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The Solar System in Northwest D.C.

I guess you could say I have a thing for scale models of the solar system, which is why I was really excited to see the American Geophysical Union's building in northwest Washington, D.C., a few days ago.

The building was constructed with all sorts of solar system symbolism, from the design and interior of the building to the sidewalks outside.

The building is five stories tall, plus two stories below street level. Its exterior models the density of the Earth. White limestone, at the base of the street level, is topped by red brick, a material almost half as dense. I suppose the limestone represents the Earth's core while the brick must represent the mantle, but I'm not sure.
The top floor curtain wall (a lightweight outer covering that keeps out the weather) might, I think, represent the atmosphere.

Going down the two sidewalks outside the building are two scale models of the solar system made from brass and marble. At the junction of Florida Avenue and 20th Street, within the circular area in the photo up top, is a small brass dot representing the sun. The four inner planets circle the sun, which you can see in the photo on the right.

To get another perspective, look at the building from above in this Google satellite view. If you look to the left the arrowhead end of the building at the intersection of Florida and 20th, you'll see a small circle within a bigger, open white ellipse. The sun and inner planets are within that circle while the gas giants cover the lengths of the two sidewalks on either side of the building.

Brass embedded in the sidewalk shows the planets' orbits. Down Florida Avenue (in the right-hand side of the photo up top), the planets are placed at their aphelion distances - the distances furthest from the sun in their elliptical (slightly oval-shaped) orbits. Along 20th Street, the planets are shown at their nearest distances to the sun - their perihelion distances.

Before I spied the sidewalk art, I couldn't help wondering whether or not the American Geophysical Union (AGU) solar system would include a Pluto. The building was completed in 1994, a little over a decade before Pluto was kicked out of the solar system in 2006. I am happy to report for all those Pluto lovers out there that, yes, at the far end of the building, is a tiny, circular piece of marble embedded in the sidewalk representing the ninth planet.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is a society for Earth and space sciences who study rocks, water, air and life on Earth as well as the space around our planet. This includes geophysicists and geologists (who study rocks), hydrologists (water), atmospheric scientists and meteorologists (air), biogeoscientists and biogeochemists (life) and planetary scientists (space). The AGU has over 60,000 members worldwide. The building was constructed to represent all of the disciplines studied by its members.


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