Thinking to the Power of Ten


Nancy Swaim, a private investigator from Mar Vista, was out and about, picking up 10 pieces of trash.

Richard Zafran of Playa del Rey, a between-jobs university administrator, was scooping up dirt outside the Eames House in Pacific Palisades and sealing it in plastic bags to send to 10 friends worldwide.

And at the Eames gallery on Main Street in Santa Monica, Eames Demetrios was scooping up handfuls of M&Ms; from a bowl brimming with 10,000 of them.


It was Tuesday, 10/10/00, designated by Demetrios, the 38-year-old grandson of late and legendary industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames, as the first international Powers of Ten Day.

For those who don’t know a picometer from a parsnip and a fermi from a football, this all takes a little explaining.

For Eames aficionados, it takes none. Say “Powers of Ten” and they can describe in detail the film of the same name, created by the Eames team in 1968 and recreated in color in 1977. Shown recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of a retrospective of the Eameses’ work, the film was one of many made by the designers in their ongoing effort to make science and technology both interesting and accessible to lay people.

“Powers of Ten” was made to show the relative size of things in the universe--and what happens to scale when you add a zero, and another, and another. . . .

In nine minutes, the camera takes the viewer from a picnic in a Chicago park to the edge of the universe, every 10 seconds zooming 10 times farther away from Chicago. Then it returns, focusing finally on the cells of the hand of the man at the picnic.

The film played continuously on Tuesday at the gallery, where a trickle of visitors stopped by. But Powers of Ten Day was essentially a cyberspace event. For weeks, enthusiasts had been logging onto to post their plans.

Swaim, who’s seen the film “many, many times,” e-mailed 10 friends around the globe, asking each to also pick up 10 pieces of trash on Tuesday. Her hope? That it “would get people thinking about the strength of numbers--and the big picture.”

Zafran, who’s sending Eames dirt to friends as far away as Vietnam and Bangladesh, is titillated by the prospect of “customs agents scratching their noodles.”

He’s asking recipients of the Eames earth to send back dirt from their corners of the globe for him to scatter near the Eames House. Zafran, who admires the Eameses for their “new way of seeing things,” says his project is all about “interconnectedness.”

Demetrios’ grand plan for the day was a worldwide forum, focusing on the environment, to promote Powers of Ten thinking. The film was shown in Tokyo and in Lisbon, at a library in Nassawadox, Va., and at P.S. 89 in Queens, N.Y.

He chose an environmental theme to point out that environmental problems are problems of scale--population explosion, decimation of the rain forest at the rate of two acres per second, the thousands of years of half-life of plutonium.

Conversely, he adds, one person taking positive action can multiply his or her good works by many powers of 10 through education and communication.

Those dropping by the gallery included Lynn Leatart, a teacher at Crossroads Middle School in Santa Monica. She wanted to bone up on the film before showing it to her seventh- and eighth-grade art students as a jumping-off point for creating an animated flip book. To her, the Eameses are “sort of icons,” although she thinks “you have to be a mathematician, rather than an artist, to get it.”

Perhaps the simplest explanation of Powers of Ten is to be found on the Web site, in a quote attributed to a philosopher in ancient China: “You cannot discuss the ocean with a well frog.”

But the engaging Demetrios also finds ways to make the concept comprehensible for the math-impaired. At the gallery, he’d set out five bowls of M&Ms; to illustrate the idea of exponential growth--the first holding one candy, the second 10, then 100, 1,000 and 10,000 candies.

He’d enlisted son Xander, 12, to count the M&Ms;, although he was not ready to swear that the big bowl held precisely 10,000.

“We thought of having 100,000,” he said, “but the thought of being responsible for eating them was too horrible to contemplate.”

When Demetrios talks of the Powers of Ten, his enthusiasm is so contagious that at least for a fleeting moment it all seems crystal-clear. Think, he says, of that famous New Yorker cover with Manhattan as the center of the universe. “A lot of people are like that when it comes to [comprehending] scale.”

Understanding scale is vital, he adds, because “we live in an extremely interconnected world,” one in which “things that are big and things that are small impact us.”

For example, “if your car has the wrong gas, that’s only a molecular formation, yet your car won’t go anywhere. If you’re also missing the chassis, your car also won’t go anywhere.”

In the presidential debates, candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore tossed around trillions and millions. “These numbers are huge and a lot of people don’t have a grasp of them.”

Demetrios says the problems stem from the fact that “our minds are set up to deal with linear relationships.” When people have a little better grasp of the Powers of Ten, it empowers them “to understand what it is they’re dealing with.”

Demetrios is director of the Eames office, whose mission is to communicate, preserve and extend the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Not content to be solely keeper of the flame, he wants to “take things to the next step.”

Powers of Ten Day, for instance. He’s thinking ahead to 2001, when the theme will be the human body and “how the different Powers of Ten impact on the body.”

For example? Well, if you go out in the bright sun for too long, that sun up there about 93,000,000 miles away will give you a nasty burn in a matter of minutes.