Matters of Scale

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Science  30 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5978, pp. 575-576
DOI: 10.1126/science.1188528

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In 1687, Newton reported that the same laws could describe Galileo's data on balls rolling down ramps and Brahe's data on planets moving around the Sun (1). This observation implied that a finite list of principles could explain our infinite universe. And it inspired a leap across scales: The rules at human scales are not unique. Newton's laws of motion are still the dominant explanatory tool across scales ranging from a few atoms to solar systems. However, over the past 25 years, ecologists have come to realize that, unlike physics, ecology is scale-dependent (24). In a recent paper, Gotelli, Graves, and Rahbek (5) highlight the importance of this scale dependence: They show that a process that occurs at small spatial scales, namely competition between individuals, plays an important role even at the large scale of an entire country.