Cosmic Calendars and the Powers of Ten

Recently, while visiting a showcase at a Herman Miller exhibit, I learned about Charles and Ray Eames–a power couple if there ever was one. Among their many contributions is a short movie they made together in 1968 (and released in 1977), a movie I’d seen but hadn’t realized who was behind it: the famous “Powers of Ten” video. It opens with a picnic; the narrator (voice by the famed physicist Phillip Morrison) says this:

We begin with a scene just one meter wide, viewed from just one meter away. Now every ten seconds we will look from ten times farther away, and our field of view will be ten times wider.

Powers of Ten

From there, it zooms out on a fast-paced journey until the screen encompasses superclusters and galaxies-upon-galaxies. And once there, you zoom back in to “our next goal, a proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin on the hand of a sleeping man in the picnic.”

On these scales, you can observe wonderful patterns. For example, in “Powers of Ten,” the narrator pauses to “notice the alternation between great activity and relative inactivity,” something he calls a rhythm. I love that: that the entire universe, as we zoom inward and outward, contains a rhythm–a “strong, regular, repeated pattern,” suggesting that even the universe has a pulse.

Powers of Ten seems related to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” which aired just three years later in 1980. He had an episode where he describes the Cosmic Calendar–a pedagogical exercise where he “compresses the local history of the universe into a single year,” a unit of time that most of us can grasp and hold onto. He goes on to highlight that “if the universe began on January 1st, it was not until May that the Milky Way formed,” and that our sun and earth formed sometime in September. Once he arrives at human history, he changes the scale “from months to minutes… each minute 30,000 years long.” It’s wonderful. (A recently updated version, incorporating newer science and CGI, is narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.)

As noted, both of these videos came out close to each other. I suspect they stem from a growing realization of the chronometric revolution–a term that David Christian coined to describe the development, in the middle of the twentieth century, of “new chronometric techniques, new ways of dating past events.” What did these new methods mean? “For the first time, these techniques allowed the construction of reliable chronologies extending back before the first written documents, before even the appearance of the first humans, back to the early days of our planet and even to the birth of the Universe as a whole.”

It seems to Eames and Sagan were both reacting to these new senses of scale: the vastness of both time and space, a vastness our human minds are ill-equipped to grasp and hande. A year, I understand. A billion? Not so much.

Other films since have grasped this, trying to help us get a “hook” into deep space and time. Some of these cinematic forays focus on narrative: not just what happened, but why, and how we ended up here. My favorite attempt at this is Big History Project, which draws a line from the Big Bang, to the formation of stars, to the explosion of new chemical elements, to the creation of planets, to the development of life, to the dawn of humanity, and beyond. At each of these moments, the themes of energy, complexity, thresholds, and “Goldilocks conditions” are used to show how something like us could have happened, especially in a universe ruled by entropy.

John Boswell’s Melodysheep films, especially his timelapse of the entire universe, is another telling: less focused on teaching and more focused on helping you feel something. The music, visuals, and speech combine to evoke a sense of the width and wonder of everything that’s happened since the Big Bang.

For me, videos like these create a kind of overview effect–a cognitive shift, where I start to realize how small I am–and how incredible (and fragile) existence is. And it all seems to have begun, at least cinematically, and for me,with the Eames’ wonderful video.