No, That Vortex GIF Going Viral Isn't Accurate

Does it matter? And where did it come from?

by Josie Rhodes Cook

Space fans on Twitter have been especially captivated by an animated GIF since August 18, depicting a “representation of how the planets revolve around the sun.” The GIF, posted by Roberto Alonso González Lezcano, a teacher at San Pablo CEU University, has completely won the hearts of the internet in a way that’s usually reserved for adorable cat videos or inspiring internet challenges.

But why did this particular GIF go viral? González Lezcano tells Inverse he believes it’s because “The idea of the movement of the planets, the galaxy, the constellations, the stars will always be a topic of interest to all the curious people who like the scientific world and not only them, but most people.”

But the truth is, the GIF may not be all that accurate. In fact, astronomer and science blogger Phil Plait was so annoyed by the original video from which the GIF was pulled, that he wrote an entire article for Slate back in 2013 about how it’s “wrong. And not just superficially; it’s deeply wrong, based on a very wrong premise.” And several of the replies to González Lezcano’s viral tweet — which had more than 8,600 retweets and 21,000 likes as of Monday — linked to the Slate article debunking the video.

But the internet might not care so much about the scientific specifics; the GIF that’s going viral for a second time in five years is a fun illustration of something so many people continue to be fascinated by — outer space.

What’s the Source of This Viral GIF?

The most recent viral tweet depicting the GIF making the rounds was posted by González Lezcano. He tells Inverse, “I have the perception that the GIF type formats come more easily to people, because our time is valuable, it is a way of approaching a concept in a few seconds and at the same time it is didactic.”

But it looks like the GIF was actually made from a video created by DJ Sadhu back in 2012. Sadhu posted the video to YouTube years ago, and captioned it, “This is a non-conventional view of our solar system that is different from the standard ‘flat’ diagrams. We travel, never return to the same spot again.”

What Does the GIF Show?

The GIF supposedly depicts a model of how the planets revolve around the sun. But as Plait observed back in March 2013;

Sadhu shows the Sun leading the planets, ahead of them as it goes around the galaxy…This is not just misleading, it’s completely wrong.

He adds later:

In the helical model, he shows the planets as orbiting around the Sun perpendicular to the motion of the Sun around the galaxy; “face-on”, if you like. This is wrong. Because the orbits of the planets are tipped by 60°, not 90°, they can sometimes be ahead and sometimes behind the Sun. That right there, and all by itself, shows this helical depiction is incorrect.

Why is the GIF Going Viral?

It’s not entirely clear why González Lezcano’s GIF that looks like it came from Sadhu’s video has gone viral, a half-decade after Sadhu initially posted the video. It appears that González Lezcano posts all sorts of videos, GIFs, and other images involving science on his Twitter account, and this one just happened to capture the attention of the internet at just the right time for it to be spread far and wide.

The answer may be as simple as the fact that most humans still don’t totally understand what’s going on in the skies above us, and a simple model like the one González Lezcano posted appeals to our collective curiosity. But it’s always best to keep in mind that not everything that appears to be based in fact on social media is, in fact, factual.

This article was updated with quotes from González Lezcano on August 29, 2018.