“Powers of Ten” : Honoring the 40th Anniversary of the Existential Masterpiece

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Powers of Ten, the profound experimental film created by the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, one of the great design teams (husband and wife) of the mid-20th century. Long considered one of the best science films of all time, Powers of Ten was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1998. But, Powers of Ten is much more than a significant science film. In my view, Powers of Ten is one of the greatest films ever made about the existential and philosophical conditions we face in a vast, majestic, and awe-inspiring universe, as revealed by modern science and technology.

Powers of Ten is subtitled “A Film About the Relative Size of Things and the Effect of Adding a Zero” and history repeatedly has told us the film is merely an elegant scientific observation of the importance of scale in understanding the size of things in the universe — as if there is no need to philosophically consider what we’re looking at and what it means for our species, peering deep into the cosmos from our tiny planet. A mere eight-minutes long, Powers of Ten is a visual masterpiece of art and science, while posing the ultimate challenge to secular philosophy.

Brief Back Story

Based on Cosmic View (the 1957 book by Kees Boeke), Powers of Ten was produced for IBM in the same year that Voyager was launched to explore the outer planets and eventually exit the solar system. In 1968, the Eames office produced a prototype entitled A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing With the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. 1968 marked the year that NASA first sent humans to the moon with the Apollo 8 voyage, who famously captured the Earthrise image. Never before or since has humanity’s place in the cosmos be more in the forefront of human consciousness than in the years 1968 and 1969, with Apollo 8’s famed photo and the Apollo 11 moon landing—with Neil Armstrong stepping off the lunar module and stating: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Cosmic Zoom Out

Powers of Ten begins with an everyday setting, a young couple having a picnic on a “lazy afternoon” in Chicago. The camera’s perspective immediately moves above the couple, looking down directly on them as they relax after eating. Beginning at one meter above the picnic, the perspective zooms back by a factor of ten every ten seconds, as if adding a zero to the distance each time — from 1 meter to 10 meters, to 100 meters, to 1000, and eventually 100,000,000 light years. We zoom out above Chicago, the Great Lakes, and the American Midwest, the Whole Earth, and then the solar system, the Milky Way, and on through the cosmos.

The couple and everything on Earth disappears into the cosmic vanishing point. The film then halts, asking us to contemplate the cosmic view: 100,000,000 light years across a vast and largely empty panorama, with each galaxy cluster receding away into the cosmic void. The narrator summarizes:

This lonely scene, with galaxies like dust, is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal. The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception.

Quantum Zoom In

After the moment of cosmic vastness, Powers of Ten moves back through the cosmos to the picnic and then into the hand of the man. Then by zooming in by a factor of ten every ten seconds, we move ever deeper into the tiniest components of human life: from the skin into a capillary, and then a white blood cell, the cell nucleus, the DNA double helix, and a carbon atom. We zoom through the quantum swarm of electrons, through the vast expanse of near-nothingness between the electrons and the carbon nucleus, into the proton, and then the quarks. The narrator then summarizes the atomic and cosmic relations:

We are in the domain of universal modules. There are protons and neutrons in every nucleus, electrons in every atom, atoms bonded in every molecule out to the farthest galaxy.

What is so astonishing is that the emptiness in the atomic structure at the quantum scale looks much like the emptiness surrounding the intergalactic structures at the cosmic scale, the scale of 100,000,000 light years. That similarity in emptiness/nothingness at vastly different scales is one reason Powers of Ten is about much more than science. It’s about the vanishing point for the dominant narratives and ideologies that humans use to derive their origins, meanings, purposes, and destinies. That’s the ultimate greatness of Powers of Ten.

Into the Vanishing Point

The concept of the vanishing point helps us fully appreciate the power and meaning of Powers of Ten, while visualizing a different perspective on the trajectories of science, philosophy, and modernity.

The vanishing point first appeared with Filippo Brunelleschi’s three-dimensional perspective and Isaac Newton’s clockwork cosmos, both of which extended space and time along linear gradients, from a single perspective and a single moment, beyond the horizons of distance (space) and future (time). Brunelleschi’s vanishing point permitted artists to represent three spatial dimensions on a two-dimensional canvas, with the eye extending toward the distant vanishing point in space, the point containing the rest of the universe. Newton’s laws of motion extended the mind’s eye toward the vanishing point in time, the cosmic destiny in a scientific equation, beyond which was the infinite future.

Powers of Ten provides the single greatest vanishing point in the history of art and science. As we zoom out in Powers of Ten, the rest of human existence and most of the universe enter that single point, the vanishing point, a cosmos within a nothingness. We go from the center of everything to the center of nothing. In that vanishing point are the edges of space and time, the endless edges between today and tomorrow, between the present and the future. As with the Apollo triumphs, Powers of Ten shows that humanity’s dominant narratives are based on narcissistic nonsense, that our origins, purpose, and destiny are not the product of Creators or any pretense to cosmic centrality. There is no other existential or philosophical conclusion to draw from Powers of Ten and this conclusion has been confirmed by the Hubble Space Telescope, especially the “Deep Field” images.

Powers of Ten in the 21st Century

In the decades since Powers of Ten, secular philosophy has yet to generate a widely-accepted narrative that maps a future and meaningful destiny for humanity in the vast universe as we know it, a web of matter and energy extending from atoms to galaxies and including all life on Earth. The Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 was the pinnacle moment for secularism. As I explain in Chapter 3 of my new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), we are deeply immersed in a “post-Apollo” culture, where art and science are accelerating forward, bur our ideologies are retreating from the universal back toward the tribal.

So while Powers of Ten offers us sublimated hope for enlightenment, secular philosophy has retreated its own vanishing point, from global enlightenment to personal entertainment, offering little more than a planetary consumer society, where tribal identities are celebrated and serviced with an endless array of brands, products, celebrities, sports teams, entertainment choices, and so on. After all, the most popular secular philosophers and critics are comedians! On the planet that disappears into the vanishing point in Powers of Ten, the universal narrative is overwhelmed by the 24/7 spectacle of tribes jostling for power, dominance, and occasional equality, while the post-Apollo “Whole Earth” ecological narrative hardly stands a chance against the cosmic narcissism of the spectacle and consumer society.

Nevertheless, other films and videos have depicted a similar cosmic zoom, such as:

— the Oscar-nominated Cosmic Voyage (1996), narrated by Morgan Freeman.

— the science-fiction film Contact (1997), starring Jodie Foster and based on Carl Sagan’s best-selling book.

The Known Universe (2009), produced by the American Museum of Natural History.

These films have the benefit of vastly improved computers and special effects technologies—but, for my money, Powers of Ten is still the greatest as a work of art and science. Powers of Ten elegantly depicts our ultimate existential conditions, scaling across forty orders of magnitude and stretching from the quantum nothingness in our atoms to the cosmic nothingness of the universe. There is no exit from the nothingnesses—but in between, some stardust has attained consciousness on a planet orbiting a star and we are struggling to make meaning of human existence amid the immensity. As shown in Powers of Ten, we are very smart and face the paradox of our greatest intellectual achievement—we have discovered a vast and wondrous universe in which we are utterly insignificant and perhaps meaningless in the vast emptinesses.

It’s time to grow up. It’s time accept the challenge of Powers of Ten and its hopeful merger of art and science. What’s needed is an equally hopeful secular philosophy that embraces this cosmology and challenge.

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Barry Vacker is author of the new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), which offers an inspiring philosophy and vision of humanity’s future in space and on Earth. The book is available in Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble (here), and Amazon (here).

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.

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