Sunday, October 15, 2017

Powers of Ten (1977)

The new Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science opened a few months ago.  Back before it moved to its current location, it was located right at the southern end of I-95.  I remember going there as a child a lot.  One of the things I remember was this dark room with a film called Powers of Ten, made by Charles and Ray Eames.

The concept is simple.  It starts out in  Soldier Field in Chicago with a couple having a picnic.  The filed of view is a square with text on either side.  On the left shows the distance, vertically, in numbers.  (We start with a square one meter by one meter.)  On the right side is the same information, horizontally, in powers of ten.  (Instead of 1 meter across, it’s shown as 100 meters.

The narrator explains that as we zoom out, the distance across the square increases by one power of ten every ten seconds, so that after one second, we’re at 10 meters, then 100 and so on.  After a few minutes, we make it to 1024 meters, which makes our entire galaxy no more than a distant point of light.  We then zoom back in reducing a power of ten every 2 seconds until we’re back to 1 meter across.  We then work inward until the field of view is 10-16 meters across.

The entire film is a short 9 minutes, but it imparts the sense of scale quite well.  We go form a normal size to a very vast scale, then down to a very small scale.  The movie was made in 1977, which probably would have made for a smaller upper and lower limit, but it’s still pretty vast.  The last few lines of the narration point out that the film covers 40 orders of magnitude.  It’s a bit much to comprehend, even after watching the movie.

While I grew up watching the film a lot, I don’t recall many other children mentioning it.  In fact, I only recall having a conversation about it once where the other kid mistook the narrator’s voice for the voice of Winnie the Pooh.  (To be fair, Phil Morrison does sound like the voice from the Disney films, but I don’t think he ever actually voiced the character.)  The web comic xkcd did reference it once, which I would take to mean that the film has a certain amount of prominence.  However it’s not the kind of thing I’d expect to see on TV or even on Netflix.  (You can rent this film as part of a DVD set, but I don’t think you can get it streaming.   I have seen it on YouTube, though.)

It’s worth noting that there was an earlier version, released in 1968.  I haven’t seen this one yet, although I imagine it might also be available through YouTube.  I have seen both offered on one DVD through Amazon, so I know that both versions are available.

I still think of this short every so often and go to watch it on YouTube.  Maybe one day, I’ll get around to purchasing it on Amazon.  I wonder if it was carried over to the new science museum.  If I ever get the chance to visit, I’ll have to check it out.

Official site (Eames Office)

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