Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Powers of Ten

My first day at the Unitarian church school a volcano erupted. But that wasn't what caught my attention ...

I walked into the tiny classroom, scarcely more than bedroom-sized, to find the center of it occupied by a scale model of a volcano sculpted of papier-mache. The class had been working on it for weeks, and today was the day for the eruption -- a satisfying ooze of orange chemistry that dribbled down the sides from the cauldron at the top and buried a small plastic dinosaur that was grazing peacefully at the bottom. Cool!

The teacher--an immense kindly man who taught junior-high science during the week--sized me up and set me down in one corner with a book. I suppose I looked like a bookish sort even at the age of ten. The book was called Cosmic View and once I opened it I embarked on a journey from which I did not return until it was time to go home an hour later.

The book began with a drawing of a girl in a field, seen from overhead. With each turn of the page the view zoomed out by a factor of ten, and showed with a small box the area of the preceding picture. The girl quickly shrank to invisible dimensions, and soon the whole Earth did as well. The zooming went on and out until the sun was lost in a crowd of other stars and dust, and soon our whole galaxy was just another tiny patch of light amid a host of others.

If this wasn't breathtaking enough, the process began again with the girl in the field but this time zooming in by ten times with each page. A mosquito probing a cut on her hand became a doorway into the tissues of the body, the structures of the cell, the molecules that made them up, the atoms that comprised the molecules, the particles in the nucleus of the atom.

As you can see if you visit the book online from the link above, the science is dated now (the book was published in 1957) and the illustrations are primitive, but the sheer fact of the huge range of size both above and below the human scale was awe inspiring. Mercifully, the teacher let me borrow the book for the week so I would not have to let go of it right away. At home I spent hours flipping the pages, zooming in and out, out and in, rearranging the order so I could go all the way from the very large to the very small in one big zoom.

Evidently I was not the only one so impressed. Twenty years later, in 1977, the book was made into a film called Powers of Ten, and other book and film and Internet versions have been produced since, adding the benefits of further scientific discoveries and the wonders of modern visual techniques. Any way you look at it (try Powersof10.com), the results are still as awesome as they were fifty years ago. Isn't it amazing that the human scale lies so equally between the very large and the very small? Coincidence, or part of the grand cosmic design?

Recently I had the great pleasure of rediscovering the experience with my grandson. We were poking around on astronomy websites and stumbled across a link that said "How big is the universe?" Clicking on it brought us right into a version of Powers of Ten that we could explore together. Just as it had happened with me so long ago, his young mind quickly grappled with and grasped the grandeur of the vision.

So what's the answer? How big is it? Does it ever come to an end, or does it just go on forever? Young Vincent's opinion at the age of seven is that it must come to an end somewhere, because everything comes to an end, and I'm inclined to agree with him. But let's hope the wonder of it never ends.

If you like that, our friends at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology have a new wrinkle for you -- Powers of Ten in Time. They take you backward in time by factors of ten, then challenge you to imagine the future in similar gulps going forward. Ten and a hundred years are easy ... but try imagining things a thousand years from now, ten thousand, a hundred thousand ... you get the idea.

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