Friday, August 15, 2008

Powers of Ten

One of my favorite books is "Powers of Ten" by Philip Morrison, Phylis Morrison, and the Office of Charles & Ray Eames. The authors describe their book in a section called "Advice to the Reader":

"The core of this book is the scenes on the forty-two right-hand pages that follow. By themselves, they present a visual model of our current knowledge of the universe, showing along one straight line both the large and the small. Each image stands against a black background, a little reminiscent of a darkened theater. Across from every black-framed page is a page of text and picture, a pause at each step along the journey to examine detail, evidence, or the history of knowledge.

The step from one scene to its neighbor is always made a tenfold change: The edge of each square represents a length ten times longer or shorter than that of its two neighbors. The small central square frames the scene next inward."

Stephen Jay Gould said of the book "The effect is stunning and teaches more about the size of things than any turgid treatise could."

The "Powers of Ten" was based on an earlier film by the Office of Charles and Ray Eames of the same title, which can be viewed on YouTube. The film is based on an earlier book, "Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps," by the Dutch educator Kees Boeke.

As I discussed in the October 12, 2007 entry in this blog, Russ Hobbie and I added a section on "Distances and Sizes" to the Fourth Edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, motivated in part by the "Powers of Ten" book. We find the ability to imagine the relative sizes of biological objects to be crucial for understanding life.

You don't have to buy the "Powers of Ten" to enjoy it (although your money will be well spent if you do). At a website based on the book you can view many of the pictures and find other interesting items. For instance, thumbnail pictures at each power of ten have been collected into a poster, so you can view the different scales of the universe all at once. And Nickelodeon Magazine has even turned these pictures into a child's "Powers of Ten Game".

Charles and Ray Eames were best known not as scientists or science educators, but as designers. Just recently, the United States Postal Service issues a series of stamps highlighting their work. Philip Morrison was a well-known and respected MIT physicist.

No comments:

Post a Comment