#54: Powers of Ten and Neil Armstrong

August 31st, 2012

A picnic near the lakeside in Chicago is the start of a lazy afternoon.

Neil Armstrong is dead.

In 1977, the Eames Office released a new version of their film “Powers of Ten.” Don’t watch it alone.

The short movie — only nine minutes long — started with a one-meter square shot from above of a picnicking couple in the grass between the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field and Burnham Harbor. It then starts to zoom out by one power of 10 every 10 seconds. So 10 seconds in, you’re looking at a 10-meter square. Ten seconds after that, you’re looking at a 100-meter square.

After sliding past Chicago, the Midwest, the Earth, the solar system and the galaxy, the film continues 100,000,000 light years out or 10 to the 24th meters. It looks like a simple starry night, but each star an entire galaxy. It’s an endless black, with you stuck knowing a picnic in Chicago is the right dead center.

“This lonely scene, the galaxies like dust, is what most of space looks like,” the narrator tells. “This emptiness is normal. The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception.”

It then zooms back to the picnicking couple in Chicago, then eases in to the man’s hand, his blood cells, his DNA and finally to¬† a proton on a nucleus of a carbon atom on the picnicking man’s hand at 10 to the -16th meters.

When I heard the first man on the moon died, I wanted to go to this spot.

I compared a YouTube video of “Powers of Ten” to a Google Map of the same spot. The layout was different — Wikipedia later told me the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive hadn’t run on that side of Soldier Field since 1996. I even checked Geocaching.com, to see if someone had logged the coordinates of the spot so I could track the exact location via GPS satellite.

It then occurred to me I had all tech this couldn’t get to a picnic spot. Neil and crew had the equivalent of a graphing calculator and got to the moon.

So I went to the area, picked a spot that looked rightish and flopped in the grass to look up at the sky.

Neil Armstrong was a childhood hero of mine. The first man on the moon. Apollo 11, the Eagle landing, “One small step.”

I liked him because he was brave, brainy and above all silent. Over the years, I would hear trickles about Buzz Aldrin. He would be giving a speech or guest starring on “30 Rock.” I watched the video of 800-year-old Aldrin cold-cocking that conspiracy theory jerk over and over again. Sheer poetry.

But Armstrong was silent. He returned to a simple life in Cincinnati, sort of a wry pun on the town’s name. Yes, he was active, involved and highly decorated. But he lived in such academic, rarefied circles, I never came across him. I saw Aldrin age. I think the first picture I saw of Armstrong not in a space suit ran with his obituary.

Silent Neil Armstrong then was left in the 1960s, always the first man on the moon.

Although we know Armstrong’s most famous quote, here’s one I think is a contender for most poetic.

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Maybe this is why I went to the spot of a 1970s educational film as my tribute to my childhood hero. Both made us look out at the stars to see how tiny and how great we really are.

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