The Closet Moderate: On scales and competition

Monday, September 20, 2010

On scales and competition

Not only will we be bringing you reprocessed and irrelevant bloggy news, but also half-formed musings that may or may not be of any interest! That, dear reader, is our commitment to you. Enjoy!

One question we scientists like to ask is: why can't you think more like us? What are you, stupid? But seriously, I've been wondering what is it about the scientific way of dissecting a problem that is so alien to us as layfolk. One big issue is that of scale. As a registered scientician, I am happy to think about things being a trillion times bigger as other things, and I am willing to say that if something is twice as big a something else, they are basically the same size. Why are these ways of thinking, which can be so helpful when dealing with huge ranges of scale, strange concepts before you spend a lot of time doing physical science, and/or operating a sliderule?

I think it has to do with competition. In the real world a lot of what you encounter is under intense competition. Biological organisms, for one, have gone through the Darwinian wringer, and have all come out rather similar. I mean, yes, we are black, white, short, and tall, but even Dikembe Mutumbo, for all his epic scale, is not, by any stretch, even 1000 times taller than me. He's not even twice my height! From an astronomer's perspective, he is pretty much my size. But if I told him that, well, he might take me for a walk in the cake. So, with that in mind, we have learned to group similar things together and tease out their subtle differences. It is that razor's edge of competition that makes all the difference in our world. Same goes for products on the market: I can't buy a car that drives 10 million miles an hour, because if I could no one would be selling Honda Civics. It's those few extra horsepower, or few thousand miles of reliability, that separates the Toyotas from the Studebakers.

These rules just don't apply in subatomic physics, or in outer space. Just because one black hole is the mass of the sun, doesn't mean another one can't be a billion times heavier. They aren't in some kind of competition, they don't pass on their black hole genes to their black hole babies, and there is no one saying "well, I'll buy the billion-times-as-big black hole for the same price!" and putting the solar-mass black hole company out of business. A particle can be any mass, speed, or flavor it damn well pleases, as long it obeys the basic laws of physics.

What this all means is that our typical tools for comparing objects in the terrestrial, day-to-day world aren't much use to us when examining objects that aren't under the rules of competition. And so it makes a lot of sense that we need to stretch our brains to understand exponents, logarithmic scales, power-law distributions, and order-of-magnitude calculations. I find these ways of thinking about the world endlessly rewarding, and now I think I understand better why it takes a long time to wrap one's head around them.


L Deezy said...

I enjoyed reading your musings. I have a musing to fire back at you. I question the supreme importance of "competition" in the sense that, even if our day-to-day experiences were somehow magically free of competition, people still would have some trouble with scale (admittedly a tad less so).

Because no matter how ginormous an animal may become, biology/chemistry/physics will prevent it from being Earth-size. Even the largest animals in the history of all time and space never approached that scale.

Another random thought: don't we have day-to-day experience with billion-to-one scales in the financial world? Granted, not everyone is a financial genius, but that's a slice of the non-scientist population that should get scale.

Anyway, I'm just being a good scientist here by questioning your "competition" theory.

Marshall said...

This is an interesting idea. Not sure I totally buy it for 100% of the cognitive issues here, but yeah, it does seem likely to be a contributing factor.

I think part of why this matters is also influenced by the sorts of comparisons we find useful to do on a regular basis. An elephant masses around ten billion times what an ant does, but it's not often that one needs to think about those two animals at the same time like that. I'm roughly one billion seconds old right now. It would take about five million steps to walk across the continent. So even though these sorts of ratios are indeed present in our daily environment, for whatever reason they're usually not ratios we end up concentrating on.

C Leezy said...

Poppycock. Competition has nothing to do with it. Life and market products exist on scales differing by many orders of magnitude. If you don't believe me ask the the 1000 trillion bacteria living in your gut, or L Deezy's multi-million dollar bling necklace. But it is an interesting phenomenon that scale is very important.

I was once struck by the odd nature of people travelling around the world to look at or stomp around on a specific mountain. I was sat staring at Everest and in an odd moment I glanced down at a pebble and was at a loss to describe why exactly Everest was more important to me than a pebble. The pebble was made of the same stuff, it was just as old, it was likely also unique or at least i would never find another pebble exactly the same, but yet here I was spending months and lots of cash to come see Everest. (and I all I had to show for it was this conceited T-Shirt)
I think the fundamental thing is that even in issues where there is no competition involved size just matters to us. (I said places where there is no competition!). If I had to guess I'd say it's purely ego-centric, I am important, things smaller than me are less important, things bigger than me "might" be more important, regardless of whether that item is something we compete with. That's why the closer to a human an animal is in size, the sadder we feel.

Statler said...

How dare you drag the good name of Studebaker through the mud!