Powers of Ten
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To most people, the Eames name brings to mind rows and rows of molded plywood chairs and Herman Miller furniture from the 1950’s. But the Eameses were more than just designers of furniture, they were masters of exploration and experimentation into the realm of experience. Ray and Charles Eames used many media to model experience and ideas. The model was a key tool in their design process which allowed them to walk through an experience and offered a way to visualize the possibilities and the layers of meaning. One of the modeling tools they used quite frequently was film.
Between 1950 and 1982, Charles and Ray Eames produced over 125 films, beginning with abstracted and poignant meditations on various kinds of toys and later delving into mathematical concepts, computers, architecture, and history. Much like their furniture designs, the Eames films aimed to “get the best to the most for the least…to reach the greatest number of people,” and prioritized clarity, approachability, and idealism over any romantic notions of tradition or pure innovation within the medium of film. The films were meant to have wide appeal and distilled complex ideas into efficient and orderly maxims that fit into the Eames aesthetic of simplicity, integrity and beauty of form. The exploration into film helped them explore an idea, work out the presentation and the layers of information and understand a process or theory. The Eameses often carried an idea through multiple versions in order to find the right approach to a problem.
A film could be a model, not simply a presentation of an idea, but a way of working it out. Looking back at the way their office worked, there was a constant sense that the best way to understand a process was to carry it all the way through. For example, in the creation of the project that became the film “Powers of Ten,” first came a test known as “Truck Test,” then the production of “Rough Sketch”, which was a model of the idea of the journey in spatial scale. Only by carrying the idea all the way through could one see the right way to approach the problem. And, indeed, the final version of “Powers of Ten” has quite a few differences. But both films are models in a more important sense: they are models of the idea of scale. Because such Eames models managed to capture the essence of the problem, they were in fact quite satisfying in their own right.
“One principle at a time, little by little, and they’ll educate the whole world. As usual, they are exemplary in their concision, clarity, and charm.”
Powers of Ten
We hear about scale every day, whether it be supertankers, stars burning thousands of lightyears away, the study of microscopic viruses, or global warming. Understanding scale, or as the Eameses said, “the effect of adding another zero,” has the power to make us better scholars and better citizens. Charles and Ray’s documentary, “Powers of Ten,” has been seen as an exemplar for teaching and understanding the importance of scale for nearly four decades.
Perhaps their most successful film, “The Powers of Ten” is one such model into the nature of scale. The first full length version, developed in 1968 for the annual meeting of the Commission on College Physics, went under the title, “A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of the Universe.” (8 minutes; color, 1968).
In 1977, with the help of Philip and Phylis Morrisons, perhaps the best known couple to the scientific community, the Eameses updated and refined the work under the new title, “The Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero” (9 minutes; color, 1977). The film was inspired by the book “Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps” by Kees Boeke, a Dutch school teacher. It sought to visualize the relative size relationships of elements through space and time and expose what happens when you add another zero to the equation. Before “Powers of Ten”, the Eameses made a film in 1952 titled A Communications Primer which used the idea of powers of ten to visualize large numbers. In 1961 one of the early ‘mathematical peepshows’ introduced the binary system and the powers of two.
The “Powers of Ten” also represents a way of thinking—of seeing the interrelatedness of all things in our universe. It is about math, science and physics, about art, music and literature. It is about how we live, how scale operates in our lives and how seeing and understanding our world from the next largest or next smallest vantage point broadens our perspective and deepens our understanding.
This first “Rough Sketch” version of the film has two clocks in the corner showing the comparison between the viewer's time and that of earth time. As the viewer's speed increases, earth time, relative to the viewer, also increases. There is also a 1968 National Film Board of Canada film entitled Cosmic Zoom which covers the same subject using animation. It is wordless, using sped-up music during the return trips to normal size.
The final film, “Powers of Ten,” begins with an overhead view of a man and woman picnicking in a park at the Chicago lakefront — a one-meter-square overhead image of the figures on a blanket surrounded by food and books they brought with them, one of them being The Voices of Time by J. T. Fraser. The man (played by Swiss designer Paul Bruhwiler) then sleeps, while the woman (played by Eames staffer Etsu Garfias) starts to read one of the books. The viewpoint, accompanied by expository voiceover by Philip Morrison, then slowly zooms out to a view ten meters across.
The zoom-out continues at a rate of one power of ten per 10 seconds, to a view of 100 meters, where they are shown to be in Burnham Park, near Soldier Field, then 1 kilometer, where we see the entirety of Chicago, and so on, increasing the perspective and continuing to zoom out to a field of view of 1024 meters, or the size of the observable universe. The camera then zooms back in at a rate of a power of ten per 2 seconds to the picnic, and then slows back down to its original rate into the man's hand, to views of negative powers of ten, 10−1 meter and so forth, revealing a skin cell and zooming in on it until the camera comes to quarks in a proton of a carbon atom at 10−16 meter.
In the book form of “Powers of Ten,” the reader is strongly advised to read the essay entitled ‘Looking at the World’ at the beginning, before delving into the main body of the text with its very attractive pictures. As the authors say here: "The images finely perceived by eye and brain in a sense span the scientific knowledge of our times. Behind every representation stands much more than can be imaged, including concepts of a subtle and often perplexing kind. Yet it is probably true that the linked conceptual structures of science are not more central to an overall understanding than the visual models we can prepare."
The book itself is a sequence of stills from the movie. Each page has a picture drawn on a length scale ten times smaller than its predecessor. Perhaps it is a reminder that the contents of the book date back to the seventies: for today particle physicists routinely go down another fifteen powers and more adventurously to six more. The last frontier today stops at the so-called quantum gravity limit where the concept of space and time and geometry that play key roles in Einstein's theory of relativity break down. It is awe-inspiring that compared to us humans this smallest frontier is further away on the scale of powers of ten than the largest one of the expanding universe.
The exploration of information presented in the “Rough Sketch” and in the final “Powers of Ten,” speaks to the value of models that the Eameses used to explain their ideas about information organization and presentation. The imagery explores both size relationships and time. It explores the visual relationships of elements and developing patterns that emerge at different scales. The control panel (in the “Rough Sketch”) that is always present on the screen visualizes another six levels of information at its peak.
The combination of imagery and the control panels explores the nature of simultaneous presentation of information. The Eameses push the boundaries of what can be taken in and understood at any one time, they play with the notion of information overload and information absorption. The 1968 version (“Rough Sketch”) explores more levels of simultaneous information than the 1977 final version, in which the panel display is reduced to its most essential information and relocated for better comprehension and retention.
Sponsored by IBM, the film was one of the many efforts that the Eameses worked on to bring science, technology and art together in a way the average person could understand. The Eameses approached the problem in universal terms (to please the ten-year-old as well as the nuclear physicist) and, as in designing a chair, sought to find what was most common to their experience. Sophisticated scientific data was not the denominator (although the film had to handle such matters with complete accuracy to maintain credibility), but it was the inchoate ‘gut feeling’ of new physics which even the most jaded scientist, as Eames says ‘had never quite seen in this way before.’
The series of films offers lessons on successful presentation and explorations of layered information. The information problems explored through film, by the Eameses, are really no different than many of the problems facing information architects today. Using different media and methods in prototyping and modeling of ideas, as well as presenting layers of information in a way that is simple and elegant, the Eameses succeeded in their original goals:
“The sketch should, Eames decided, appeal to a ten-year-old as well as a physicist; it should contain a ‘gut feeling’ about dimensions in time and space as well as a sound theoretical approach to those dimensions.”
To apply Powers of Ten to real life, we need to be able to scale up and scale down as we design: to consider both the granularity of the things we are designing as well as the much larger contexts within which they exist.
A designer considering urban mobility may start at the level of 101 and consider only the automobile. But zoom out a bit, and you realize that it’s essential to think not just of the automobile, but also of other competing modes of transportation — buses, bicycles, pedestrians, skateboards — that may determine the speed and feasibility of movement. Zoom out to 103, and you must understand the dynamics of the neighborhood, and the impact that automobile traffic has on livability, public health, or retail viability.
At 104 the metropolitan area comes into view, and so do issues of individual versus mass transit. At 105 we confront national policies that subsidize road-building and the suburban sprawl that often results, frequently at the expense of urban density. At 107 we realize that our per-capita ownership rate of automobiles, all powered by fossil fuels, is unsustainable as a global lifestyle export. And so on.
The point here is not to get mesmerized — or worse, paralyzed — by the vertiginous ascent through layers of compounding complexity. Instead, Powers of Ten instructs us that before we design, we must try to take account of all of these layers and more if we are going to intervene meaningfully into the seemingly simple and local issue of mobility.
The challenge, then, is to deploy the necessary conceptual analytics to figure out at what power of ten it is optimal to intervene. The Eames have simply illustrated the conundrum; it is our responsibility to figure out what to do next.
“COMMUNICATION IS THAT WHICH LINKS ANY ORGANISM TOGETHER"