Powers Of Ten Film By Eames

Read here about the two films by Eames called "Powers of Ten." It is these films that set the benchmark for a superscale survey.


The 1960’s film “Powers of Ten” by the husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames (Eames 1968) was based on the 1957 book by Kees Boeke (Boeke 1957). Produced for a conference of physicists, the film imparts a visceral and transformative sense of place in the world. Scenes of varying distance are rendered in a continuous zoomed sequence, in order of discrete multiples of ten. It opens on two actors having a picnic, then zooms out until you reach the limits of the observable universe. The zoom then reverses, returning to the picnic blanket, then within a picnicker's hand until the limits of the observable universe are reached again. Scale follows scale in an additive sequence of powers of ten yielding a multiplicative sequence of scales, one meter followed by ten meters, and so on, until a superscale understanding is achieved. The film was deemed a great success, and IBM distributed a revised and even more lauded version in 1977 (Eames 1977).

A selection of scenes from a pasted up timeline by Eames is shown below: the bold lines and groupings made by Eames reflect operational differences of scale that are discussed further below.


A photographic reproduction of a paper chart plotting sequences of powers of ten, prepared by Charles Eames for the production of the first film. c. 1977, Manuscript Division (E-03r), Library of Congress Exhibition on Eames

Table Of Scenes Of Scale

Table of screenplay scenes in the film (this list is the same in the Eames's film, book and exhibit).
Power of Ten
Far extreme of time and space in Cosmology
Empty space, distant galaxies like clotted dust
Virgo Cluster of galaxies
Galactic companionship: Local Group of galaxies with Andromeda and 30 others
Milky Way with the Clouds of Magellan and 14 dwarf galaxies
Milky Way galaxy spiral
Milky Way galaxy structure and its rich broth of stars.
Within the disk of the Galaxy.
Stars. Interstellar space.
Distance to our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri.
A light year. One central star, the sun.
Great cloud of icy comets, the Oort Cloud
Celestial neighborhood of the Solar System
Outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune)
Inner planets with portions of Jupiter’s orbit
Inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars), path Earth travels in six weeks
Pth Earth and Moon travel in four days
The Earth and Moon
Path Earth travels in one hour
The Earth.
A region, state, province, or small country: Lake Michigan
A city: Metropolitan area of Chicago.
A town or village
Largest living organisms, buildings, ships
Community, the built environment, a field
People, human companionship
A hand
Skin, delicate flowers, small creatures, width of an adult fingernail
Creases of the skin
Precision surgery and fine blood vessels
White blood cell, a lymphocyte
Membrane of a lymphocyte cell nucleus
Portion of a chromosome
DNA double helix, an individual gene or simple virus
Base pairs of DNA
Outer electron shell of a carbon atom.
Innermost electron shell of a carbon atom.
Gamma ray wavelength
Carbon atom nucleus
Inner structure of the proton
Domain within which quarks operate
A quark, electron or positron

Critical evaluation

According to Shrader, Powers of Ten was a “sketch film” to be presented at an assembly of one thousand of America’s top physicists. 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. The solution was a continuous zoom from the farthest known point in space to the nucleus of a carbon atom resting in a man’s wrist lying on Miami Beach…. A dispassionate female voice—a robot stewardess—describes every second of the journey in full, rapid detail. … The interstellar roller-coaster ride of Powers of Ten does what the analogous sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey should have: it gives the full impact—instinctual as well as cerebral—of contemporary scientific theories. It popularizes (in the best sense of the word) post-Einsteinian thought the way the telescope popularized Copernicus; and the effect is almost as upsetting… Just as the vacationing hayseed begins to think of himself as a citizen of the world rather than of just Sioux Center, and the jet-setter begins to think of himself as a citizen of the world rather than of just the United States, so the time-space traveler of Powers of Ten thinks of himself as a citizen of the universe, an unbounded territory.. Eames 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… 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.” .
A film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero, made by the office of Charles and Ray Eames for IBM. Re-released and copyrighted 1977.
Jim Hoekema worked on the film at the Eames office. He wrote, “Lucia (Charles’ daughter from his first marriage) observes, the film is a model that can be informative in multiple ways: is it a film that uses the universe to tell about numbers? Or a film that uses numbers to tell about the universe? (Obviously, both.)” [comment on http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/learning_from_the_powers_of_ten retrieved 15 May 2011 0333 GMT]
Eames said, “I have never looked upon any of our films as being scientific, but at the same time I have never considered them less philosophical than scientific.” Eames: “Fiction in this case is used as a model or simulation against which to try out possible reactions.” (Paul Shrader, Poetry of an Idea)

Excerpts From The Movie

Below are transcripts of the film's narrated text. Note that these texts and the film are the sole property of the Eames office and are cited here for research purposes only.


The size and scale of a quark – also the dimensions of electrons and positrons, the smallest particles known. Some scientists believe the journey in scale may continue still further toward the structures popularly described as “string theory.”


This is the domain within which quarks operate. Important: our representations of the quark and its realm only symbolize these scales. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle tells us we can never know both the position and the momentum of such a particle at the same time.


At the time the film "Powers of Ten" was made 10^-16 meters was the scale at which the journey faded to black, still pushing forward into the mystery. At that time the quark theory seemed promising, but still fairly speculative. Today, all 6 hypothesized quarks have been found.


1 fermi is roughly the size of a proton or a neutron, two of the universal modules that combine to make up matter throughout our universe. The proton was discovered in 1919 by Lord Rutherford and the neutron by James Chadwick in 1932.


10 fermis is roughly the diameter of the tremendously dense atomic nucleus of this carbon atom. Carbon is present in all organic molecules.

as a single proton fills our scene we reach the edge of present understanding. are these some quarks in intense interaction? Our journey has taken us through forty powers of ten, if now the field is one unit then, when we saw many clusters of galxies together, it was ten to the fortieth, or one and forty zeroes.

Minute and massive kernel of this particular carbon atom.
The vast nothing in the realms between the nucleus and its orbiting electrons. The charged particles of the nucleus are in the distant center – all part of the atomic scale.

we are in the domain of universal modules. there are protons and neutrons in every nucleus. electrons in every atom. atoms bonded into every molecule out to the farthest galaxy.


Across this inner space act the forces that keep the electrons in the thrall of the nucleus. A wavelength of light this long (or short) is called a gamma ray.

At last the carbon nucleus, so massive and so small this carbon nucleus is made up of six protons and six neutrons.


This is the scale of the innermost shell of electrons. These are NOT specific electrons we see here but, rather, a suggestion of their activity.

As we draw toward the atom's attracting center we enter upon a vast inner space.


The scale of the outermost shell of electrons, which in turn is part of the bond to the three hydrogen atoms around it. These are NOT specific electrons we see here but, rather, their suggestion. A beam of light with a wavelength this long would be an X-ray.
100 picometers = 1 angstrom

at ten to the minus ten meters, one angstrom, we find ourselves right among those outer electrons. Now we come upon the two inner electrons held in a tighter swarm.


The scale of the base pairs of DNA, the building blocks of the genetic message and fundamental unit of the mechanism of heredity.
1 nanometer = 10 angstroms

four electrons make up the outer shell of the carbon itself. They appear in quantum motion as a swarm of shimering points.


The scale of individual genes and simple viruses.
10 nanometers = 100 angstroms

At the atomic scale the interplay of form and motion becomes more visible. we focus on one commonplace goup of three hrydrogen atoms bonded by electrical forces to a carbon atom


A portion of a chromosome.
100 nanometers = 1000 angstroms

As we close in we come to the double helix itself a molecule like a long twisted ladder whose rungs of paired bases spell out twice, in an alphabet of four letters, the words of the powerful genetic message.


The wall of the cell nucleus.

the nucleus within holds the herdity of the man in the folded coils of DNA.


A Ruffly Lymphocyte, which is a type of white blood cell. There are about 10^23 cells in the human body, and this size is typical of most of them.

we enter the white cell . among its vital organelles the porous wall of the cell nucleus appears


The scale of precision surgery and fine blood vessels.

Skin layers vanish in turn, an outer layer of cells, felty feet collagen. A capillary cotaining red bllod cells and a ruffly lymphocyte.


The scale of the creases of the skin – the white blood cell seen at 10^-05 meters is in a capillary just below the surface of this image. The perforations on postage stamp rolls are about this size.

In a few seconds we will be entering the skin, crossing layer after layer of the outermost dead cell to a tiny blood vessel within.


The seemingly fractal surface of the skin. This is the scale of delicate flowers and small creatures; the approximate width of an adult’s fingernail.

At ten to the minus two, one one hundredth meter, one centimeter, we approach the surface of the hand.


This scale is now intimate but familiar to our naked eye; it is the scale of the sleeping man’s hand and what could be held within it.

Now we reduce the distance to our final destination by 90% every ten seconds, each step smaller than the one before.


The welcoming scale of the picnic. This is the human scale, the scale of human companionship, conversation, touch. We bring all the other orders of magnitude into our human scale for consideration.

The picnic by a lakeside in Chicago is the start of a lazy afternoon early one October… We begin with a scene one meter wide which we view from just one meter away. No, every ten seconds we will from ten times farther away, and our field of view will be ten times wider.


The scale of this field and of human habitations. Most buildings seem to be within this order of magnitude.

This square is ten meters wide, and in ten seconds the next square will be ten times as wide. Our picture will center on the picnickers, even after they’ve been lost to sight.


A scale that contains most of the biggest living organisms, buildings, and ships. A sprinter can run this far in about 10 seconds. The Wright Brothers flew about this far on their first flight.

One hundred meters wide. The distance a man can run in ten seconds. Cars crowd the highway. Power boats lie at their docks. Colorful bleachers are Soldier's Field.


The scale of a neighborhood or village. We can see Soldier Field, Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and other public structures on the Chicago waterfront.

This square is a kilometer wide, one thousand meters. The distance a racing car can travel in ten seconds. We see the great city on the lake- shore.


The scale of reconnoitering. The distance a column of army ants can cover in a day.

Ten to the fourth meters, ten kilometers. The distance a supersonic airplane can travel in ten seconds. We see first the rounded end of Lake Michigan, then the whole great lake.


The scale of human cities. We can see the greater Chicago metropolitan area here.

Ten to the fifth meters. The distance an orbiting satellite covers in ten seconds. Long parades of clouds, the day's weather in the Middle west.


The scale of human regions (of states, provinces, and, often, whole countries). We see all of Lake Michigan here.

Transcript of 1960 version

Our speed is growing at a tremendous rate. in ten seconds we travelled almost one million meters.

Ten to the sixth, a one with six zeroes. A million meters. Soon the Earth will show as a solid sphere. We are able to see the whole Earth now, just over a minute into our journey.


The size of the Earth. Its size can be a useful point of reference for considering cosmic scale: for example, the Earth is less than 1/100 the diameter of the Sun and 1/10 the diameter of Jupiter.

Transcript of 1960 version

our speed is now about two million miles an hour, 3 tenths of one percent of the speed of light and growing fast. A beam of light on the same plane of earth would go this far in one second.

The Earth diminishes into the distance but those background stars are so much farther away. They do not yet appear to move.


The distance the Earth travels through space (seen by the orbital fragment within this frame) in one hour.

A line extends, at the true speed of light, in one second it half crosses the tilted orbit of the moon.


The orbit of the Moon traced in white – a path that affects the Earth’s tides and can brighten its nights. In one second, a beam of light would travel about one third of the way across this frame. And Man’s trip to this celestial body took three days.

Transcript Of 1960 Original

as our speed gets to be a substantial percentage of the speed of light it has an effect on our time scale. what seems a normal ten seconds to us is a much longer period in relative earth time. our clocks are getting out of synchronization. now a long time elapses on earth for ten seconds of our travelling time.

<no spoken words>


The distance the Earth travels through space in about four days.

Now we mark a small part of the path in which the Earth moves about the sun. Now the orbital paths of the neighboring planets Venus, and Mars, ... (continued)


The realm of Earth and its planetary neighbors. We see parts of the orbits of Venus, Earth, and Mars. The distance the Earth travels through space in about six weeks.

... then Mercury entering our field of view is the glowing center of our solar system, the Sun,… (continued)


The inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) with portions of Jupiter’s orbit encircling them. The asteroid and meteor belt is nestled between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The Sun is visible at the center of the Solar System. The position of the Earth relative to the Sun is also an important distance reference: an astronomical unit (AU) is the mean average distance between the two.

That outer orbit belongs to Pluto.


The outer planets of our Solar System (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). Extending 3 billion kilometers beyond Neptune’s orbit is the Kuiper belt, a region of comets. Ours is a relatively flat planetary system; the exception is the outermost inclined orbit of the dwarf planet, Pluto, which was excluded as a full-fledged planet in 2006 (28 years after the film was made).

A fringe of a myriad of comets too faint to see, completes the solar system.


The scale of our celestial neighborhood. The essence of our solar system’s orbits strongly resemble the diagram that Copernicus drew in 1510, though it took Kepler to provide the elliptical nuances.

Ten to the fourteenth. As the solar system shrinks to one bright point in the distance, our sun is plainly now only one among the stars.


The vastness of space. The region of the Oort Cloud, which holds comet nuclei – a sort of residue from the formation of the Solar System. Some scientists feel it may even extend into the next power of 10.

Looking back from here we note four southern constellations still much as they appear from the far side of the Earth (cetus, aquarius, sculptor, rhodes).


The light-year is the basic unit of measurement for cosmic distance. It would take a beam of light one year to travel from one edge of this frame to the other.

This square is ten to the sixteenth meters, one light year, not yet out to the next star.
Our last ten second step took us ten light-years further, the next will be one hundred.


Roughly the scale of distance to our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

Our perspective changes so much in each step now, that even the background stars will appear to converge.
At last we pass the bright star Arcturus, some stars in the Dipper.


The bright red star is Arcturus, one of our not too distant neighbors.

Normal but quite unfamiliar stars and clouds of gas surround us as we traverse the Milky Way galaxy.


The scale of human astronomical knowledge before 1600 – before the invention of the telescope. Almost all the stars in the ancient constellations are at the scale of this frame. The closest known pulsar (a highly magnetized, rotating neuron star) is also found here.

Giant steps carry us into the outskirts of the galaxy.


The scale of the structure of our galaxy and its rich broth of stars.

And as we pull away we begin to see the great flat spiral facing us. The time and path we chose to leave Chicago has brought us out of the galaxy on a course nearly perpendicular to its disk.


The Milky Way galaxy home to a hundred billion stars many of which are grouped in star clusters or clouds.

The two little satellite galaxies of our own are the clouds of magellan.


The two satellite galaxies of the Milky Way are the Clouds of Magellan. This region is also home to 14 known dwarf galaxies.

Ten to the twenty-second power, a million light years. Groups of galaxies bring a new level of structure to the scene.


The scale of galactic companionship. This is comprised of the Local Group of galaxies of which we are a tiny part; it is comprised also of the Andromeda Galaxy and 30 other galaxies.

Glowing points are no longer single stars, but whole galaxies of stars, seen as one.
We pass the big Virgo cluster of galaxies among many others, a hundred million light years out.


The Virgo Cluster of galaxies, a far larger group of galaxies than our own. The dominant galaxy – M87 – contains several trillion solar masses and an estimated 13 thousand globular clusters – compared to the humble 150-200 of our own. Light that left this order of magnitude at the time of the dinosaurs is only now reaching Earth.

As we approach the limit of our vision we pause to start back home. This lonely scene, the galaxies like dust, is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal, the richness of our own neighborhood is the exception.


One billion years is a little less than one tenth of the age of the universe as we believe we know it to be. At this scale, we believe we do start to see some large scale structure in the universe.

Trip back

The trip back to the picnic on the lakefront will be a sped-up version, reducing the distance of the Earth's surface by one power of ten every two seconds. In each two seconds we will appear to cover 90% of the remaining distance back to Earth. Notice the alternation between great activity and relative inactivity, a rhythm that will continue all the way into our next goal, a proton and the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin on the hand of the sleeping man at the picnic. Ten to the ninth meters, ten to the eighth, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, we are back at our starting point. We slow up at one meter, ten to the zero meters.


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