This article was just posted to wired.com today and is an interesting summary of some research from 2002–but it is new to me. Here’s an excerpt from Samuel Arbesman’s article:
Most objects are made up of smaller parts, combined in complicated and diverse ways… In the wonderfully titled paper Scaling of Differentiation in Networks: Nervous Systems, Organisms, Ant Colonies, Ecosystems, Businesses, Universities, Cities, Electronic Circuits, and Legos,Mark Changizi and his colleagues set out to understand this concept. They found that in every single one of the systems in the wildly interdisciplinary list of the subtitle there was an increase in the number of types of components as the total number of pieces grew. The larger something is, the more types of building blocks it uses.
And this includes, of course, Lego bricks. Using a dataset of 389 Lego sets (this was done back in 2002, so if anyone can download the data easily, I would love to see if the results hold up with a richer dataset), they examined the number of distinct types of pieces in a set versus the total number of pieces in that set (examples of sets include “Air Patrol”, “Spy Boat”, and “Cargo Crane”, and a master list of Lego piece types is here).
They found that the number of piece types to total number of pieces could be fit nicely to a power law. Here it is on a log-log scale:
This curve demonstrates that as the number of pieces in a set grows, so do the number of piece types. However, the number of piece types grows sublinearly: while a larger set uses more piece types, as sets becomes larger, they use progressively fewer additional piece types (so larger sets actually use fewer types per piece). This is similar to other sublinear curves, where larger animals use less energy per cell for metabolism or larger cities actually need fewer gas stations per capita. Essentially, larger sets become more efficient, using the same pieces that smaller sets do, but in a more complex and diverse way.
Now, just for fun, here’s a video of a great LEGO contraption (HT: Tim Chase).
Also, just for fun, here’s a photo of a 4-foot Lego 737 that my friend Matthew and I built. We’ve actually finished most of it, I just don’t have a recent picture. (Notice in this photo the roof, tail, and wings are missing.) But this gives you a taste: