Master of the Universe
Owner creates solar system at Observer's Inn, complete with planets to scale

By RUTH LEPPER - San Diego Union Tribune
December 18th, 2002


JULIAN, Calif. -- How many planets the size of Earth would fit inside a hollowed-out sun?

Mike Leigh knows the answer - 1.3 million.

Facts like this can be found on plaques by the Walk of the Planets at Observer's Inn in Julian

"I wanted it to be interesting trivia, anything that holds your interest," Leigh said of the information he listed on the plaques. He researched from five resource books to compile the information.

Leigh and his wife, Caroline, opened the inn six years ago. Mike Leigh, 47, previously worked for an Irvine company that makes telescopes. Caroline Leigh, 43, had managed a department store in El Cajon.

Observer's Inn features an observatory with five research-grade telescopes set up for viewing the heavens.

Mike Leigh added the Walk of the Planets this year, showing Earth's relationship to other planets in the solar system. The replicas of planets in proportional sizes are spaced along a 600 foot path that wanders through a wooded area behind the inn.

"It's 600 feet long because that's all I had to work with on our property," he said. It takes about 45 minutes to stroll along the walk and read the plaques.

Leigh has had a serious interest in astronomy for 30 years and is a self-taught astronomer. His degree is in business administration.

To create the planets, he used everyday materials. The sun, painted bright yellow, was made from a converted light globe, measuring 15.5 inches in diameter. A 0.125-inch-diameter BB shot was used for Earth, painted blue for the oceans and tan for continents.

For Jupiter, Leigh sanded a golf ball until it was smooth, then painted it with clouds and other variations.

Marbles were perfect sizes for Uranus and Neptune.

A Ping-Pong ball became Saturn. Leigh attached it to rings cut from sheet metal. "I made them sort of an illusion, as they would truly be."

The smaller planets presented more of a challenge. Leigh found tiny metal balls, all smaller than BB shot, for Mercury, Mars and Venus.

"I had to remake Mars three times because the birds kept stealing it," he said of the red planet. "It looks like a little berry to them."

For Pluto, he filed down a pinhead to make it smaller, until it was about 1/64th of an inch.

Clearly, Leigh loves stargazing. He is writing a book on astronomy that he estimates should take another two years. It will cover tips on observing stars and planets, along with trivia on astronomy.

"Since 1970, I've studied astronomy with a passion. I now teach teachers. They come here, from colleges and all grades," he said.

Stargazing and strolling the Walk of the Planets are lkimited to guests at the inn. One-hour guided sky tours are held nightly except on Thursdays and Sundays. Reservations are required.