jangled through a jumble of life in doubts afterworse


Size has been one of the most popular themes in monster movies, especially those from the 1950s. The premise is invariably to take something out of its usual context–make people small or something else (gorillas, grasshoppers, amoebae, etc.) large–and then play with the consequences. However, Hollywood’s approach to the concept has been, from a biologist’s perspective, hopelessly naïve. Absolute size cannot be treated in isolation; size per se affects almost every aspect of an organism’s biology. Indeed, the effects of size on biology are sufficiently pervasive and the study of these effects sufficiently rich in biological insight that the field has earned a name of its own: “scaling.” […]

Take any object–a sphere, a cube, a humanoid shape. […] If you change the size of this object but keep its shape (i.e., relative linear proportions) constant, something curious happens. Let’s say that you increase the length by a factor of two. Areas are proportional to length squared, but the new length is twice the old, so the new area is proportional to the square of twice the old length: i.e., the new area is not twice the old area, but four times the old area (2L x 2L).

Similarly, volumes are proportional to length cubed, so the new volume is not twice the old, but two cubed or eight times the old volume (2L x 2L x 2L). As “size” changes, volumes change faster than areas, and areas change faster than linear dimensions.


In The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), the hero is exposed to radioactive toxic waste and finds himself growing smaller and smaller. When he stops shrinking, he is about an inch tall, down by a factor of about 70 in linear dimensions. Thus, the surface area of his body, through which he loses heat, has decreased by a factor of 70 x 70 or about 5,000 times, but the mass of his body, which generates the heat, has decreased by 70 x 70 x 70 or 350,000 times. He’s clearly going to have a hard time maintaining his body temperature (even though his clothes are now conveniently shrinking with him) unless his metabolic rate increases drastically.

Luckily, his lung area has only decreased by 5,000-fold, so he can get the relatively larger supply of oxygen he needs, but he’s going to have to supply his body with much more fuel; like a shrew, he’ll probably have to eat his own weight daily just to stay alive. He’ll also have to give up sleeping and eat 24 hours a day or risk starving before he wakes up in the morning (unless he can learn the trick used by hummingbirds of lowering their body temperatures while they sleep).

Because of these relatively larger surface areas, he’ll be losing water at a proportionally larger rate, so he’ll have to drink a lot, too.

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art { Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1960 }

more { Delusional misidentification syndromes have fascinated filmmakers and psychiatrists alike }