Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten Updated to Reflect Our Modern Understanding of the Universe

We’ve expe­ri­enced some mind­blow­ing tech­no­log­i­cal advances in the years fol­low­ing design­ers Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 film Pow­ers of Ten: A Film Deal­ing with the Rel­a­tive Size of Things in the Uni­verse and the Effect of Adding Anoth­er Zero.




And y’know, all sorts of inno­v­a­tive strides in the fields of med­i­cinecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, and envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

In the above video for the BBC, par­ti­cle physi­cist Bri­an Cox pays trib­ute to the Eames’ cel­e­brat­ed eight-and-a-half-minute doc­u­men­tary short, and uses the dis­cov­er­ies of the last four-and-a-half decades to kick the can a bit fur­ther down the road.

The orig­i­nal film helped ordi­nary view­ers get a han­dle on the universe’s out­er edges by tele­scop­ing up and out from a one-meter view of a pic­nic blan­ket in a Chica­go park at the rate of one pow­er of ten every 10 sec­onds.

Start with some­thing every­body can under­stand, right?

At 100 (102) meters — slight­ly less than the total length of an Amer­i­can foot­ball field, the pic­nick­ers become part of the urban land­scape, shar­ing their space with cars, boats at anchor in Lake Michi­gan, and a shock­ing dearth of fel­low pic­nick­ers.

One more pow­er of 10 and the pick­nick­ers dis­ap­pear from view, eclipsed by Sol­dier Field, the Shedd Aquar­i­um, the Field Muse­um and oth­er long­stand­ing down­town Chica­go insti­tu­tions.

At 1024 meters — 100 mil­lion light years away from the start­ing pic­nic blan­ket, the Eames butted up against the lim­its of the observ­able uni­verse, at least as far as 1977 was con­cerned.

They reversed direc­tion, hurtling back down to earth by one pow­er of ten every two sec­onds. With­out paus­ing for so much as hand­ful of fruit or a slice of pie, they dove beneath the skin of a doz­ing picnicker’s hand, con­tin­u­ing their jour­ney on a cel­lu­lar, then sub-atom­ic lev­el, end­ing inside a pro­ton of a car­bon atom with­in a DNA mol­e­cule in a white blood cell.

It still man­ages to put the mind in a whirl.

Sit tight, though, because, as Pro­fes­sor Cox points out, “Over 40 years lat­er, we can show a bit more.”

2021 relo­cates the pic­nic blan­ket to a pic­turesque beach in Sici­ly, and for­goes the trip inside the human body in favor of Deep Space, though the method of trav­el remains the same — expo­nen­tial, by pow­ers of ten.

1013 meters finds us head­ing into inter­stel­lar space, on the heels of Voy­agers 1 and 2, the twin space­crafts launched the same year as the Eames’ Pow­ers of Ten — 1977.

Hav­ing achieved their ini­tial objec­tive, the explo­ration of Jupiter and Sat­urn, these space­crafts’ mis­sion was expand­ed to Uranus, Nep­tune, and now, the out­er­most edge of the Sun’s domain. The data they, and oth­er explorato­ry crafts, have sent back allow Cox and oth­ers in the  sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty to take us beyond the Eames’ out­er­most lim­its:

At 1026 meters, we switch our view to microwave. We can now see the cur­rent lim­it of our vision. This light forms a wall all around us. The light and dark patch­es show dif­fer­ences in tem­per­a­ture by frac­tions of a degree, reveal­ing where mat­ter was begin­ning to clump togeth­er to form the first galax­ies short­ly after the Big Bang. This light is known as the cos­mic microwave back­ground radi­a­tion. 

1027 meters…1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Beyond this point, the nature of the Uni­verse is tru­ly unchart­ed and debat­ed. This light was emit­ted around 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Before this time, the Uni­verse was so hot that it was not trans­par­ent to light. Is there sim­ply more uni­verse out there, yet to be revealed? Or is this region still expand­ing, gen­er­at­ing more uni­verse, or even oth­er uni­vers­es with dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal prop­er­ties to our own? How will our under­stand­ing of the Uni­verse have changed by 2077? How many more pow­ers of ten are out there?

Accord­ing to NASA, the Voy­ager crafts have suf­fi­cient pow­er and fuel to keep their “cur­rent suite of sci­ence instru­ments on” for anoth­er four years, at least. By then, Voy­ager 1 will be about 13.8 bil­lion miles, and Voy­ager 2 some 11.4 bil­lion miles from the Sun:

In about 40,000 years, Voy­ager 1 will drift with­in 1.6 light-years (9.3 tril­lion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the con­stel­la­tion of Camelopardalis which is head­ing toward the con­stel­la­tion Ophi­uchus. In about 40,000 years, Voy­ager 2 will pass 1.7 light-years (9.7 tril­lion miles) from the star Ross 248 and in about 296,000 years, it will pass 4.3 light-years (25 tril­lion miles) from Sir­ius, the bright­est star in the sky. The Voy­agers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wan­der the Milky Way.

If this dizzy­ing infor­ma­tion makes you yearn for 1987’s sim­ple plea­sures, this Way­back Machine link includes a fun inter­ac­tive for the orig­i­nal Pow­ers of Ten. Click the “show text” option on an expo­nen­tial slid­er tool to con­sid­er the scale of each stop in his­toric and tan­gi­ble con­text.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan’s “The Pale Blue Dot” Ani­mat­ed

Watch Pow­ers of Ten and Let Design­ers Charles & Ray Eames Take You on a Bril­liant Tour of the Uni­verse

Watch Oscar-Nom­i­nat­ed Doc­u­men­tary Uni­verse, the Film that Inspired the Visu­al Effects of Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001 and Gave the HAL 9000 Com­put­er Its Voice (1960)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (3)
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  • Robert Mudry says:

    I recall see­ing an ear­li­er ver­sion of “Pow­ers of Ten” shot in B&W dur­ing my fresh­man year in col­lege (1972)

  • Jeff Mills says:

    Nice. If I remem­ber cor­rect­ly the orig­i­nal also went down/in as well. Down to the quan­tum scale

  • Harold LEWY says:

    Teach­ing about bound­aries + rel­a­tiv­i­ty. I have a pilot group next week, that I would like to sug­gest this BBC pro­duc­tion become part of the pro­posed course. may I please use this film with my group?
    thank you

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