Powers of Ten
An Exhibit About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe
June 29, 2002 - January 5, 2003
About Powers of Ten
Powers of Ten Powerful Facts
About Charles & Ray Eames
Powers of Ten Official Web Site



About Powers of Ten

Exhibit Open June 29, 2002 thru January 5, 2003

  Explore a panoramic view of the exhibit. Requires QuickTime.

Explore a panoramic view of the exhibit. Requires QuickTime.
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Come visit a place where the farthest reaches of the Universe and the familiar features of your own back yard are just a few steps—and a few zeros—apart. Powers of Ten, an exhibit based on the landmark film by Charles and Ray Eames, will bring this exponential journey through time and space to the California Academy of Sciences from June 1, 2002—January 5, 2003. “I am excited that the Academy is able to offer this opportunity for visitors to learn about scale,” says Academy Curator and Executive Director Patrick Kociolek, “since our understanding of the most massive and miniscule things around us is often critical to the health of our planet, our communities, and our bodies.”

For those of you who don’t know a picometer from a pickle or a fermi from a fern, Powers of Ten may take a little explaining. Charles and Ray Eames produced the Powers of Ten film in 1977 as part of an ongoing effort to make science and technology more interesting and accessible to the public. In nine minutes, the film—now the centerpiece of the Powers of Ten exhibit—takes its viewers on a voyage from a picnic in Chicago to the edge of the Universe, zooming out to cover ten times as much space every ten seconds. Then the camera returns to the picnicker, narrowing in on his hand by powers of ten until it focuses on a tiny quark within one of his cells.  Along the way, viewers learn not only about exponential growth and the appropriate units to define it, but also about the many ways in which questions of scale can enhance their understanding of the world around and within them.

This idea is at the core of the Powers of Ten exhibit, which was created by the grandson of the famous design duo, Eames Demetrios. “Scale is like geography,” Demetrios explains.  “If you don’t know where Afghanistan is when you hear it mentioned in the news, you won’t have a place to hang it in your mind.  Numbers are the same.  Anthrax is measured in microns; pesticide residues are reported in parts per billion.  These numbers are important to our lives—we should be able to understand what they mean.”

  Moon rock in the Powers of Ten exhibit

Moon rock in the Powers of Ten exhibit.

Using a series of photographs, the Powers of Ten exhibit examines both the surroundings and the composition of the Chicago picnicker from 44 different powers of ten, beginning with 1025 meters (the size of the known Universe) and ending at 10-18 meters (the size of the smallest known subatomic particles). At one extreme, a panel that measures one square meter in size depicts a scene that is 100,000 times larger than the Milky Way galaxy. At the other, the panel is filled with a single quark—a particle so tiny that it would take over 100 trillion of them to stretch the width of the average human hair. In addition to the photographs, each power of ten station features text, video feed, or objects from the Academy’s vast research collections that represent some of the knowledge scientists have gained by investigating at that particular power of ten scale. 

For instance, at the 1025 station (the scale of a billion light years), visitors will be able to touch a 4 billion year old meteorite from the Academy’s collections—the type of specimen researchers have used to learn about the creation of the Universe. Down at 10-14, the curious can examine specimens that have been dated using the radioactive isotope dating method, a system that relies on an understanding of the atomic structure. In between lies an interactive playground of visual and mental stimuli that is sure to inspire a sense of wonder in visitors of all sizes.

The Academy will offer several special programs and events in association with the Powers of Ten exhibit. Additionally, a special kids’ area will be set up with video links to the main exhibit, where children can draw and post pictures of the things they associate with different powers of ten scales. For more information, visit our Web site at www.calacademy.org.


Powerful Facts about Powers of Ten

The Powers of Ten exhibit photographs begin at the scale of 1026 meters (a distance the equivalent of 10 billion light-years away is portrayed within a frame that is 1 square meter in size).  The amount of time that it takes light to travel this far is close to the age of the known Universe.

Powers of Ten is a way of thinking that can be used to explore many things, including the vast Universe around us. 

  • 1023 meters is the largest power of ten view in which we can see objects readily with the naked eye. 
  • 1022 seconds is 100,000 times the age of the Moon.
  • 107 meters is the size of the planet Earth.

Powers of Ten thinking can be used to explore not only the very large, but also the very small. 

  • 10-10 meters (1 angstrom) is the scale of the carbon atom's outermost shell of electrons.  A beam of light with a wavelength this long would be an X ray.
  • 10-16 meters (or 0.1 fermis) is a distance so tiny that it covers only 1/10 the diameter of a proton.  Of course, electrons are even smaller - 100 of them could fit onto a line of this length.

We can apply Powers of Ten thinking to things in our own backyard. 

  • 105 meters is the scale of the city of San Francisco.
  • 103 meters is the scale of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Powers of Ten thinking can be used to examine the human body. 

  • A sneeze can travel at 102 (100) miles per hour.
  • Our circulatory system is about 60,000 miles long, on the order of 104 miles. 
  • We breathe about 107, or 10 million, times per year. 
  • At 10-4, our physical differences become invisible to the human eye.

On the environmental front, Powers of Ten thinking can be used to explore the health of our planet.

  • When just 1% of car owners tune up their cars, 109 (one billion) pounds of carbon dioxide are kept out of the atmosphere. 
  • Every year, about 103 (1,000) species are driven to extinction. 
  • The production of one pound of wheat requires about 25 pounds of water, while the production of one pound of meat requires 102 times more water—about 2,500 pounds.


About Charles and Ray Eames

Eames Demetrios. Powers of ten official web site.

You may not know it now, but your life has almost certainly been touched - quite literally - by the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Those linked rows of molded plastic chairs that grace nearly every airport lounge? The Eames team designed them.  How about the molded plywood splints and stretchers used by the United States Navy? Yes, they created those too. One of their most famous designs, the leather Lounge Chair and Ottoman, was introduced to the country on the “Today Show” in 1956. It now sits not only in the New York Museum of Modern Art, but also in hundreds of thousands of households and offices around the world.

Charles Eames was born in 1907 in St. Louis, Missouri. As a child, he was fascinated with photography and design—he even built his own lithography press. His interests eventually led him to Washington University, where he was offered a scholarship to pursue design studies. However, he was thrown out after two years, reputedly because he fell in love with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright before it was fashionable. After working as an architect for several years in St. Louis, Charles accepted a teaching fellowship at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1937, where he fell in love again—this time with a student named Ray Kaiser. A California native with a background in painting, Ray had a gift for color and shape, and she rapidly won not only her teacher’s heart, but also his respect. The couple married in 1941 and moved to California, where they began a lifelong partnership. 

Charles and Ray Eames are probably most famous for their furniture, which always combined elements of art and science, design and architecture, process and product, style and function. However, their range of interests extended far beyond the world of furnishings. In the 1950’s, the California couple began to capitalize on their photography experience by experimenting with filmmaking. They created over 125 short films dedicated to topics ranging from toy trains and Benjamin Franklin to computers and other advanced scientific concepts. Their most famous film, Powers of Ten, has been named to the National Film Registry and is probably one of the most widely viewed short films of the post-war era.

Charles Eames died on August 21, 1978. Ray followed him ten years later—to the day. They left behind an amazing legacy: countless contributions to the fields of architecture, art, science and education.



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