Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong (about using spheres as packaging)

Guys, I know this is a potentially inflammatory title. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most famous scientists in the United States, and if you ever listen to Star Talk or watch Cosmos, you know he’s a pretty smart guy.

But we have to disagree with him on a point he made in an article he wrote in the ’90s, and has since reiterated in a recent interview:

“It can be shown using freshman-level calculus that the one and only shape that has the smallest surface area for an enclosed volume is a perfect sphere. In fact, billions of dollars could be saved annually on packaging materials if all shipping boxes and all packages of food in the supermarket were spheres. For example, the contents of a super-jumbo box of Cheerios would fit easily into a spherical carton that had a four-and-a-half inch radius.” (source)

There are so many reasons why this can not work. But first of all, it needs to be stated Tyson is absolutely correct that a sphere gives you more volume for less surface area than any other shape. As he says in the rest of the article, this is why there are so many naturally occurring spheres on Earth and in space.

But here’s the issue: no one wants to chase that sphere of Cheerios with a 9-inch diameter across the grocery store floor. That’s pretty obvious (Tyson even points this out in his blog post). But the practical problems go further. It’s easy enough for us to carry a basketball-sized sphere around, but have you ever tried to carry two or three at a time? I bet you’d have a much easier time carrying two or three jumbo-sized boxes of Cheerios. This problem only gets worse the larger the sphere-shaped packaging gets. Carrying around a box with a sofa in it? No problem for movers. Carrying around a sphere with a sofa in it? Disaster.

Another practical issue is that while spheres are great for shipping things that don’t have a rigid shape—like cereal, rice, or liquids—they aren’t great for much else. If you’re shipping a camera, some windows, or furniture, a box will obviously have much less empty space.

Let’s also consider the feasibility of creating sphere-shaped packaging in the first place. Corrugated cardboard can’t be formed into a sphere (it was specifically designed not to be able to warp), so these spheres would have to be made from another material. Styrofoam and plastic would be extremely unsustainable. Actual wood would be difficult to form into spheres. That leaves metal. Aluminum might be able to work, since it’s pretty malleable and can be recycled infinitely, but it would be far more expensive to use on a large scale than paperboard.

All-in-all, spherical packaging is too impractical to use today. It might work in a science fiction universe where there aren’t any limits on resources. But even then, there will probably still be issues using it. Namely…

dropping the orb

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