When scientists speak of “astronomical distances,” they’re usually referring to things that are so mind-bogglingly far away that we humans have a really hard time understanding it.
Even astronomers have a tough time grasping the scale of distances between the stars, much less the incomprehensible void between the galaxies. Similarly, the incredibly tiny sizes of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles is so far removed from everyday experience as to be almost meaningless.
How can you possibly wrap your brain around the range of sizes in the universe? One very good attempt is a remarkable short film called “Powers of Ten,” made in 1977 by the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames for IBM. The film starts with a square image, showing a 1-by-1 meter section of an ordinary picnic blanket, occupied by a couple enjoying an afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan. The camera quickly pulls back until the screen shows an area 10 meters square. Thereafter, every 10 seconds the camera is 10 times farther away, showing an area 10 times as wide. In the language of mathematics, each of those jumps is one “power of 10.”
In a little over a minute, the entire Earth is visible, and quickly the entire solar system is in the square. At this rapidly accelerating rate, the camera view soon shows the entire galaxy, then clusters of galaxies and finally the entire visible universe. The film then reverses itself, zooming back inward to the man in the picnic scene. It continues inward, magnifying the scene by 10 times every 10 seconds, eventually ending up inside a single proton.
The animation and visual effects in the film are — by today’s standards — somewhat simplistic, but in my opinion, “Powers of Ten” is one of the best ways to get a sense of the incredible scale of the universe, from the unbelievably huge to the inconceivably small.
Check it out below. (It’s also available on DVD thru Amazon.)
Story originally posted April 5, 2010. © 2015 Michael and Denise Okuda.
“Powers of Ten” is a remarkable film designed to help us see the scale of the universe, from the very large clusters of galaxies to the unimaginably tiny components of a single proton.