powers of ten / cosmic voyage.

I think my brain just caved in on itself, and I’m not sure how to recover. I feel a lot like I did in Grade 10, when you still had to take Algebra even if it was clear you were going to be an English major. I remember sitting in the desk and knowing that my mind was on the verge of understanding something, but just wouldn’t completely comprehend it no matter how hard i tried. It’s a lot like being underwater. Or high.

So what’s the source of this mindfuck? Though produced decades apart, I’ve found two films that explore the great polarities of the universe. The outer and inner taken to their complete extremes, they both examine the very limits of distance in both directions: the absolute greatest and the absolute smallest. In the process your brain goes into hyperdrive – how can we comprehend such incomprehensible distances? Both films begin by starting at the centre, ourselves, and then moving outward or inward to the points of infinity.

Created in 1977 by iconic husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames (yeah, the same man behind all those chairs you’re considering paying so much for…) “Powers of Ten” is a classic science film. Not science fiction, but science fact. So classic, in fact, that it has its own day. That’s right – October 10 in Powers of Ten Day, as stated by the Eames Office on the Powers of Ten website.

Thought parts of it are outdated, the journey is universal and timeless:

(If the soundtrack is just too gruesome for you to endure, then there’s a nice version here. Unfortunately the narration is removed, but this version is set to some other-worldly proper ambient from Sigur Rós, which is never a bad thing.)

Charles Eames said “eventually, everything connects”, and that’s exactly what blows my mind about this. No matter how far you go inward or outward, you eventually end up in a big nothingness. There’s a Physics term for this – the way that the universe tends to work in patterns and imitate itself – called “self similarity”. I need Stephen Hawking to explain this all to me one day. I’m sure homeboy’s got this shit down pat.

The script of the narration is fascinating and integral to really understanding the breadth of the film, but the music is just so gratingly awful. Apparently the far reaches of the universe sound like a very dissonant pipe organ. If you’re into it, Nikon Camera created a really interesting mini-site, Universcale, that gives an immediate, interactive way of exploring the powers of size.

It’s interesting to compare “Powers of Ten” to another film clearly inspired by it, the 1996 IMAX release “Cosmic Voyage”, directed by Bailey Silleck. It’s a lot smoother and modern, and a little less trippy. Plus “Cosmic Voyage” benefits greatly from the all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipotent vocal stylings of Mr. Morgan Freeman. If there’s anything that hasn’t become more dramatic thanks to his narrative skills, I haven’t found it yet. I’m pretty sure that when you die, Morgan Freeman’s voice is the last thing you hear…

So in the end, we’re really just on either ends of two infinite universes – one that grows forever larger and another that gets forever smaller. Literally, everything everywhere is going on forever all around us in any direction you look.

The other thought I’m left with is how mentally limited we are in comparison to the realities of time and distance. The universe is 13 billion years old but 9-5 seems long. The time it’s taken to lift the Himalayas is beyond our understanding, but in the scope of the planet it’s just another rise and fall. A breath. A wink. We’re specks. Motes. Maybe the greatest obstacle to humans truly evolving is our inability to understand our own inconsequence. For the life of our planet is just another blip in the scope of the universe. For everything we think we’ve done, for all our self-importance, for all our history books and great literature and supposed humanity, we could all disappear in an instant and there are a quintillion quadrillion trillion stars that would never even turn to notice.


  1. you can say that morgan freeman is one of the most versatile actors that we have today*

  2. I am also reminded of the amazingly beautiful flight from the earth through the universe at the start of the movie “Contact”.

  3. I love Charles and Ray Emaes, I’ve seen this before and always thought of it a a quirky little movie typical of the Emaes offices at that time.

  4. dryadart says:

    and so you might enjoy a movie called mindwalk….

  5. If you like that, you should read A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It’s stuff exactly like this, all in layman’s terms, with minimal use of math and equations. Very interesting.


  1. […] 9 03 2009 Hype. This reminds me of the theory, that I discovered researching my post on The Eames’ “Power Of Ten”, of self-similarity; basically that “the whole has the same shape as one or more of the […]

  2. […] lande, planeter, solsystemer, universer osv. Ja, endda i forhold til atomer. Se de fede videoer på Shape+colour. Den ene af dem kan du se nedenfor (ret flot lavet, i forhold til at den er fra […]

  3. […] “powers of ten” / “cosmic voyage”. I think my brain just caved in on itself, and I’m not sure how to recover. I feel a lot like I did in Grade 10, […] […]

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