Developing a Sense of Scale for the Universe

The first time I saw the video The Powers of Ten it blew my mind. It was one of those moments where, for the duration of the video, the entire Universe seemed to make sense. The video was an adaptation of an essay called Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps written by Kees Boeke. Now, there are many adaptations of the concept and they are all really fun to watch and I am going to share them all with you.

Dutch engineer and educator named Kees Boeke wrote an essay in 1957 called Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps that begins with a photo of a girl sitting outside her school holding a cat. The perspective zooms out and another photo shows the same girl to scale beside automobiles and a whale to compare sizes to something we see every day and something we know well to be incredibly large. The essay continues with 38 more pictures “jumping up” a level until the perspective is at the farthest reaches of the known universe and then it comes back to the picture of the girl with a cat. The journey goes inward, this time, and the next picture is zoomed in on the girl’s hand where there is a mosquito. The perspective enters her body where the mosquito has punctured her skin and the pictures are now “jumping down” farther into the microscopic world until the perspective reaches the smallest thing known to man. He also includes commentary for every photo so that the reader can understand each jump up in scale.

“I began the project because of the importance of developing a sense of scale, and I therefore proposed to draw the same objects in different scales. In doing this I took advantage of the metric system, which logically corresponds with our numerical system, and made each successive scale one-tenth of the one before. When we do this we seem to go right up into the sky, so that we see objects from ever increasing heights, and at the same time see a constantly increasing field around them. We also notice that each imaginary jump we make to move from one scale to another one ten times smaller must be ten times greater than the previous jump. That is, if we start at, say, five meters from an object and we first move to a distance of 50 meters in order to see it at one-tenth scale, we have moved 45 meters; if we then move again, to a distance of 500 meters, to reduce the scale again to one-tenth the previous scale, we will have moved 450 meters, or ten times the length of our first jump. The next jump would be 4,500 meters, to a distance of 5,000 meters, etc” says Boeke in Cosmic View.

Almost a decade later, in 1968, Ray Eames and her husband Charles began making a short film based on Boeke’s work called Powers of Ten that finally came to fruition with the help of MIT Physics Professor Philip Morrison in 1977. The film is very similar to the essay, but it starts out in Chicago with a couple having a picnic at the park. It is narrated by Morrison and it slowly zooms out in the same manner as the essay as he explains the scale of each jump and describes what is in each field of view. This film was even selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

These two important publications have inspired quite a few wonderful pieces. There’s an eight minute short film directed by Eva Szasz and produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1968 called Cosmic Zoom. In 1996 the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution did a loose remake of the Powers of Ten called Cosmic Voyage. The Scale of the Universe 2 is an interactive website that allows the user to zoom in and out using a slider and it follows the same scale. There’s even an iOS app called Cosmic Eye that allows you to zoom into the smallest elementary particles and out to the largest scales of our Universe right on your iDevice.

Powers of Ten

Cosmic Zoom

Cosmic Voyage

About Dani Johnson

I am 26 years old and I live in a college town with my boyfriend, our 2 dogs and chinchilla, 4 additional room mates and the house cat. Since I share financial responsibilities with my boyfriend I am waiting on him to finish college before I go back (he's almost done!). I will then focus my studies on Science Writing. I want to write particularly about Astrophysics, Cosmology and Planetary Science. Until then, I spend my free time listening to various podcasts about science and skepticism to inspire deeper research on potential writing topics. I also enjoy sewing, drawing, writing fiction, spending time with the boyfriend and pets, amateur astronomy and some girly things like nails, hair and makeup.
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3 Responses to Developing a Sense of Scale for the Universe

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