A picnic in the park as a starting point.

This is the first of the grand challenges posed by Secretary Wayne Clough for the new strategic plan of the Smithsonian. Here’s the explanatory sentence:

“We will continue to lead the quest to understand the fundamental nature of the cosmos, using next-generation technologies to explore our own solar system, meteorites, the Earth’s geological past and present, and the paleontology of our planet.”

This sounds like scientific research to me. The Smithsonian has nine research centers populated by scientists who are working in 96 countries across the world, advancing the body of knowledge about the universe. How can a design organization like the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum participate?

The view of our Galaxy from a distance of 1020 meters.

One way is to help communicate the unlocked mysteries. Let’s demystify by clear explanations presented in simple and engaging formats. Ray and Charles Eames set a precedent for this with the film “Powers of Ten” sponsored by IBM, titled, “A film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero.”

Ray wrote and directed the film, working closely as usual with her husband Charles. It was adapted from the 1957 book Cosmic View by Kees Boeke who had illustrated the concept with black and white drawings. The mysteries were unlocked by the addition of color photography and animation and explained by a vocal commentary. The film begins with a picnic in the park and zooms out at a rate of a power of ten every ten seconds to the extent of human knowledge and then returns to the picnic, continuing to the microscopic edge of our understanding.

Most people have seen this ten-minute masterpiece. If you haven’t you can find it on Youtube. Let’s hope that design and communication talents can serve to help the Smithsonian reveal the heart of future mysteries with this power to propagate ideas.

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