Ever since our ancient ancestors first discovered how to build a fire, the element has had a constant presence in our society – we use it to cook food, we use it to keep warm, we use it as a light source, smokers use it to enable their vice and filmmakers use it for various cinematic purposes.
And when people build a fire, we typically find ourselves building the same shape as everyone else – a pyramid. It’s not just a modern approach either, as fires throughout history have all looked about the same. A team of researchers recently conducted a study that explored this very curiosity, and the findings were published in the most recent edition of Nature Scientific Reports.
Richard Wrangham, study author and professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, wondered exactly when, at which moment in time, did early humans start understanding how to control fire. He has made a case supporting the notion that it all started roughly 2 million years ago.
Adrian Bejan, study author and professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, took on the responsibility of answering the other question – why don we all build fires the same way?
Both his personal experience (he grew up in Romania) and the students he teaches have inspirited him to look for an answer. He shares that he used to spend many nights fishing on the Danube River’s banks and that fire was an essential part of that activity. He finds it astonishing that what’s inside him is also inside everyone else on the planet.
He theorizes that “The reason is that this shape is the most efficient for air and heat flow. Our success in building fires in turn made it possible for humans to migrate and spread across the globe heat flow from fire facilitates the movement and spreading of human mass on the globe, which is a direct prediction of the Constructal Law”.
He goes on to explain that fire with a wide base have the ability to grow higher, which in turn makes them hotter. The findings showed that the hottest fires are those that have a base of almost the exact length as the height of the flame, making the pyramid (or equilateral triangle) the perfect shape for a fire.
He reminds us that the proof is out there, even if we’re not consciously aware of it – we automatically shape the bonfires that we make as cones and pyramids, as tall as their base is wide. The same can be said about the fires that we use for grilling, as well as for the firewood in our chimneys.
The research is useful to the scientific community, offering valuable inside into the human nature, evolutionary change, and physics.
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