The Spirituality of “Powers of Ten”

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers;
The heron and the otter are my friends;
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.
— from “Colors of the Wind”, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

As a young child, I used to come home from school and watch the television programs that the BBC put together specifically for school-age children.  There’d be a couple of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but also in the mix were programs about art and creative projects, or solving puzzles, or making a difference by helping other people.  There was even a ten-minute news show, talking about current events in a positive and child-friendly way.

While I don’t remember many specifics of the programs I watched, there’s one I remember very clearly.  It was a short movie that, starting from an aerial view of a couple of people at a picnic, zoomed out and upwards to larger and larger scales, encompassing the city, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, and finally, at a scale 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger than the initial view of the picnic, the observable Universe.  Then, focusing back in and down again, the movie zooms in on one person’s hand, into skin, a white blood cell, a molecule of DNA, a carbon atom, its nucleus, and in the end, and at a scale 1/10,000,000,000,000,000 of the picnic view, the quantum fuzziness of the inside of a proton.

(You can also watch the video on YouTube.)

Now when I first saw this, I was already fascinated with images of, on the one hand, planets and space and, on the other, molecules and atoms, but this movie made those wonderful ideas come alive even more.  And although humanity’s scientific knowledge has developed in the thirty-six years since “Powers of Ten” was produced — and while today’s computers could doubtless create it in a fraction of the time it took to make back then, not to mention putting it in a thoroughly vertigo-inducing 3D — it still stands as a breathtaking overview of how our reality is connected across a hundred million light years, at every scale from the sub-atomic to the extra-galactic.  This is truly a way of looking at our world — and our selves — that provokes awe and wonder.

Without looking through telescopes or microscopes, of course, our human experience of the world is limited.  We’re most comfortable with distances measured in inches or miles, and both the immensity of the parsec (nineteen trillion miles) and the minuteness of the ångström (four billionths of an inch) are hard to imagine.  We may not even be familiar with such scientific units, given how foreign they are to our daily lives.  And yet they determine our very existence and our daily reality, giving shape to the energy and matter of which we are made in a place where life was able to emerge and evolve.

What’s more, the “Powers of Ten” movie offers an important antidote to the materialistic nihilism that is often seen as the only alternative to traditional religion.  Certainly any faith that refuses to take seriously what science tells us about our world and our selves will, sooner or later, collapse under the weight of its own dogma and either shrivel into an irrelevant relic or explode in reactionary fundamentalism.  A religion such as Unitarian Universalism, on the other hand, a faith which (in the words of our Sixth Source) counsels us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warns us against idolatries of mind and spirit, can help us to find meaning and purpose in our experiences of the intimate and the ultimate.

Unitarian Universalism is one of the very few religions that is fully open to the results of modern science when it comes to developing our religious views of the world.  Our understandings of both nature and human nature are thoroughly informed by physics, cosmology, biology and ecology, from the mysterious weirdness of quantum mechanics to the awesome creativity of evolution.  This is a faith that, while still open to the transcendent and the numinous, bears witness to the root of the word “religion” as meaning “to re-connect”, lifting us above the illusion of our own separateness to take in a wider vision that connects us to all that is, from the minuteness of the sub-atomic to the immensity of the extra-galactic.

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About acmillard

Andrew serves as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia.
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3 Responses to The Spirituality of “Powers of Ten”

  1. Judy says:

    Very nice column, Andrew. I have to relay my experience with the Powers of Ten as well. When I was a teenager, the father of some children I regularly baby sat for gave me that book. It made a huge impression on me, giving me a perspective that I had not ever thought of before and opened my mind to possibilities. Somewhere along my life I lost that book but never forgot about it. Then a dozen or so years ago we visited a friend in Monterey, CA. While there we went to the Aquarium and bookstore. That book practically jumped off the shelf at me. There was no hesitation to own that book again. I was so happy to refind it. Now I’ll share it with my grandson to open his mind to possibilities as it did for me and for countless others, I’m sure. Thank you for sharing your experience with this book (or video in your case).

    • acmillard says:

      Thanks for your comment, Judy! I’m glad you liked the column. It sounds like the book had a wonderful influence on you and I’m sure your grandson will love it, too!

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