The Eames' Powers of Ten and Eva Szasz's Cosmic Zoom both came out in 1968 and were based on Kees Boeke's 1957 essay called Cosmic View. This seems like an incredible coincidence. I couldn't find anything online about which film came first or if there was any influence one way or the other, so I thought I'd ask if anyone knows anything about which came out first. Hit me at email@example.com.
There's finally a stable copy of Charles and Ray Eames' seminal Powers of Ten video available online, courtesy of the Eames Office YouTube account.
Powers of Ten takes us on an adventure in magnitudes. Starting at a picnic by the lakeside in Chicago, this famous film transports us to the outer edges of the universe. Every ten seconds we view the starting point from ten times farther out until our own galaxy is visible only a s a speck of light among many others. Returning to Earth with breathtaking speed, we move inward -- into the hand of the sleeping picnicker -- with ten times more magnification every ten seconds. Our journey ends inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell.
- a bacterium
- the human body
- a geographical map
- a man
- a working friendship
- a household
- a city government
- a neighborhood
- a waste management system1
- an epidemic
- a city
- human civilization
You hooked yet? Well, you should be. As the narrative unfolds around the 1854 London cholera epidemic, author Steven Johnson weaves all of these social, geographical, and biological structures/webs/networks into a scientific parable for the contemporary world. The book is at its best when it zooms among these different scales in a Powers of Ten-like fashion (something Johnson calls The Long Zoom), demonstrating the interplay between them: the way the geography of a neighborhood affected the spread of a virus, how ideas spreading within a social context are like an epidemic, or the comparison between the organism of the city and the geography of a bacterial colony within the human colon. None of this is surprising if you've read anything about emergence, complexity, or social scale invariance, but Johnson effectively demonstrates how tightly coupled the development of (as well as our understanding of) viral epidemics and large cities were across all of these scales.
The other main theme I saw in the book is how inherently messy science is. Unlike many biographies, The Ghost Map doesn't try to tie everything up into a nice little package to make a better story. The cholera epidemic and its resolution was sloppy; there was no aha! moment where everyone involved understood what was going on and knew what had to be done. But the scientific method applied by John Snow to the situation was solid and as more evidence became available over the years, his theory of and solution to cholera epidemics were revealed as actual fact. Johnson reminds us that that's how science works most of the time; science is a process, not a set of facts and theories. During the recent debate in the US over evolution and intelligent design, I felt a reluctance on the part of scientists to admit to this messiness because it would give an opening to their detractors: "haha, so you admit you don't know what's going on at all!" Which is unfortunate, because science is powerful in its nuance and rough edges (in some ways, science is what happens at the margins) in helping us understand ourselves and the world we live in.
 Had Mark Kurlansky written this book, it would have been called "Shit: How Human Effluence Changed the World". ↩
Some sweet soul has put Powers of Ten online. If you've never seen it, I can't recommend it enough:
Powers of Ten is a short film by Charles and Ray Eames, whose work you may have previously sat in. The film starts on a picnic blanket in Chicago and zooms out 10x every 10 seconds until the entire universe (more or less) is visible. And then they zoom all the way back down into the nucleus of an atom. A timeless classic. (via youngna)