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Scaling of Area and Volume
Great fleas have lesser fleas
Now how do these conversions of area and volume relate to the questions I posed about sizes of living things? Well, imagine that you are shrunk like Alice in Wonderland to the size of an insect. One way of thinking about the change of scale is that what used to look like a centimeter now looks like perhaps a meter to you, because you're so much smaller. If area and volume scaled according to most people's intuitive, incorrect expectations, with 1 m2 being the same as 100 cm2, then there would be no particular reason why nature should behave any differently on your new, reduced scale. But nature does behave differently now that you're small. For instance, you will find that you can walk on water, and jump to many times your own height. The physicist Galileo Galilei had the basic insight that the scaling of area and volume determines how natural phenomena behave differently on different scales. He first reasoned about mechanical structures, but later extended his insights to living things, taking the then-radical point of view that at the fundamental level, a living organism should follow the same laws of nature as a machine. We will follow his lead by first discussing machines and then living things.
Galileo on the behavior of nature on large and small scales
One of the world's most famous pieces of scientific writing is Galileo Galilei's Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences. Galileo was an entertaining writer who wanted to explain things clearly to laypeople, and he livened up his work by casting it in the form of a dialogue among three people. Salviati is really Galileo's alter ego. Simplicio is the stupid character, and one of the reasons Galileo got in trouble with the Church was that there were rumors that Simplicio represented the Pope. Sagredo is the earnest and intelligent student, with whom the reader is supposed to identify. (The following excerpts are from the 1914 translation by Crew and de Salvio.)
SAGREDO: Yes, that is what I mean; and I refer especially to his last assertion which I have always regarded as false. . . ; namely, that in speaking of these and other similar machines one cannot argue from the small to the large, because many devices which succeed on a small scale do not work on a large scale. Now, since mechanics has its foundations in geometry, where mere size [ is unimportant], I do not see that the properties of circles, triangles, cylinders, cones and other solid figures will change with their size. If, therefore, a large machine be constructed in such a way that its parts bear to one another the same ratio as in a smaller one, and if the smaller is sufficiently strong for the purpose for which it is designed, I do not see why the larger should not be able to withstand any severe and destructive tests to which it may be subjected.
Salviati contradicts Sagredo:
SALVIATI: . . . Please observe, gentlemen, how facts which at first seem improbable will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty. Who does not know that a horse falling from a height of three or four cubits will break his bones, while a dog falling from the same height or a cat from a height of eight or ten cubits will suffer no injury? Equally harmless would be the fall of a grasshopper from a tower or the fall of an ant from the distance of the moon.
The point Galileo is making here is that small things are sturdier in proportion to their size. There are a lot of objections that could be raised, however. After all, what does it really mean for something to be "strong", to be "strong in proportion to its size," or to be strong "out of proportion to its size?" Galileo hasn't given operational definitions of things like "strength," i.e., definitions that spell out how to measure them numerically.
Also, a cat is shaped differently from a horse - an enlarged photograph of a cat would not be mistaken for a horse, even if the photo-doctoring experts at the National Inquirer made it look like a person was riding on its back. A grasshopper is not even a mammal, and it has an exoskeleton instead of an internal skeleton. The whole argument would be a lot more convincing if we could do some isolation of variables, a scientific term that means to change only one thing at a time, isolating it from the other variables that might have an effect. If size is the variable whose effect we're interested in seeing, then we don't really want to compare things that are different in size but also different in other ways.
SALVIATI: . . .we asked the reason why [shipbuilders] employed stocks, scaffolding, and bracing of larger dimensions for launching a big vessel than they do for a small one; and [an old man] answered that they did this in order to avoid the danger of the ship parting under its own heavy weight, a danger to which small boats are not subject? After this entertaining but not scientifically rigorous beginning, Galileo starts to do something worthwhile by modern standards. He simplifies everything by considering the strength of a wooden plank. The variables involved can then be narrowed down to the type of wood, the width, the thickness, and the length. He also gives an operational definition of what it means for the plank to have a certain strength "in proportion to its size," by introducing the concept of a plank that is the longest one that would not snap under its own weight if supported at one end. If you increased its length by the slightest amount, without increasing its width or thickness, it would break. He says that if one plank is the same shape as another but a different size, appearing like a reduced or enlarged photograph of the other, then the planks would be strong "in proportion to their sizes" if both were just barely able to support their own weight.
Also, Galileo is doing something that would be frowned on in modern science: he is mixing experiments whose results he has actually observed (building boats of different sizes), with experiments that he could not possibly have done (dropping an ant from the height of the moon). He now relates how he has done actual experiments with such planks, and found that, according to this operational definition, they are not strong in proportion to their sizes. The larger one breaks. He makes sure to tell the reader how important the result is, via Sagredo's astonished response:
SAGREDO: My brain already reels. My mind, like a cloud momentarily illuminated by a lightning flash, is for an instant filled with an unusual light, which now beckons to me and which now suddenly mingles and obscures strange, crude ideas. From what you have said it appears to me impossible 52 Chapter 1 Scaling and Order-of-Magnitude Estimates to build two similar structures of the same material, but of different sizes and have them proportionately strong.
In other words, this specific experiment, using things like wooden planks that have no intrinsic scientific interest, has very wide implications because it points out a general principle, that nature acts differently on different scales.
To finish the discussion, Galileo gives an explanation. He says that the strength of a plank (defined as, say, the weight of the heaviest boulder you could put on the end without breaking it) is proportional to its cross-sectional area, that is, the surface area of the fresh wood that would be exposed if you sawed through it in the middle. Its weight, however, is proportional to its volume.
[Remark: Galileo makes a slightly more complicated argument, taking into account the effect of leverage (torque). The result I'm referring to comes out the same regardless of this effect.]
How do the volume and cross-sectional area of the longer plank compare with those of the shorter plank? We have already seen, while discussing conversions of the units of area and volume, that these quantities don't act the way most people naively expect. You might think that the volume and area of the longer plank would both be doubled compared to the shorter plank, so they would increase in proportion to each other, and the longer plank would be equally able to support its weight. You would be wrong, but Galileo knows that this is a common misconception, so he has Salviati address the point specifically:
SALVIATI: . . . Take, for example, a cube two inches on a side so that each face has an area of four square inches and the total area, i.e., the sum of the six faces, amounts to twenty-four square inches; now imagine this cube to be sawed through three times [with cuts in three perpendicular planes] so as to divide it into eight smaller cubes, each one inch on the side, each face one inch square, and the total surface of each cube six square inches instead of twentyfour in the case of the larger cube. It is evident therefore, that the surface of the little cube is only one-fourth that of the larger, namely, the ratio of six to twenty-four; but the volume of the solid cube itself is only one-eighth; the volume, and hence also the weight, diminishes therefore much more rapidly than the surface. . .You see, therefore, Simplicio, that I was not mistaken when . . . I said that the surface of a small solid is comparatively greater than that of a large one.
The same reasoning applies to the planks. Even though they are not cubes, the large one could be sawed into eight small ones, each with half the length, half the thickness, and half the width. The small plank, therefore, has more surface area in proportion to its weight, and is therefore able to support its own weight while the large one breaks.
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