In 1968 Charles and Ray Eames of IBM made a short film called “Powers of Ten”. It began with a view of two people having a picnic in a park, and quickly switched to looking straight down at them from one meter up in the air. It then started smoothly backing up. Soon you saw the couple from ten meters, then one hundred. As the camera moved, the people shrank in size and in a few moments were too tiny to see. Instead, you saw the park they were sitting in, then the city, then the surrounding countryside. The viewpoint kept moving, going faster and faster, and every time the magnification reached another power of ten a thin-walled box was superimposed on the entire frame. The box shrank accordingly as the viewpoint kept moving, and even as the camera speed increased, each new box shrank at the same rate.
Soon you could see the whole state, more and more of the countryside, the nearby Great Lakes, then the continent. It kept going until the entire Earth was in view, but it didn’t stop there. In a few moments you could see the moon as the Earth shrank, and one by one our neighboring planets appeared. The viewpoint kept moving faster and faster until our solar system was lost in the surrounding stars, which themselves shrank until our entire galaxy fit in the screen, and still it kept going. The galaxy got smaller and smaller until it was just one little dot in a sea of galaxies. Finally the camera stopped, when the perspective was of the multitude of galaxies all in equal co-existence.
With your mind’s eye continue the outward movement as all the galaxies merge into a single point of light, until even that last point has disappeared.
After a time the camera started moving forward at twice the speed.
The field of galaxies soon filled the screen, rushing past the viewer. Soon our Milky Way appeared, and instead of galaxies passing by you saw individual stars. Gradually slowing down the camera soon returned to our solar system and the individual planets caught your eye. Passing the moon you saw the blue Earth filling the screen. Soon you saw the continents, then mountains and rivers bordering the state, then the city once again became recognizable. Moving closer the park came into view, the grassy area next to the lake, and finally the two people with their picnic basket and blanket.
The camera was moving slower and slower, but it didn’t stop.
The viewpoint zoomed in on one person’s hand until it filled the screen. Soon the hairs and little ridges of the skin came into view. Moving further in you passed through the skin layer and on into a blood vessel. Continuing on you saw one individual white blood cell, then the details of the cell wall. Closer in you were immersed in the cell’s interior and nucleus, and soon saw the coils of its DNA. Continuing to zoom you saw the DNA molecules attached to each other, then the atoms making up each one. Moving forward into one atom you saw the electrons zipping around the nucleus then dove into the nucleus itself, singling out one proton to enter. Finally it stopped, this being the limit of scientific knowledge when the film was made.
Now imagine the camera continuing deeper within the proton to find a field of quarks. Move on, magnifying one quark until it fills your view. Soon the quark itself seems as vast as a galaxy. Keep zooming until all you see is empty space.
We find empty space at both the farthest and the nearest perspectives, at both the beginning and the end. All the details of the universe – from the galaxies of stars to the galaxies of quarks – lie somewhere on the continuum between those two extremes.
What if the entire film had been shot from that farthest point, and what seemed to be movement was simply changes in magnification? In other words, no physical movement of the camera or person viewing, just difference in perspective?
Looking at it this way, we can see that all the wants and needs that drive us are found in one narrow range of magnification. Take a moment to imagine that the film began where you are right now instead of with the couple having their picnic. Here you find the issues of your life – your concerns about your physical health, relationships with your friends and family, who you can hire to fix your broken fence. This is the perspective of you as an individual.
Now back up ten miles. At this point you’ve lost sight of your personal interests and are seeing things from the point of view of your city itself, dealing with its own issues such as traffic congestion and the best design for the new park. The city can be treated as if it were a kind of organism, with its own form of sentience, reviewing choices and making decisions of its own.
Zoom in five miles and you’re at the level of city-wide politics. Now you can see the varied communities within the city pursuing their agendas, often in competition with each other. Move back and forth from city-view to community-view and you start understanding the actions of the city as a whole: from the city-view it seems to be acting as an individual, autonomously and maybe even irrationally, but at the community level we can see the underlying currents that result in the city’s actions. Here we can also see the communities acting like separate entities, being friendly with each other or squabbling, while dealing with their own internal situations.
This pattern repeats over the entire range of magnification. At each point along that continuum we find a single entity, composed of a group of smaller ones, dealing with its own separate set of issues, and unaware of events occurring at the other levels. When viewed from the edge of our solar system, what is the importance of when the mechanic will have my brakes fixed? When looking at the Milky Way galaxy as a whole, what is the significance of an asteroid crashing into Earth? And back at the level of my human body, I’m simply not aware when one T cell attacks a virus.
Of all these levels of magnification, which is the one that represents your true viewpoint? Is it only one? Is it all of them? If you wanted to get a picture of you and your perspective on life, how far away would you place the camera? Would it be a profile shot, three-quarter view or straight-on? Would the frame include your whole height or just your face? Or, would the view be looking out right from where you are, not including your face at all?
When you place yourself at the range of the Milky Way, and are viewing the grandeur of its 400 billion stars, what happens to your worries about work?