The Planets of Peoria

By Jeffrey Kluger|Wednesday, March 01, 1995
RELATED TAGS: SOLAR SYSTEM
I decided to visit the planet Neptune this winter. Imagine my surprise when I found it in Peoria, Illinois.

Actually, Neptune wasn't in Peoria proper, but just northeast, in the tiny town of Roanoke. Just northwest, in Kewanee, you can find Pluto, and once you get to Peoria itself, the seven other planets--Mercury straight through Uranus--start turning up.

The solar system I visited that day, of course, was not the genuine article. The genuine article is a little big for that. A tourist trying to get from, say, the sun to Pluto would have to travel 3.6 billion miles, and beyond I-95, a Ramada Inn and a Roy Rogers would be out of the question. Our own Earth and its neighbor Venus are separated by nearly 26 million miles of cosmic backyard. Pluto--which the average amateur astronomer couldn't find if it were wearing bicycle reflectors and Groucho glasses--is just 1,400 miles in diameter and lies nearly a billion miles from neighboring Neptune.

All this makes teaching cosmic cartography a bit of a problem. In a country in which most schoolchildren still think Lima is an objectionable legume and Cameroon a chewy coconut cookie, we clearly have a way to go before fully grasping our place in the universe. That's where Peoria--and Peorian Sheldon Schafer--comes in.

Schafer is a director of the Lakeview Museum and an instructor at Bradley University who for much of his career had despaired of conveying to students the enormity of the cosmos they were studying. Four years ago he decided that a scale model might help. Now, the ordinary solar system model is a familiar affair, typically consisting of nine tennis balls supported by nine wire hangers inside a black-painted cardboard box. As educational tools go, it's not bad--provided you accept that we live in a corrugated cosmos of fuzzy planets inscribed with the name Wilson. For his hometown, Schafer decided, he would provide something more.

What Schafer dreamed of was a solar system model that was an accurate depiction of both the relative size of each planet and the planets' relative distances from one another. In looking for something to represent the sun, he settled on the 36-foot-diameter dome of the Lakeview planetarium--a good choice, with one teensy caveat: if your sun is 36 feet across, a proportionally sized Mercury can be only 1.5 inches wide and must be located a quarter of a mile away. Venus would have to be 3.8 inches across and half a mile away, and so on out to a one-inch Pluto 40 miles distant.

For a model builder interested in keeping an eye on his creation, this presented some obvious challenges. Nevertheless, in the years since coming up with his audacious idea, Schafer has succeeded in building a mock solar system to just that astonishing scale, and in 1992 his efforts were rewarded when the Guinness Book of Records recognized his homegrown cosmos as the largest model of its kind ever built. With Schafer's universe expanding almost as fast as the real one, I decided it might be illuminating to visit Peoria and take in his half-pint heavenly bodies myself.

Preparing for my visit to the Midwest solar system was not an easy matter. With all the things you must remember to bring with you on a business trip, when that trip is to Peoria it's equally important to leave one thing behind: your whimsy. As a permanent member of the United Nations' Places-With-Names-Ya-Just-Gotta-Love subcommittee (other members: Walla Walla, Oshkosh, Kamloops, Kyrgyzstan), Peoria has inspired more than its share of jokes. Over the years, civic boosters have tried a number of public service campaigns to improve the city's image (Peoria: See Our Topsoil!; Peoria: It's Easier to Spell Than Kyrgyzstan!), but to no avail. When I first spoke to Schafer on the phone, however, I quickly learned that the humor is largely misplaced.

Central Peoria itself has over 100,000 residents, he said. Greater Peoria, over 300,000. That's just less than half the populations of San Francisco and Boston. Like those cities, we have a downtown, a professional sports arena, a new concert hall, a local theater, and a lot more. We're more cosmopolitan than people think.

Of course, I was coming to Peoria to visit not its civic attractions but its cosmic ones, and Schafer explained to me the celestial navigating I'd have to perform to take them in. Since I'd be driving into town from Chicago, I'd encounter the outer planets before the inner ones, and the first one on my planned route would be Neptune. Unlike the Voyager probe, which reconnoitered the giant gas planet in 1989, I would find Neptune not in a solitary orbit in the blackness of solar space but in a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership just off Route 116.

When I drove up to the Roanoke Motors showroom Schafer had directed me to, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. If I had indeed just arrived at Neptune, it was a Neptune that had no moons and no rings but was having a terrific holiday sale on Jeep Cherokees. But just as I was getting discouraged, I glanced again at the showroom window, and there, hanging ethereally over a spanking new Chrysler LeBaron, was a basketball-size sea blue sphere girdled by a transparent plastic ring. On the wall nearby was a large plastic plaque. COMMUNITY SOLAR SYSTEM, the inscription read. You Have Reached The Planet Neptune.

Feeling more like Neil Armstrong than I had a right to feel in the front seat of a Honda Civic rental, I hurried into the showroom to read the rest of the plaque. Neptune, it explained, measures 30,775 miles in diameter and lies nearly 2.8 billion miles from the sun. If the sun were indeed the Lakeview planetarium's dome, Neptune would measure 15 inches across and would be located here, 23 miles away. The scale of the model was about 1 million miles for every 42 feet.

As I studied planet and plaque, Dennis Rocke and John Gastman, the owners of Roanoke Motors, introduced themselves and explained how the community solar system came to be and, more specifically, how Neptune came to inhabit their showroom.

We had heard about the Lakeview Museum, of course, Gastman told me, and that they were planning some kind of giant solar system model. Then one day this fellow Sheldon came in to price a car--

He didn't buy, Rocke interjected.

He didn't buy, Gastman agreed, but he did come back a while later, reintroduce himself, and say he was the one building the model and would we mind if he hung Neptune here. We had never had a planet in the showroom before, so we thought what the heck.

A few weeks later their polyurethane Neptune arrived, and it was clearly worth the wait. Produced by a local plastics company and painted by artist Walter Kinsman, the model faithfully re-creates the planet's wispy clouds and atmospheric striations--not to mention its tenuous rings, discovered just five years ago by the intrepid Voyager.

The rings are an especially nice feature of the model, Rocke said, but they are a little hard to keep clean. Sheldon told us that the real rings are made mostly of dust, so I figured, hey, maybe they're more accurate this way.

Accurate or not, Neptune could claim only so much of my time, and with a whole solar system to visit, I said good-bye and headed straight for the Peorian sun, where Sheldon and I were to meet. If I'd had any doubts about whether I'd be able to spot the local star when I arrived at it, they were quickly dispelled the moment I drove up the museum's main drive. Painted on the four-story front wall of the building was a brilliant yellow disk, decorated with a corona, flares, and even a spray-painted scattering of sunspots. Schafer met me as I entered the building and began explaining this most important element of the model.

The painting out front is just a way of signifying that this is where the model begins, he said, but the planetarium dome itself is really what serves as the sun. It was this structure that set the scale for the entire model.

Schafer and I would have entered the planetarium to take a look at the inside of the dome but decided against it, mostly because a) striding blithely into the interior of the sun would have broken the ineffable spell the solar system model had already begun to cast for me, and b) the 12:30 show was already under way. Instead we decided to fly straight off into Peorian space, heading first for the planet Mercury, which, Sheldon explained, was located just down the road in School's the Rule, a school-supply store on North University Street. In the real solar system, Mercury lies 36 million miles from the sun; in Peoria, we would find it a quarter-mile away.

Had I not known I was looking for a planet when I entered School's the Rule, I might have orbited the store indefinitely, passing through a debris field of hole punchers, construction paper, and educational games without ever encountering an even remotely cosmic body. Schafer, however, with the unerring navigational skills of a true star voyager, steered me down aisle one (paper goods) and across aisle three (art supplies), until we came face-to-face with another plastic plaque, with a mottled 1.5-inch sphere affixed to it.

Mercury is perhaps the least impressive of the planets, both in the real solar system and in our model, Schafer said. It's not much bigger than our moon--which is only 2,160 miles in diameter--and just as heavily cratered. Standing here, just a couple of feet away from it, we'd be about 25,000 miles out in space, and you can already tell that it doesn't look like much.

Unrewarding as life would be for a resident of Mercury, it would be even worse on the next planet in the solar roll call: Venus. Located at a slightly more comfortable remove from the sun--67 million miles in the real solar system, about half a mile in Schafer's--Venus nevertheless has a surface temperature that can exceed 800 degrees, mostly because of its dense carbon dioxide atmosphere. And as if things weren't hard enough for Venusians, Schafer contrived to make them harder still: his Venus, he decided, would eternally orbit not in space but in the waiting room of Lou Johnson's State Farm Insurance office on North Sheridan Street.

Just what a small, scalded planet with a hot, toxic atmosphere would have to gain from an association with an insurance agency is unclear (it's hard to be insured against natural disasters when you are one), but Schafer evidently liked the idea of providing his insurance agent with a piece of a whole different kind of rock. As we pulled up to Johnson's storefront parking lot, we could already see that the little planet was one of the decorative centerpieces of his outer office.

From out here in the parking lot, Schafer said, we'd be about half a million miles from Venus, and you can see it easily through the waiting-room window. The yellow color helps it stand out. Essentially, we tried to design our models so that from nearly any vantage point you'd see what you'd see from the corresponding distance in space.

Schafer's efforts at authenticity were commendable, though I did suppress an impulse to ask whether the actual Venus in fact orbits the sun in such close proximity to a rack of term life and personal disability brochures. When we entered the office, however, the model--3.8 inches in diameter to correspond to the real planet's 7,519 miles--did look startlingly like the genuine article. The same could be said a few minutes later when we drove another quarter-mile down the road (26 million miles in solar system terms) and encountered the four-inch model of the 7,926-mile- wide Earth, at Beachler's Amoco on University Parkway.

Even more impressive than Earth was Mars, which we reconnoitered 1.2 miles from the Lakeview sun, in the lobby of WMBD radio and TV, Peoria's CBS affiliate. As the only planet in the solar system with call letters, a weatherman, and a working relationship with Paula Zahn, Mars would seem a natural crowd pleaser. But I noticed that although wmbd's waiting area was practically overrun by visitors--including a dozen or so junior high school students on a field trip--the 2.2-inch planet (4,194 miles in real solar life) was being all but ignored. When I called the students' attention to it, however, the idea of the model appeared to have instant appeal.

If this was really Mars, I asked Krys, 13, where do you think Earth would be?

If Earth was the same size, you mean? he asked.

More or less, yeah, I said.

Krys chewed this for a moment. Wal-Mart's, he said confidently. Definitely up by Wal-Mart's.

No way, Amanda, 12, disagreed. It's much closer than that; near Steak & Shake.

From the Earth to Mars? Kristin, 12, asked with a dismissive laugh. Not a chance. You'd have to go at least out to Wendy's.

A few other students threw in a few other estimates with, unfortunately, a Beachler's Amoco not among them. But while all the guesses were either wide or short of the planetary mark, and while astronomers are never likely to replace the parsec or the light-year with the IHOP or the Woolworth's, I did take heart that the students seemed to appreciate the premise and the charm of Schafer's model.

When students refer to a Steak & Shake or a Wendy's in contemplating an astronomical problem, Schafer said, it shows that they're personalizing the science. When you personalize something, you tend to retain it.

Having finished with the inner planets, Schafer and I set sail for the outer ones, with Jupiter next on our cosmic itinerary. In the planetary flesh, this nigh-star measures a full 88,736 miles, which means that in Peoria it must measure three feet nine inches. Since the real planet orbits the sun at a distance of 484 million miles, the down-to-Earth image must be located four miles away, or, as it turned out, in a gallery in the Peoria Public Library. This location confers a few advantages on Jupiter, not the least being that it is the only planet in the solar system that gets to close for President's Day. Just as important, because of the planet's proximity to the children's department, its keepers--the Peoria librarians--get to eavesdrop as teachers field questions on astronomy from students and offer gentle correction if it's needed. On a disturbing number of occasions, it is.

When comet Shoemaker-Levy was heading for Jupiter earlier in the year, said a library assistant, one teacher told a student that if the comet hit the planet just right, Jupiter might cease to exist. I don't know if the little boy understood that it was the planet she was talking about and not the model, but either way he was being misled.

Though three planets--Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto--remained to be visited, I unfortunately saw only one more before my day in Peoria ended. Pluto, located 40 miles distant in Good's Furniture Store in Kewanee, was too far away to see in the time I had remaining, but Schafer assured me that as long as it wasn't inadvertently snatched up in a forthcoming clearance sale, it would still be there if I ever returned. Uranus, a 16- inch sphere that had been located in the foyer of Edison Junior High School, 15 miles from the Lakeview sun, was currently being recast in metal in preparation for being moved outdoors to Mineral Springs Park in Pekin. I did visit the three-foot-two-inch Saturn, 8 miles from the sun (887 million miles as the planetary crow flies) in the student union building at Illinois Central College. As it turned out, it was probably best that it was my last planet of the day because while admiring it, I absently rested my soda can atop its Plexiglas rings, a breach of astronomical etiquette comparable to staring rudely at Jupiter's unsightly red spot or insensitively telling Pluto that yes, size does matter.

Of course, even if I had visited the entire planetary family, there would still have been more of the Lakeview model to see. The solar system is fairly aswarm with other, smaller bodies, particularly comets, which swirl about either in the Oort cloud, a spherical region that extends beyond the orbit of Pluto, or in the Kuiper belt, a flatter cluster that lies between the cloud and the orbit of Neptune. Comets in either region can be as far as a trillion miles from the sun, which means that on the scale of the Lakeview model they could be located anywhere on Earth. For the last two years, the museum has thus been offering visitors souvenir comet plaques, which they can buy, register with Schafer, and then carry anywhere on the planet, thereby becoming part of the ever-growing model. (You can order one from the Lakeview Museum, at 1125 West Lake Avenue, Peoria, Ill. 61614-5985.)

We want people to take a piece of the solar system with them when they leave, Schafer said. When you come to Peoria, you don't think you're going to discover the cosmos, but despite yourself, you do. We think we've found a way for people to visit a relatively small city and leave with a sense of the universe.

You listening, Kamloops?
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