Is Pluto further away than the stars?

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 26, 2008

I’ve just posted a new episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast — Which is Closest?

Which is farthest away from the earth, the stars or Pluto? The answer may be obvious to you, but a lot of people get this wrong.  Here’s the task — arrange these in the order from closest to furthest from the earth:  moon, sun, Pluto, stars, and clouds.  Think about it first, and then listen… listen carefully!  It can be easy to miss the mistakes that people make.

We went out and harassed the employees at the Exploratorium with this little survey.  I was astounded by what we found.  Many teachers are.  Linda explains why people (even highly educated people!) answer as they do, and what this means for teaching about science.


Matt July 27, 2008 at 8:13 pm

Many folks, when buying a telescope, ask me ‘How far can I see with this telescope?’. Its really hard to explain that its the wrong question to ask.

sciencegeekgirl July 27, 2008 at 8:15 pm

I don’t get it… what do you mean?

Matt July 28, 2008 at 7:34 am

Well, Pluto is much, much closer to Earth than say, the Andromeda Galaxy, but even a small telescope can see Andromeda on a clear night. By comparison, the much closer Pluto needs at a minimum a 6 inch telescope (or more) to be viewed.

So asking ‘how far can I see” is really not the best question. Its like having a small candle ten feet from you, and then someone turns a Klieg light on from across a football field. The candle may be closer, but you aren’t going to see it as well.

sciencegeekgirl July 28, 2008 at 8:43 am

Ah, I see! Thanks, Matt! It’s like, the better question would be, “how bright can I see”?

Matt July 28, 2008 at 6:13 pm

Exactly, or more useful (from a buyer’s standpoint) is ‘What can I see?’. That way I can go down a short list of things from the major planets to far-away galaxies.

George December 1, 2012 at 3:13 am

Which is closer to Earth, the sun or pluto?

Stephanie Chasteen December 1, 2012 at 4:18 am

The Sun is closer to Earth than Pluto. Pluto is 39x further from the Sun than Earth.

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