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Powers of Ten Museum
An Imagined Visit to an Imaginary Museum

Written September, 1991


The billboards along the Interstate had been very specific.  I would find the Powers of Ten Museum "six miles north of Exit 6."  So I took Exit 6 and headed north on Miller Road.

Almost at once, however, there beside the road was a hemispherical dome marked "Powers of Ten Museum – Pluto Annex."  What was this?  Had I arrived already?  I pulled into the small parking lot to investigate.

The black dome was about fifteen feet high, with a flagpole on top.  Around its circumference, three tall sections had been cut away, giving access to the black-painted interior.

Inside, there seemed to be nothing, until I noticed what seemed to be a small white pea suspended on wires from the ceiling, with an even smaller object a few inches away.  A sign on the interior wall explained that these were models of the planet Pluto and its moon Charon, at a scale of a billion to one.  They were part of a model of the entire solar system at that scale.

Since a billion is expressed in scientific notation as 10 with a small superscript 9, meaning 1 with 9 zeroes or 1,000,000,000, the sign went on to explain that the scale being used for this solar-system model was called the "+9 scale."  It promised more details at the museum itself, located at the scale model of the Sun, nearly six miles further north.

I returned to my car and headed north.  Three miles later, I passed another outpost of the museum, this one the Neptune Annex.  There was no parking lot this time, but I could make out the planet model as I drove by the dome; it looked to be about the size of a plum.

A mile after that, it was the Uranus Annex.  Another mile took me past the Saturn Annex, where the rings of the planet model were almost a foot across.  Nearly half a mile farther was the Jupiter Annex, with a banded planet model about the size of a cantaloupe.

Next came a slightly bumpy stretch of road called the Asteroid Belt, although I saw no asteroids.  By the time I reached the Mars Annex, I had spotted the main Museum building itself, a few hundred yards beyond.  The domes for the three inner planets were scattered around the Museum's parking lot.


A Ten-Sided Tower

The Museum is a larger building than I had expected.  Located on the edge of a slope, it rises 100 feet above the parking lot but also descends almost as far below, so it's the equivalent of a 20-story tower.  The floor plan is based on a ten-pointed star, about 150 feet wide.  The mirrored outside surface is faceted into vertical panels to follow the points of the star.  These facets serve to visually reduce the bulk of the building.  (Seen from the level of the parking lot, the tower appears broader than it is tall, although the reverse is actually the case.)

Thirty feet above the building's main entrance was the center of the solar-system model, a five-foot Sun.  I learned later that this Sun is illuminated at night and can be seen nearly a mile away at the Saturn Annex.

Joining the other visitors, I bought my ticket at the main entrance and went inside.

An orientation area was first on the tour.  Signs explained that the purpose of the Powers of Ten Museum was to give its visitors a sense of the vast differences in size of various parts of the universe.  There was also an explanation of scientific notation and "powers of ten."

A display of baseball bats lying on a shelf served to demonstrate the scale system.  A normal three-foot-long bat was labeled "0 scale."  Above it was a bat one-tenth as large (about 3½  inches), labeled "+1 scale."  A one-centimeter bat was +2, and a barely-visible one-millimeter bat was +3.

Below the normal-size bat was a huge 30-foot-long model labeled "–1 scale."  The barrel of this bat was almost two feet in diameter.  And at the bottom of the display was a small portion of the surface of a model bat in –2 scale.  A sign apologized for not being able to show the entire model, because it would be roughly the size of a Saturn V moon rocket!

Beyond the bat display, I came to a lobby.  From here I could see the core of the building, a tall pentagonal prism formed by a series of "magic ramps" that wound in a helix around the skylit interior.  People were going up the ramps that were above my level, and down the ramps that were below me.

Each ramp would take the visitor one-fifth of the way around the core while changing his altitude by three feet.  Each ramp would also change the scale by a power of ten; thus the designation "magic ramps."

Going clockwise around the core, the ramps descend and the scale number goes down; this is called the "microscope tour."  Going counterclockwise, the ramps ascend and the scale number goes up; this is called the "telescope tour."


Going Down

I decided to take the microscope tour first.  From the lobby landing, labeled 0, I took the ramp to my left, which went down to a landing labeled –1.  Another left turn took me into the –1 display area.

I found myself in a medium-sized room full of biological models, everything ten times normal size.  A section on human anatomy featured a three-foot-high heart and a thirty-foot model of the leg and its joints.  Four-inch ants and ten-inch cockroaches infested the "bugs" section.  Video monitors showed cheetahs running across the African landscape at one-tenth of normal speed.  This level was mildly interesting, but not very startling.  But then, it was only the first level.

I returned to the –1 landing, went down another ramp to the –2 landing, and entered a larger, multi-leveled display area.  Here were some of the same objects that I had seen before, but now a hundred times normal size.  Near the entrance to the room, a pair of ants the size of German shepherds frightened some of the younger visitors.  The nearby heart model was big enough for me to clamber through its chambers, and there were ladders provided for that purpose.  A twelve-foot eyeball was finely detailed.  The slow-motion videos now showed hummingbirds in flight.  And set into the floor was an eight-foot-diameter 25-cent piece.

Down another ramp was the –3 level.  There was only a single ant here, now a thousand times life-size, which made him look like a grotesque six-legged dinosaur.  Even I was uncomfortable, looking up at his huge jaws.  There were numerous models of smaller bugs, like dust mites.  Extreme slow-motion videos showed the technique a housefly uses to land on the ceiling.  I was not enjoying this level.  I decided to venture even deeper.

At the –4 level, models of individual cells made their first appearance, although even a red blood cell was only three inches across.  Also represented were a human hair (nearly two feet in diameter) and a microchip.

The –5 level was dominated by a model capillary, with blood cells of various kinds floating by.

By the time I reached the –6 level, the red blood cell was 25 feet wide, and viruses several inches across had made their appearance.

The –7 level was a rather small room; the only objects of interest were some detailed virus models, most of them about the size of a basketball.


Through Elementary Particles

On the –8 level were complex molecules, including a segment of DNA.

At the –9 level, I found models of simple molecules, such as water.

On the –10 level was a ten-foot model of an atom.

Further down were models of other marvels, although they all were represented by more-or-less-fuzzy white balls.  Some levels had no display rooms at all, the space being occupied by model-building shops.

The lowest level with a display space was –20, where an electron was represented by two models.  One of them was the size of a marble; the other was 20 feet across.  The sign explained that scientists have not come to a final determination of the diameter of the electron, and these models represent two of their best guesses.  Another sign explained that even these models were misleading, as electrons are not like balls.

On the –20 landing, another sign tried to describe "superstring theory" and explained that this theory involved mathematical objects called "loops."  To display a model of a loop would require a major excavation to expand the museum much further down, for such a model would need to be displayed on the –35 level!

I had gone quite far enough.  An elevator was conveniently located to take visitors from the –20 level back up 60 feet to the lobby, so that they can begin the "telescope tour."  After a stop at the lobby snack bar, that's just what I did.


Going Up

I expected that the telescope tour would consist mostly of astronomical models, like those I had seen outside.  But the tour didn't start out that way.

The +1 level was dominated by an eight-foot model of a blue whale.  A TV monitor showed time-lapse video of visitors scurrying around the lobby.

The +2 level was even more unexpected, consisting of an HO-scale train layout constructed by the Miller Road Model Railroad Club.

On the +3 level, the miscellaneous models included a foot-long Titanic as well as a scene showing the sunken liner on the ocean floor, broken into two pieces a couple of feet apart.

On the +4 level, I watched plants growing and blooming in time-lapse photography, with a day's activity compressed into fifteen seconds.


Beyond the Earth

It wasn't until I reached the +6 level that astronomy became the subject.  Here was a gallery of moons.  Earth's Moon was 11½  feet in diameter, Jupiter's Ganymede almost 16 feet, and Mars's tiny Deimos only a quarter of an inch.  Here also was a time-lapse computer-generated video of the solar system, in which the Earth took half a minute to complete an orbit around the Sun, while the Moon whipped around the Earth every 2½  seconds.

One ramp up, planets were depicted on the +7 level.  Only a portion of the giants Jupiter and Saturn would fit into the room, but here were a 50-inch Earth, a 27-inch Mars, a 20-inch Mercury, and the Moon again, 14 inches this time.

At +8, a 56-inch Jupiter and a 45-inch Saturn shared the gallery with a 5-inch earth and a 1½ -inch Moon.

On the +9 level was a window to the outside, through which I could see the five-foot Sun over the main entrance and the inner planets (or at least the domes that held them) around the parking lot.  On an interior wall, a two-dimensional Sun on the same scale was labeled with various features.






The earth at approximately +9 scale in the blackness of  space, as seen from Apollo 8 near the moon in 1968


A sign explained that on this billion-to-one scale, the farthest point of Pluto's looping orbit was nearly six miles away, where the Pluto Annex was located.  How far to the nearest star?  Well, to reach it I'd have to go beyond the Interstate, continue south through Mexico, cross South America and Antarctica and Australia and Asia and the Arctic Ocean, all the way around the world and back to this very spot, roughly 25,000 miles!

Another small display showed that on this scale, the speed of light is only one foot per second.

SIDEBAR:  A few years after I wrote this article in 1991, I discovered that a similar scale model of the solar system actually exists in Richmond, Virginia.  The first planet I encountered was one of the outer planets, located out at the airport.  Others were nearer the science center on the west side of downtown.

Yet another model in Peoria, Illinois, was described in an article in the March 1995 edition of Discover magazine.  This model, about eight times as large as the fictional one I've described, claims to be the world's largest.

There are at least a dozen others.  Click here for a site that lists them.

I wasn't aware of it until 2004, but a few years before I wrote this article a model-builder named George Awad constructed a version of my "telescope tour" in a set of cubical boxes, all the same size.  As I understand it, the first box was a cube 1½ feet on a side, depicting part of the hood of a car on which rested Carl Sagan's book Cosmos.  The second box represented a cube 15 feet on a side, depicting the entire car.  The third box represented a 150-foot cube; the eighth box, 2,841 miles; the eighteenth box, 4.84 light years; and so on.


Beyond Our Solar System

On the +10 and +11 levels, I found models of other types of stars, including binaries and pulsars.

UPDATE:  Here's a computer representation of the solar system at about the +10 scale.

However, the next eight levels contained no models.  There was an animation at +16, depicting the history of the universe (15 billion years) in 48 seconds.  But otherwise there were only charts showing the shrinking size first of the solar system, then of the distance from the Sun to the nearest star.  That distance had shrunk to an almost-invisible half a millimeter, and I had climbed 27 feet up the magic ramps, before I reached the next display area:  a model of the Milky Way on the +20 level.

The model hung from the ceiling of a large room, its spiral arms stretching out to a wingspan of 30 feet.  The main disk of stars was about three feet thick, but near the center was a spherical bulge nine feet in diameter.  An arrow pointed out the location of the Sun, depicted by a little light that blinked on and off.

One ramp up on the +21 level was a gallery of galaxy types.

On the +22 level was merely a picture of the Milky Way, four inches across.  One level up, it was down to a centimeter.

There was a model of something called the "Great Wall" on the +24 level, showing how millimeter-size galaxies are arranged in clumps and sheets and filaments.  A sign described how this model had been recently rebuilt to include new discoveries about the universe.

There were more charts on +25.

Finally I came to the ultimate level, +26.  To heighten the sense of drama, visitors were directed through a dark, curving hallway, until they came into a dimly lit room.  An awe-inspiring music was softly playing, a music without rhythm, just sustained deep tones.  And in the center of the room was a six-foot sphere of tiny lights, a scale model of the 20-billion-light-year-diameter universe.

Needless to say, I couldn't find the Earth in this room.  The museum had done the calculations already:  on this +26 scale, a model of the Earth would be roughly the size of an electron.

It was with unusual humility that I rode the elevator down to the lobby gift shop.



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