The Power and Elegance of Circles

I’m a lifelong figure skating fan. If someone were to ask me why, the first thought that comes to mind is the power and elegance in it. There is a convergence of power, speed and grace, where these coincide to create the breathtakingly captivating experience we see on the ice. If you’ve ever watched a performance, you’ll quickly see that circular motions are what make the shows. What now? You’re not into figure skating, so you say? Try it, try it, and you may! In that case, let’s get on a race track and rev up your engines. If neither figure skating nor cars are gonna do it for you, so much more is governed by circular shapes that there aren’t enough hours in the day to cover it.

  • For those of us involved with water stewardship, circles are everywhere. They are in all places water transport and water treatment. I work in a pump shop. We call it rotary equipment. It’s only in these last few months that circles being in every facet of water stewardship has become a stark observation. It really came together for me in this last week, while I was taking a close look at pump stuffing box drawing. The diameter for gland, shaft, lock nuts, and bearings among other things, are all specified with diameter symbols throughout the page.
  • Some people have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. I was looking at the page, seeing nothing but diameter symbols everywhere because each of these components is circular. We wanted to know what it would take to possibly fit a cartridge type mechanical seal into the tight clearance, possibly boring through the box to accommodate a packing-to-seal conversion.
  • In tandem, I was overhearing an inquiry for a sump basin diameter. I walked out into our shop and looked at the wall of gaskets, baskets of o-rings, and shelves of couplings, pipes, fittings, impellers, and yes, at FRP basins being prepped for pump station installations. It was this unreal recognition. There are just circles, circles, and nothing but more circles all over the place. You have to leave the shop to get away from them, even for one moment! When calculating new installations and retrofits, this has implications for how it’s done.

If we know a diameter, calculating a circumference is straightforward. Here are some basic definitions:

  • Radius: A straight line extending from the center of a circle to one end of the circle (diameter / 2).
  • Diameter: A straight line across the center of a circle, from end-to-end (2 * radius, since a radius is half of a diameter).
  • Circumference: The linear distance around the circle. (2 * pi * radius), or (pi * diameter).
  • pi: A little over 3x the diameter of a circle. 3.14….

Why are there so many circles in the structures of water stewardship? It turns out that circles are the most efficient shape for handling pressure because pressure force is evenly distributed around a circumference. With other shapes, pressure forces concentrate at the corners, requiring expensive non-standard inefficient reinforcement. So, let’s say we have flow through a square. Is the velocity the same or is it slowed down? Well, if pressure is not evenly distributed, it can’t accelerate the same.

  • From the above example, we know that circumference is (2 * pi * radius). For circular motion, here’s how it’s determined:
  • Average speed = distance/time = (2 * pi * radius)/time. In other words, circumference is the distance we’re talking about here divided by time, which gives us the average speed.

I’ve been talking about circles in terms of their mechanics. Bacteria and other buildup such as scaling also love to hide in corners and crevices that come from shapes other than circular. This, too, means circles are a winning shape.

All of this had me curious about the larger picture above and beyond water. Circles are elegant and the most powerful of any shape to be found in the universe and beyond. They might be the shape of choice in water stewardship, but they didn’t start there. That shape is found everywhere in nature, and its use in water stewardship is simply a mirror to it. Everything from atoms to cells to the earth, planets, sun, moon, and even black holes are all circular shapes. It’s only fitting that the shape of the basic building block of life is also the best conductor to what flows through it.

That’s fascinating. And beautiful.


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