Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Scaling of Irregular Objects

The area of a shape is proportional to the square of its linear dimensions, even if the shape is irregular.

You probably are not going to believe Galileo's claim that this has deep implications for all of nature unless you can be convinced that the same is true for any shape. Every drawing you've seen so far has been of squares, rectangles, and rectangular solids. Clearly the reasoning about sawing things up into smaller pieces would not prove anything about, say, an egg, which cannot be cut up into eight smaller egg-shaped objects with half the length.

Is it always true that something half the size has one quarter the surface area and one eighth the volume, even if it has an irregular shape? Take the example of a child's violin. Violins are made for small children in lengths that are either half or 3/4 of the normal length, accommodating their small hands. Let's study the surface area of the front panels of the three violins.

Consider the square in the interior of the panel of the full-size violin. In the 3/4-size violin, its height and width are both smaller by a factor of 3/4, so the area of the corresponding, smaller square becomes 3/43/4 = 9/16 of the original area, not 3/4 of the original area. Similarly, the corresponding square on the smallest violin has half the height and half the width of the original one, so its area is 1/4 the original area, not half.

The same reasoning works for parts of the panel near the edge, such as the part that only partially fills in the other square. The entire square scales down the same as a square in the interior, and in each violin the same fraction (about 70%) of the square is full, so the contribution of this part to the total area scales down just the same.

Since any small square region or any small region covering part of a square scales down like a square object, the entire surface area of an irregularly shaped object changes in the same manner as the surface area of a square: scaling it down by 3/4 reduces the area by a factor of 9/16, and so on.

In general, we can see that any time there are two objects with the same shape, but different linear dimensions (i.e., one looks like a reduced photo of the other), the ratio of their areas equals the ratio of the squares of their linear dimensions:

Note that it doesn't matter where we choose to measure the linear size, L, of an object. In the case of the violins, for instance, it could have been measured vertically, horizontally, diagonally, or even from the bottom of the left f-hole to the middle of the right f-hole. We just have to measure it in a consistent way on each violin. Since all the parts are assumed to shrink or expand in the same manner, the ratio L1/L2 is independent of the choice of measurement.

It is also important to realize that it is completely unnecessary to have a formula for the area of a violin. It is only possible to derive simple formulas for the areas of certain shapes like circles, rectangles, triangles and so on, but that is no impediment to the type of reasoning we are using.

Sometimes it is inconvenient to write all the equations in terms of ratios, especially when more than two objects are being compared. A more compact way of rewriting the previous equation is

A L2

The symbol "" means "is proportional to." Scientists and engineers often speak about such relationships verbally using the phrases "scales like" or "goes like," for instance "area goes like length squared."

All of the above reasoning works just as well in the case of volume. Volume goes like length cubed: V L3 .

If different objects are made of the same material with the same density, ρ = m/V , then their masses, m = ρV , are proportional to L3, and so are their weights. (The symbol for density is ρ, the lower-case Greek letter "rho.")

An important point is that all of the above reasoning about scaling only applies to objects that are the same shape. For instance, a piece of paper is larger than a pencil, but has a much greater surface-to-volume ratio.

One of the first things I learned as a teacher was that students were not very original about their mistakes. Every group of students tends to come up with the same goofs as the previous class. The following are some examples of correct and incorrect reasoning about proportionality.

Scaling of the area of a triangle.

Scaling of the volume of a sphere.

Scaling of a more complex shape.

→ Solved problem: gathering light with a telescopepage page 66, problem 11

→ Solved problem: distance from an earthquake page 66, problem 12

Discussion Questions

A A toy fire engine is 1/30 the size of the real one, but is constructed from the same metal with the same proportions. How many times smaller is its weight? How many times less red paint would be needed to paint it?
B Galileo spends a lot of time in his dialog discussing what really happens when things break. He discusses everything in terms of Aristotle's now-discredited explanation that things are hard to break, because if something breaks, there has to be a gap between the two halves with nothing in between, at least initially. Nature, according to Aristotle, "abhors a vacuum," i.e., nature doesn't "like" empty space to exist. Of course, air will rush into the gap immediately, but at the very moment of breaking, Aristotle imagined a vacuum in the gap. Is Aristotle's explanation of why it is hard to break things an experimentally testable statement? If so, how could it be tested experimentally?

Last Update: 2010-11-11