Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales

Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales

Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales

Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales


John Tyler Bonner, one of our most distinguished and creative biologists, here offers a completely new perspective on the role of size in biology. In his hallmark friendly style, he explores the universal impact of being the right size. By examining stories ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Gulliver's Travels, he shows that humans have always been fascinated by things big and small. Why then does size always reside on the fringes of science and never on the center stage? Why do biologists and others ponder size only when studying something else--running speed, life span, or metabolism?

Why Size Matters, a pioneering book of big ideas in a compact size, gives size its due by presenting a profound yet lucid overview of what we know about its role in the living world. Bonner argues that size really does matter--that it is the supreme and universal determinant of what any organism can be and do. For example, because tiny creatures are subject primarily to forces of cohesion and larger beasts to gravity, a fly can easily walk up a wall, something we humans cannot even begin to imagine doing.

Bonner introduces us to size through the giants and dwarfs of human, animal, and plant history and then explores questions including the physics of size as it affects biology, the evolution of size over geological time, and the role of size in the function and longevity of living things.

As this elegantly written book shows, size affects life in its every aspect. It is a universal frame from which nothing escapes.


One can live in the shadow of an idea without grasping it.

Elizabeth Bowen

Our interest in the size of things is entrenched in the human psyche. It reveals itself in literature from Gulliver’s Travels, to the Grimms’ fairy tales, to Alice in Wonderland. We see it in our daily thoughts of our growing children, of the people who are around us, of our pets, of the fish we catch, of the portions of the food we are served, of the clothes we buy—are you small, medium, or large?—and one could go on and on. There is hardly anything we observe in daily life that we, either consciously or unconsciously, do not take measure of its size. We love to measure everything with rulers and scales and clocks.

I began to think of the matter of biological size years ago when I first read that glorious chapter in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form called “On Magnitude.” It is a model of insight, erudition, and beautiful prose. He showed me that size and shape are indeed interrelated and that the reason that this is so is a matter of physics that underlies the biology. From this initial inspiration there slowly grew inside me the feeling that there was a hidden other dimension of the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.