which alone is impressive.

And since we’re talking about a year here, we first multiply the 670 million miles per hour by the 24 hours in a light day.

That’s roughly 16 billion miles, and in a perfect world, we could turn in the mileage.

The cha-ching gets louder if we multiply the 16-billion-mile light day by 365 days in the light year. I can do the math only if I take off my shoes and socks and work my toes and fingers fast enough to come up with 5.9 trillion miles before sending them to rehab.

While the national debt does come to mind at 5.9 trillion, to get the full measure our little corner of the universe, we need to multiply that 100,000, the diameter in light years of a Milky Way that clearly has been unable to control its appetite.

That makes 590 quadrillion miles. Readers who don’t like to use the “Q word” in front of the children can tell them it’s the same thing as 590 million doses of a billion miles.

That presents parents with a teaching moment regarding the meaning of the common expression “Dude!”

All this helps to explain why I think all of Clark County owes an astronomical thanks to Dan Fleisch for shrinking our solar system into a scale model and installing as much as possible in our little microdot of the universe. This effort to help us overcome our dimensia is a part of Wittclipse, Wittenberg University’s observance of the coming solar eclipse.

Fleisch is a professor emeritus of physics there. And although his title hints at retirement, the guy’s less retired than I am. Because in addition to all the other things he’s doing as a part of Wittclipse, he’s working with me on a series of stories for the four Sundays leading up to the eclipse.

Starting next Sunday, its installments will deal, in order, with galaxies, stars and planets. It then will conclude on Easter with story about why a Catholic Church that treated Galileo so shabbily nonetheless built cathedrals that doubled as astronomical observatories.

So, how much did Dan Fleisch shrink the solar system as part of Wittclipse?

“By a factor of approximately 1.5 billion,” he told me.

As Fans of Seinfeld will attest, that’s a lot of shrinkage.

With a little cheating, this has allowed Fleisch to shoehorn his model solar system, along with the next nearest star, on the planet.

Here’s the layout.

“We place the Sun at the north end of the Wittenberg football stadium (or in the Steemer in case of inclement weather),” he said.

As luck would have it, that “puts the inner solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth/Moon, and Mars) within the stadium/Steemer,” a good start.

Jupiter, he said, “lands at the Weaver Observatory, whle several other buildings on campus are at the correct distances for various asteroids.” I assume all this had to be communicated to the custodial and and maintenance staff and campus security.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “the gigantic size of the solar system means that the planets beyond Jupiter do not fit on campus.”

So, Saturn will be stationed at the at Springfield Museum of Art; Uranus (no snickering) will be at the Main Library; and Neptune (along with disgraced dwarf planet Pluto) at the Westcott House. There, the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright will be upset because neither he nor his house are at the center of the solar system, let alone the universe.

The most distant part of the model represents Proxima Centauri, the star closest to Earth but outside of our solar system. Fleisch hasn’t managed to get it in place yet and likely won’t. But most of us can’t visit it anyway, because but it would be at the South Pole.

That’s where the cheating comes in. To fit its 4.25 light-year distance from the Earth at 1:1.5 billion scale, we’d have to scratch a direct route. Instead, we’d have to hike to the North Pole, then go around the bend and heads south until we see bunch a penguins huddled together like smokers outside their office in winter.

None of this has improved my dimensia to the point that I can relate to the size of the solar system or the Milky Way, much less the universe. But one thing Fleisch reminded me of does help me get at least a scintilla of connection.

Iron and all the other elements inside us — the ones and we read in morning on the sides of our cereal boxes and that our bodies need to survive — were not made in Battle Creek, Mich., by Kellogg’s.

Those and the other elements of the periodic table were manufactured in stars that blew up billions of years ago quadrillions of miles away and whose leftovers are now not just close to but in our hearts.

They are integral to the workings of the bodies and brains that have given us both the capacity to take the measure of the universe and to experience awe and wonder as we look into the cathedral of the sky.

And though we often forget it, they are daily reminders that all of us are, in fact, part of something incomprehensively larger and grander than our selves.

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