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Why size matters 

The science of scaling and the dinosaur problem

click to enlarge If David Eskers theory proves true, science textbooks - could be rewritten.
  • If David Eskers theory proves true, science textbooks could be rewritten.

Walking amid the skeletons of hadrosaurs, pteradons and a Tyrannosaurus rex at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, local scientist David Esker is greeted by a staff member. They discuss science's latest find, a 125-foot-long sauropod unearthed in Spain. At an estimated 40 to 48 tons, it's one of the largest dinosaurs on record.

Later, sitting in the shadows of the ancient bones, Esker explains what has troubled him about the giants. If they were alive today, he says, "they'd be like beached whales." To understand what he's asserting, one first has to understand the science of scaling.

Scaling is an important, but little-known, paradox often overlooked by scientists, teachers and the general public. "Someone comes along every 10 or 20 years and writes a famous paper about scaling, but it never goes anywhere," says Esker.

Esker first encountered the phenomenon as a boy when he entered a kite-flying contest. "I took a diamond-shaped kite and tried scaling it up to be three times larger," he says. But, when he tripled the kite's height and width, the surface area increased nine times, while the volume of the cross bars increased 27 times. So, though the kite was only three times larger, it weighed 27 times more.

In animal terms, this extra weight translates into all kinds of issues. It's why an ant can lift 300 times its own weight; a human, twice his weight; yet an elephant, only a quarter. According to Esker, if an animal were to grow much larger than an elephant, it would struggle to lift its body off the ground.

So why don't we learn about this in school?

"What science teacher wants to explain the scaling properties," asks Esker, "when they're going to be embarrassed when asked, "How do you explain the dinosaurs?'"

Esker, a former physics professor at Pikes Peak Community College, has been working on the problem for the past two years, and believes he has found a solution. In what could be a groundbreaking paper, he argues that during the Mesozoic period, the Earth's atmosphere was much thicker than it is today about 2/3 the thickness of water.

He cites multiple sources of evidence for his theory, including dinosaur anatomy. Esker says there is no evidence that dinosaurs dragged their tails. He thinks they used their tails and their strong hind legs to propel themselves through the thick atmosphere. His theory is that dinosaurs were able to move quickly despite their great masses, because they were buoyant in the air, like today's blue whales that defy gravity by floating in the oceans.

If accepted by the scientific community, Esker's ideas could prove revolutionary. He describes a colleague's reaction at first hearing his theory: "He said, "Are you saying that you're right, and all the other scientists in the world are wrong?' And I said, "Yes.'"

To learn more, attend Esker's lecture on Jan. 24, visit his Web site at dinosaurtheory.com and watch for his book, The Solution is Science.

"The Science of Scaling" lecture by David Esker, presented by the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs

Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, 315 E. Costilla St.

Wednesday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m.

Free; visit freethinkers.com/speakers.html for more.

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