Distant galaxies and hobbits

By Marcus Wilson 01/10/2012

I haven’t read ALL of Tolkien’s work, but I suspect space-travelling hobbits don’t feature anywhere. However, what do feature are hole-dwelling hobbits, and I had the fun of seeing their holes in the countryside near Matamata yesterday. The original set for Lord of the Rings was mostly removed after filming, and rebuilt for the filming of the Hobbit trilogy.  (Trilogy? Since when was The Hobbit a trilogy? This is just milking money out of Tolkien fans, isn’t it?) But this time the set will remain, for all to see, for an appropriate fee of course. It certainly was fun to have a look around – what made it was the commentary provided by our excellent guide.

One of the fascinating things pointed out was the perspective tricks that were used. For The Hobbit, there are three different versions of some of the holes.  One, a ‘large’ version, appropriate for a normal-sized actor, dressed as a hobbit, to walk through. One, a smaller version, to make the dwarfs look bigger than the hobbits. And another, an even smaller version, to make Gandalf look bigger than the dwarfs. And the three had to be identical.

And then there are the perspective tricks. To make the view look like it is over a longer distance, the more distant holes are of smaller size than the nearer ones. On a 2d movie it works – your mind interprets what you see as being of equal-sized holes spread over a larger distance. But being there in 3d you see it more as it is.

That’s the problem that’s faced when determining the distance to distant stars and galaxies. Just how far are they away?  The moon, and anything further away, we perceive as 2 dimensional. We can’t get any 3-dimensional cues and so we have no idea, just by looking, of how far away they are.  So how can we measure distance to the stars?

One way, which works for the nearest stars, is parallax. The earth orbits the sun, and six months from now it will be about 300 million km away from where it is now. That gives a different viewpoint. The nearest stars, therefore, appear to move against the background of stars that are further away. We can therefore use a bit of simple trigonometry to work out the distance to the star. Indeed, one of the units of distance in astronomy is the parsec – one parsec being the distance over which the diameter of the earth’s orbit subtends a parallax angle of one arc-second.  Essentially, using parallax in this manner is like viewing the situation with two eyes – 300 million km apart.

Parallax, however, only works for our nearest stars, since the distances to our neighbours are so huge. To work out distances further away, there are other methods – such as looking at the intensity of Cephid Variable stars, and, for really long distances, the famous redshift. However, somewhat disappointingly, neither of these are exemplified by the Hobbiton movie set.