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The Model of the Universe

The creator of the Galaxy Garden (Kona, Hawaii), Jon Lomberg is an artist working in many media whose work continues to resonate in the space community and the public at large. Centauri Dreams readers will know that he worked with Frank Drake in designing the cover for the Voyager Interstellar Record and the sequence of 120 photographs and diagrams portraying Earth and its inhabitants (soon to become the first human artwork to leave the Solar System). But they’ll also remember COSMOS, the series for which Jon served as chief artist. In fact, he worked as Carl Sagan’s principal artistic collaborator for many years, including key work on the film CONTACT. Here Jon extends his ideas on nature, art and astronomy to venues much larger than the Galaxy Garden itself, a proposal that would model our staggeringly beautiful cosmos. For more on the concept, be aware that Jon discussed these ideas in his talk at the recent Starship Century conference, a video of which is available.

by Jon Lomberg

Image Author

Astronomy daunts us with its distances. One mind-numbing number after another, equally incomprehensible. Do you have a good sense of the difference between 40 million and 140 million? Such quantities are difficult to scale and difficult to grasp.

One of the hardest concepts to convey is the scale of the Universe. Here is a proposal for a new way to address this problem.

THE MODEL OF THE UNIVERSE is a Pacific-wide system of beautiful and well-crafted markers that place extragalactic objects in an enormous scale model the size of the planet. The three dimensional model is projected onto the surface of the Earth, with the center of the Earth representing the location of the Big Bang in some higher spatial dimension. The center of the projected model is the Milky Way Galaxy Garden in Captain Cook, Hawaii. Scaled to the Galaxy Garden, a model of the Universe would be about the size of the Pacific Ocean.

Markers showing individual objects can be purchased, donated, sponsored, or built by the host business or organization. An umbrella organization and its website will provide educational materials explaining the project and providing, for example, announcements as new markers are added to the model.

The Local Group of Galaxies are scattered in the few square miles surrounding the Galaxy Garden in Honaunau. The Virgo Supercluster extends 20 miles out from the Local Group—approximately the distance between the Galaxy Garden and Kona International Airport. So all the various parks, businesses, schools, and beaches could be the site for the varied galaxies of the Virgo Supercluster.

This presents an opportunity to turn all of West Hawaii into a cosmological model of the Virgo Supercluster. The entire Big Island maps nearby superclusters. Astrotourists can spend part of their holiday exploring the extragalactic environment and getting a real sense of the relative distances to objects that are otherwise just hazily “somewhere out there.”

More distant clusters and cosmological objects are located as shown on the accompanying designs. NOTE: The mapping is preliminary only to suggest the concept.

The Galaxy Garden

If you are not familiar with the Galaxy Garden concept, please take a moment and have a look at www.galaxygarden.net.

Image 1

The GG is the world’s first large-scale explorable model of the Milky Way Galaxy. Scaled at 1000 light years per foot, this 100’ garden offers visitors a direct, sensory, intuitive way to understand the scale of the solar system compared to the galaxy.

Image 2

At 83 light years per inch, nearly all the stars visible to the naked eye are in a volume equivalent to a single leaf. Anyone, even a child, can understand the difference between a fraction of an inch and a 100’ garden surrounding. We have found that this conveys the scale of the Galaxy better than any other astronomy educational experience.

Image 3

The Local Group of Galaxies are scattered in the few square kilometers surrounding the Milky Way in Honaunau.

Image 4

Traveling toward the town of Kailua-Kona from the Galaxy Garden, the extragalactic explorer encounters many famous galaxies, whose beautiful portraits are displayed on simple but elegant and sturdy markers. Astrotourists can spend part of their holiday exploring the extragalactic environment and getting a real sense of the relative distances to objects that are otherwise just hazily “somewhere out there.”

Image 5

A few examples:

• NGC 5128, the brilliant radio galaxy Centaurus A, is located in Kealakekua Bay, famous historical site of Captain Cook’s visit, frequented by many tourists.

• Spiral Galaxy M101 is at the West Hawaii Community College.

• M87 is in the town of Kailua-Kona, perhaps on the grounds of the Hulihee Palace or in the lobby of the historic King Kamehameha hotel.

• The Leo Cluster of galaxies is at the Onizuka Space Center at Kona International Airport. The entire area between the Galaxy Garden and the airport is the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies.

• Other superclusters could be located in Waimea, Hilo, and Volcano.

Image 6

More distant objects are located on the neighbor islands, at appropriate tourist, educational, and community venues.

Image 7

Objects at cosmological distances could be located at schools and science centers from Alaska to San Diego, as well as Tahiti (Point Venus?) and American Samoa.

Because the network projects the three-dimensional distribution of galaxies onto a spherical surface, the entire Earth becomes a model of the Universe with the center of expansion (the Big Bang) lying in a dimension not accessible from the model Universe. This provides a vivid educational metaphor that helps people to visualize the topology of the expanding universe and facilitates understanding of why there is no defined spot among the galaxies where the Big Bang took place.

Reference 1: The Virgo Supercluster

Image 8

Reference 2: Other superclusters and voids out to 200 mly

Image 9

Conversion of Kona to Cosmic Distances

1” = 83 light years
1 foot = 1000 light years
100’ = 100,000 light years
1000’ = 1 million light years
10,000’ = 10 million light years = ~ 2 miles
20 miles = 100 million light years
200 miles = 1 billion light years
2000 miles = 10 billion light years
3000 miles = 15 billion light years = ~ diameter of Universe


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • A. A. Jackson August 2, 2013, 12:36

    This is one of things so beautiful and clever that it takes one’s breath away.
    Seems Jon said it was the only one in the world! (I think?)
    So why didn’t some English person think this up? (If you know the English and their gardens!)
    Of course what springs to mind is a galaxy karesansui garden, right down the alley of the Japanese aesthetic spirit.
    Or think of what Ai Weiwei could do with this idea?

    I remember when I was a teenager looking at 2d sky maps , I once learned the constellations (but can now only pick out out , easily, Orion , any more, alas!).
    I used to look on that flat map for Alpha Centauri , find it, and then realize I would have to be in the Southern Hemisphere to see it.
    One day I found this book in the Dallas Public Library that had a three dimensional map of stars within , I think 20?, light years of the sun. Simple black and white with a 3d axes centered on the sun, totally forgotten the book’s name. There may have been earlier ones , even models, but it’s the first I even saw , some how that set my sense of wonder molecules all athrill!

    Much later I discovered Guy Ottewell’s marvelous Astronomical Calendar.
    If you don’t have one , get Ottewell’s Astronomical Companion, a thing of wonder, it’s printed on paper with ink….. the way the gods intended!

  • Bob August 2, 2013, 14:02

    I have always been confused betweeen the concept of the scale of the universe as defined by the Hubble constant and the red shift vs. the actual size of the universe. As I understand it, the expansion sets the red shift in a way that regardless how large the universe actually is, we could only see as far as things get redshifted out of view. How do we know we are not only seeing a tiny part of the real universe? I would appreciate any thoughts. Thanks.

  • David Cummings August 2, 2013, 14:19

    I love all these exercises in scaling distances. This is a very beautiful one and one that will hopefully capture the imagination of children around the world.


  • Jon Lomberg August 2, 2013, 18:10

    Please note that the kite aerial photography of the Galaxy Garden was done by Heidy and Pierre Lesage

  • ljk August 2, 2013, 21:17

    Thank you for literally putting things in perspective, Jon. Beautiful photos and artwork as always. I think everyone needs this take on the Universe, even those who claim to “get” it.

    Jon’s artwork is also featured in this newsletter, which is online:


    And if anyone is still having trouble with cosmic perspective, there is always The Powers of Ten:


  • NS August 3, 2013, 1:54

    To Bob, see here:


    I certainly plan to visit both the Galaxy Garden and the Model of the Universe, when I can. Living on Oahu they’re only a short hop away!

  • Michael August 3, 2013, 15:49

    ‘According to calculations, the comoving distance (current proper distance) to particles from the CMBR, which represent the radius of the visible universe, is about 14.0 billion parsecs (about 45.7 billion light years), while the comoving distance to the edge of the observable universe is about 14.3 billion parsecs (about 46.6 billion light years),[1] about 2% larger.’ ?

    Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observable_universe

    “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen…” H.G to the Galaxy.


  • Rob Henry August 3, 2013, 16:16

    I was just pondering why they used such ridiculous units as 1foot = 1000 light years, then realised that this is identical to 1 meter = 1 kiloparsec to within any measuring tolerances. Clever.

  • Astrocartician August 4, 2013, 15:07

    A.A. Jackson –

    I believe you are thinking about the chart on page 30 of The Starflight Handbook by Eugene Mallove and Gregory Matloff. It is a 6.5 Parsec (21.2 light-years) map that is credited to The Astronomical Companion by Guy Ottewell. But since you have The Astronomical Companion already and you didn’t mention it being in there I wonder if that credit is completely correct or not.

  • W. Tyler Gee August 5, 2013, 12:47

    Hey Jon thanks for the GG and the write-up. I am the vice-president over at the astrophysics club at UH-Hilo and we have been meaning to arrange a field trip over to the garden for a while now. Hopefully we can get that happening this Fall. Also, maybe we can start working on getting that Hydra Cluster up on the UH-Hilo campus or somewhere else in Hilo. Aloha!

  • kzb August 5, 2013, 13:18

    There’s a lot of evidence that the MW is bigger than 100,000LY across. Star-forming regions are detected at over 20kpc galactic radius. There is also the outer ring, which goes out to about 25kpc radius. That might be a nice feature to add later.

  • A. A. Jackson August 5, 2013, 14:40


    That illo in Greg and Gene’s book is indeed reproduced from one of Guy Ottewell’s books.
    The one I have in mind is not so elegant.
    Ottewell’s first illos appeared in 1972 , and I know I saw this diagram before that.
    It could have been created way earlier than even the one I saw in the 1960’s.
    It was a plain black and white figure with x,y,z axes , some kind of small handbook of astronomy, I think.

  • ljk August 6, 2013, 14:57



    Published: August 5, 2013

    Who was it that first said that people are stardust?

    Some people, of a certain age, might say Joni Mitchell, who sang, “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the gar-ar-den,” in her paean to the Woodstock festival. Others will say Carl Sagan, the author and host of “Cosmos.”

    In fact, the answer goes back before those acolytes of beauty and consciousness were born. In 1929, the Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley declared, “We organic beings who call ourselves humans are made of the same stuff as the stars” — a remarkable observation, considering that at the time nobody even knew what made the stars shine.

    It would be 30 years before Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, William Fowler and Fred Hoyle showed in a classic paper that the atoms that compose us are not only the same as the ones in stars — most of them were actually manufactured in stars. Starting from primordial hydrogen and helium, denser elements like iron, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen were built up in a series of thermonuclear reactions and then spewed into space when these stars died and exploded as supernovas in a final thermonuclear frenzy.

    Any gardener knows that ashes make good fertilizer. Our atoms were once in stars.

    I was reminded of all this by a pair of recent news items. One involved dung beetles, among the least lordly occupants of this cosmic garden, which apparently navigate by orienting themselves to the light of the Milky Way.

    The other was the announcement last month that astronomers had tentatively traced the existence of gold in the universe to a cataclysm known as a gamma-ray burst, which can light up a galaxy. As Joel Achenbach wrote in The Washington Post, “The bling apparently begins with a blam.”

    The blam in question happened — or rather was noticed here on Earth — on June 3. It was then that astronomers, alerted by a brief flash of high-energy gamma rays in the sky, think a pair of dead, ultradense neutron stars collided, leaving behind only a distant radioactive glow. Edo Berger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said the explosion could have created an amount of gold equivalent to the mass of 20 Earth Moons.

    Neutron stars are themselves a result of cataclysms, those supernova explosions that can squeeze the space out of atoms and compress a mass more than the Sun into a ball 10 miles across — essentially a great ball of neutrons, hence the name. On Earth, a teaspoon of the stuff would weigh about five billion tons.

    Astronomers have always wondered whether ordinary supernova explosions could produce very heavy elements like gold, whose nucleus has 79 protons and 118 neutrons — a far cry from the single proton that is a hydrogen nucleus. If a pair of neutron stars are in orbit around each other, they can collide — a second cosmic act that will add to the universe’s repertory of elements, the bling from blam.

    Indeed, Dr. Berger and his colleagues suggested that all the gold in the universe might have been produced by neutron star collisions, which have been termed “kilanova” explosions.

    Of course we aspiring gardeners have other names for what is left behind after an object’s energy has been metabolized into light and heat to nurture the cosmos.

    Which brings us back to the lowly dung beetle, the scarab.

    These creatures, which live on the feces of larger animals, have a problem. Once a beetle has found some dung and rolled part of it into a ball, he’s got to get it out of there, rolling it in a straight line away from the dung pile, or the other beetles will come and poach it.

    How they manage this, even on moonless nights when obvious cues and landmarks are absent or invisible, has been a mystery.

    Last January a team of Swedish and South African researchers reported that African dung beetles, Scarabaeus satyrus, can use the Milky Way as their guide.

    In a series of experiments in a game preserve and a planetarium, a team led by Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden found that when the beetles were fitted with little caps that prevented them from seeing the sky or the stars were clouded out, the beetles wandered aimlessly, putting their little dung treasures at risk.

    But a starlit sky, or just a dim band representing the disk of our humble home galaxy, is a enough to keep them on track.

    “Although this is the first description of an insect using the Milky Way for their orientation, this ability might turn out to be widespread in the animal kingdom,” the scientists wrote in Current Biology.

    It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful or humbling connection between the sacred and the profane, the microscopic and the large, inner space and outer space.

    The Milky Way is one of nature’s grandest creations: hundreds of billions of glittering stars, wreathed in ribbons of gas and dust, a cloudy, starry pinwheel so vast that a light beam would take 100,000 years to cross it and the Sun with its planetary entourage takes a quarter of a billion years to circle it once.

    And it is only one of countless galaxies, scattered like sand from here to eternity, rushing outward in the great expansion, whose meaning, if we are honest, is as fathomless to us as it is to a scarab pushing its carefully wrought investment portfolio through this garden of Earthy delights.

    Scarabs were sacred to the ancient Egyptians for their ability to create life from waste. They were a symbol of the eternal renewal of life from death, not unlike the waxing and the waning of the stars themselves.

    Egyptians wore representations of them as amulets. And wouldn’t you know, in one of the ultimate symbols of recycling, some of them were even gold.

    A version of this article appeared in print on August 6, 2013, on page D6 of the New York edition with the headline: Stars, Gold, Dung Beetles and Us.

  • Tarmen August 6, 2013, 16:44

    Yes I love these scaling games too. I think I once figured all this galaxy’s stars were about the same number of 1 millimeter grains of sand in a pile of sand 10 meters x 10 meters of sand about a meter deep. Or 11 yards x 11 yards of sand 40 inches deep. And now I know the ‘pile’ would have another pile in the ‘galactic’ middle and anothers scatterred round to account for 300 billion grains. A big heap of sand.
    Now how to account for the dark matter ? A wide cloud of dust all around the sand pile ?