Exploring the universe from big to small: Powers of Ten

December 7, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

To continue with a posting trend we started a couple days ago, I wanted to recommend a terrific book called Powers of Ten: About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, by Philip Morrison and Phylis Morrison, originally published in 1982 by scientific American Library.  [It appears that new softcover copies of this book are getting harder to come by, though the book is still readily available on the used book market]. 

The heart of the book is a series of photographs. The first photos capture scenes that are extremely wide (the first captures a field in outer space that is 1,000,000,000 light-years wide).  Each successive picture encompasses a scene that is ten times narrower than the previous picture. Eventually, the outer space pictures zero in on the Milky Way galaxy, our solar system and then the planet Earth, coming down for landing on a grassy field in downtown Chicago. The pictures continue to decrease at the rate of the power of ten, as the “camera” drills into the arm of a man lying down on a picnic blanket, exploring his skin cells, cell walls, then his DNA before probing ever further in the subatomic world of particles, then waves.

It makes this entire journey in only 42 pictures. 

The book is beautifully photographed and illustrated, accompanied by well-written essays. It is a timeless treasure in my house. According to a comment or on Amazon, “There is no better guide to the relative sizes of things in the universe, and no better teacher about what exponential, scientific notation really means.”

[After writing this, Dan Klarmann sent in the links to videos and websites that give you much of information and many of the photos the book provided.   Check out Dan’s comment to this post.   For some fun, check out the Simpsons’ version of the Power of Ten.]


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Category: Reading - Books and Magazines, Science, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. This sounds similar to a presentation I saw at the famous Rose planetarium in New York City. The presentation had Tom Hank's voice as the narrator and was shown on "high definition" a new technology at the time. It was probably the single most influential work which affirmed my "belief" that there is no God. The vast size of the galaxy I had understood to some extent, but to the see our local cluster, then zoom out again to the supercluster, and then again, and thats just the "visible" Universe. Un-friggin believeable/incomprehendable bigggness, I almost wanna do a complete 360 and run back to God (mommy) now just thinking about it.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    The original 1968 or the 1977 redone Charles and Ray Eames "Powers of Ten" videos are now legally available free online.

    Their Official site with browseable images and lotsa back-story: <a href="http://www.powersof10.com” target=”_blank”>www.powersof10.com

    Simpsons Opening based on it:

    Quick Version Edited from Imax:

    Zoom out from Venice by 10's, James Earl Jones, Korean subtitles:

  3. gatomjp says:

    Tired Scholar wrote:

    "It was probably the single most influential work which affirmed my “belief” that there is no God. "

    Why?? Although I share your belief (which I do not put in quotation marks), why would this presentation affirm it? It certainly affirms the grandeur of the universe, but not necessarily its lack of a creator.

    I continue to find your "belief" in science as self-righteous as the most closed-minded fundamentalist Christian's unquestioning trust in the bible.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    This post reminds me of my college days as a physics major, when I made the mistake of taking astronomy and modern (20th century) physics in the same semester. In astro, I studied things that were incomprehensibly big (sizes of galaxies, masses of planets, ages of stars, etc.), then, in modern physics, I studied things that were incomprehensibly small (sizes of atoms, masses of neutrons, charges on electrons, etc.). Eventually, I stopped trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, and just tried to make sure I had the correct signs on the exponents I was using — e.g., so I didn't accidentally use the mass of a star in an equation calling for the mass of a hydrogen atom.

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