What Happens If We Throw an Elephant From a Skyscraper? Life & Size 1


Let’s start this video by throwing a
mouse, a dog, and an elephant from a skyscraper onto something soft. Let’s say, a stack of mattresses. The mouse lands and is stunned for a moment, before it shakes itself off, and walks away pretty annoyed, because that’s a very rude thing to do. The dog breaks all of its bones and dies in an unspectacular way, and the elephant explodes into a red puddle of bones and insides and has no chance to
be annoyed. Why does the mouse survive, but the elephant and dog don’t? The answer is size. Size is the most underappreciated
regulator of living things. Size determines everything about our biology, how we are built, how we
experience the world, how we live and die. It does so because the physical laws are
different for different sized animals. Life spans seven orders of magnitude,
from invisible bacteria to mites, ants, mice, dogs, humans, elephants and, blue
whales. Every size lives in its own unique universe right next to each other,
each with its own rules, upsides, and downsides. We’ll explore these different
worlds in a series of videos. Let’s get back to the initial question: Why did our
mouse survive the fall? Because of how scaling size changes everything; a principle that we’ll meet over and over again. Very small things, for example,
are practically immune to falling from great heights because the smaller you
are the less you care about the effect of gravity.
Imagine a theoretical spherical animal the size of a marble. It has three
features: its length, its surface area, (which is covered in skin) and its volume,
or all the stuff inside it like organs, muscles, hopes and dreams. If we make it
ten times longer, say the size of a basketball, the rest of its features
don’t just grow ten times. Its skin will grow 100 times and it’s inside (so it’s
volume) grows by 1000 times. The volume determines the weight, or more accurately,
mass of the animal. The more mass you have, the higher your kinetic energy
before you hit the ground and the stronger the impact shock. The more
surface area in relation to your volume or mass you have, the more the impact
gets distributed and softened, and also the more air resistance will slow you
down. An elephant is so big that it has extremely little surface area in ratio
to its volume. So a lot of kinetic energy gets distributed over a small space and
the air doesn’t slow it down much at all. That’s why it’s completely destroyed in
an impressive explosion of goo when it hits the ground. The other extreme,
insects, have a huge surface area in relation to their tiny mass so you can
literally throw an ant from an airplane and it will not be seriously harmed. But
while falling is irrelevant in the small world there are other forces for the
harmless for us but extremely dangerous for small beings. Like surface tension
which turns water into a potentially deadly substance for insects. How does it
work? Water has the tendency to stick to itself; its molecules are attracted to
each other through a force called cohesion which creates a tension on its
surface that you can imagine as a sort of invisible skin. For us this skin is so
weak that we don’t even notice it normally. If you get wet about 800 grams
of water or about one percent of your body weight sticks to you. A wet mouse
has about 3 grams of water sticking to it, which is more than 10% of its body
weight. Imagine having eight full water bottle sticking to you when you leave
the shower. But for an insect the force of water surface tension is so strong
that getting wet is a question of life and death.
If we were to shrink you to the size of an ant and you touch water it would be
like you were reaching into glue. It would quickly engulf you, its surface
tension too hard for you to break and you’d drown. So insects evolved to be water
repellent. For one their exoskeleton is covered with a thin layer of wax just
like a car. This makes their surface at least partly water repellent because it
can’t stick to it very well. Many insects are also covered with tiny hairs that
serve as a barrier. They vastly increase their surface area and prevent the
droplets from touching their exoskeleton and make it easier to get rid of
droplets. To make use of surface tension evolution cracked nanotechnology
billions of years before us. Some insects have evolved a surface covered by a
short and extremely dense coat of water repelling hair. Some have more than a
million hairs per square millimeter when the insect dives under water air stays
inside their fur and forms a coat of air. Water can’t enter it because their hairs are
too tiny to break its surface tension. But it gets even better, as the oxygen of
the air bubble runs out, new oxygen diffuses into the bubble from the water
around, it while the carbon dioxide diffuses outwards into the water. And so
the insect carries its own outside lung around and can basically breathe
underwater thanks to surface tension. This is the same principle that enables
pond skaters to walk on water by the way, tiny anti-water hairs. The smaller you get
the weirder the environment becomes. At some point even air becomes more and
more solid. Let’s now zoom down to the smallest insects known, about half the size
of a grain of salt, only 0.15 millimeters long: the Fairy Fly.
They live in a world even weirder than another insects. For them air itself
is like thin jello, a syrup-like mass surrounding them at all times.
Movement through it is not easy. Flying on this level is not like elegant
gliding; they have to kind of grab and hold onto air. So their wings look like
big hairy arms rather than proper insect wings. They literally swim through the
air, like a tiny gross alien through syrup.
Things only become stranger from here on as we explore more diversity of
different sizes. The physical rules are so different for each size that
evolution had to engineer around them over and over as life grew in size in
the last billion years. So why are there no ants the size of horses?
Why are no elephants the size of amoeba? Why? We’ll discuss this in the next part. We have a monthly newsletter now, sign up if you don’t want to miss new videos and
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