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Mysteries of the solar system remain unsolved at Holiday Festival of Lights

December 29, 2016

The Earth is the most easily recognizable, shown in familiar blue and green. Beyond that, the solar system display at the Holiday Festival of Lights yields mysteries upon mysteries.

Why seven planets, instead of the actual eight? Where are Mars and Jupiter? Why are Mercury and Venus, the sun’s closest neighbors, depicted out of order? And out there at the far edge, has our old friend Pluto been given a Christmas gift of planethood?

Is there something flat out wrong in the universe?

Employees at James Island County Park reckon that more than 4 million visitors have driven through the holiday light bonanza since its inception in 1990. The solar system display, which joined the collection at least 15 years ago, has raised a few questions among young and old scientists alike.

“I remember saying, ‘Something is wrong,’ when I drove by that display the other day,” said Jeff Wragg, a senior physics instructor at the College of Charleston. “Maybe the artist is trying to make some deep philosophical statement with the alterations to reality, though.”

The artist, it turns out, is a bit of an enigma. Rich Raab, a former maintenance worker and electrician at the park, has been devising and constructing increasingly elaborate displays since the second year of the festival, which runs through Jan. 1.

“He’s extremely shy,” said Sarah Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the park system. “He traditionally has turned down every interview.”

This year was no exception to Raab’s media blackout. He did give a rare interview to The Post and Courier in 2002, and the closest thing he offered to an artist’s statement was reserved and workmanlike: “I just had an interest in it. I’ve always enjoyed metalworking and welding.”

It is possible that the artist ran up against physical constraints in building the display. Perhaps the addition of an eighth planet would have tripped one of the festival’s 2,500 circuit breakers.

Or maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

Jon Hakkila, a professor and associate dean of the graduate school in the College of Charleston’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, has given the topic some thought. Hakkila earned his Ph.D. in astronomy at New Mexico State University, where he rubbed elbows with Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto. Hakkila’s specialty?

“I study gamma ray bursts, which are the most violent explosions in the universe.”

Hakkila keeps an open mind about the county park’s depiction of the solar system. He likes the theory posited by Lisa Knisley-White, who runs the Park and Rec Twitter account, that visitors are meant to be viewing the solar system from the surface of Mars — which would explain the red planet’s apparent absence from the lineup. As evidence, Knisley-White points out a big-headed green alien who can be seen to the left of the road on a cratered red surface.

It helps to know that Jupiter has a ring system around it, discovered in the ’70s and less well-known in the popular imagination than the prominent rings of Saturn and Uranus. So the next planet after earth in the display could, in fact, be a ringed Jupiter, followed by a ringed Saturn, followed by a mysteriously ring-less Uranus and then Neptune. The order of Venus and Mercury is still a head-scratcher.

“I don’t mean to be critical either, because if I was going to design the planets with a light display, I’d have to choose which features not only interest me, but the things that I think would be identifiable to someone else,” Hakkila said.

If nothing else, Hakkila said, the display could provide a teachable moment for grade-school science teachers. He imagines students cutting out drawings of the planets from the display, shuffling them around into their proper order and figuring out which ones are missing or transposed.

“That would be kind of fun, actually,” Hakkila said.

Mysteries remain. In a section portraying the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, a pair of bulls can be seen walking onto the boat side by side, rather than a breeding couple. Santa Claus and a reindeer sizing up a too-narrow chimney used to be one of the best visual jokes in the park when Weight Watchers sponsored it, but now it’s an oddity beside an ad for Coca-Cola. And the golfing Santa near the front of the park — are we really meant to believe he’s left-handed?

The truth, believers insist, is still out there.