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Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies

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The former head of the Sante Fe Institute, visionary physicist Geoffrey West is a pioneer in the field of complexity science, the science of emergent systems and networks. The term “complexity” can be misleading, however, because what makes West’s discoveries so beautiful is that he has found an underlying simplicity that unites the seemingly complex and diverse phenomena of living systems, including our bodies, our cities and our businesses.

Fascinated by issues of aging and mortality, West applied the rigor of a physicist to the biological question of why we live as long as we do and no longer. The result was astonishing, and changed science, creating a new understanding of energy use and metabolism: West found that despite the riotous diversity in the sizes of mammals, they are all, to a large degree, scaled versions of each other. If you know the size of a mammal, you can use scaling laws to learn everything from how much food it eats per day, what its heart-rate is, how long it will take to mature, its lifespan, and so on. Furthermore, the efficiency of the mammal’s circulatory systems scales up precisely based on weight: if you compare a mouse, a human and an elephant on a logarithmic graph, you find with every doubling of average weight, a species gets 25% more efficient—and lives 25% longer. This speaks to everything from how long we can expect to live to how many hours of sleep we need. Fundamentally, he has proven, the issue has to do with the fractal geometry of the networks that supply energy and remove waste from the organism's body.

West's work has been game-changing for biologists, but then he made the even bolder move of exploring his work's applicability to cities. Cities, too, are constellations of networks and laws of scalability relate with eerie precision to them. For every doubling in a city's size, the city needs 15% less road, electrical wire, and gas stations to support the same population. More amazingly, for every doubling in size, cities produce 15% more patents and more wealth, as well as 15% more crime and disease. This broad pattern lays the groundwork for a new science of cities.

Recently, West has applied his revolutionary work on cities and biological life to the business world. This investigation has led to powerful insights into why some companies thrive while others fail. The implications of these discoveries are far-reaching, and are just beginning to be explored.
Scale is a thrilling scientific adventure story about the elemental natural laws that bind us together in simple but profound ways. Through the brilliant mind of Geoffrey West, we can envision how cities, companies and biological life alike are dancing to the same simple, powerful tune, however diverse and unrelated they are to each other.

From the Hardcover edition.

481 pages, Hardcover

First published May 16, 2017

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Geoffrey B. West

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Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,521 followers
December 5, 2017
This is a fantastic book about scaling laws and how to understand them. Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist, who has spent a lot of time at the Santa Fe Institute, deriving theoretical scaling laws, and applying them successfully to biology, cities, and companies. He derives the theories from the structure of networks; arteries, capillaries in organisms, social networks and city infrastructure, and companies.

The scaling laws themselves are fascinating. In the very first chapter, Geoffrey West hits the reader with an astounding set of scaling laws that certainly surprised me. As to biology, there are about 50 different metrics that have interesting scaling laws--and West touches on a few of them. The scaling of metabolism, heart rates, brain matter, growth rates, life spans, aorta lengths, tree heights, and on and on; you get the picture. These scaling laws pertain across organisms, from the tiniest microbe to the blue whale; over 20 orders of magnitude.

But the really surprising aspect is that almost all of the scaling laws are factors of 1/4! For example, metabolic rate scales as Mass to the 3/4 power. Doubling the mass of a mammal increases its time to maturity by 1/4, its lifetime increases by 1/4, and its heart rate decreases by 1/4. And, these laws apply over the entire range of mammals, despite their diversity. Mitochondrial mass, relative to the total mass of an organism, goes as Mass to the -1/4 power. And, Geoffrey West describes how he and colleagues have derived theoretical scaling laws and growth curves from first principles. He shows how remarkably well the data fit his theoretical predictions.

As a physicist, West felt that this universal 1/4-power scaling tells us something fundamental about the dynamics, structure, and organization of life. These laws suggest dynamical processes that constrain evolution. And there are some surprising constants among all mammals. Blood pressure is approximately the same, and the number of heart beats in a lifetime is about the same, among all mammals!

But the discussion of scaling laws don't stop with biology. West finds fascinating scaling laws that apply to cities and to companies. The most perplexing question he addresses is, why do most cities live forever, while companies have short lifetimes? Cities are the prime drivers of economic development, not the nation state. And, most of the scaling laws associated with cities are either to the 0.85 or 1.15 power. That is to say, comparing two average cities, one twice as big as the other in population, the larger city will not have double the number of gas stations, but only 85% more than the smaller one. The larger city will have 115% higher wages, more doctors and lawyers, patents, GDP, number of cases of AIDS, crime and pollution. This scaling applies within all countries, but not across from one country to another.

The average half-life of companies is 10.5 years!And in any given year, the risk of a company disappearing (through bankruptcy, or merger, or acquisition) is the same, regardless of a company's size!

While cities become more diverse as they age and grow, companies do the opposite; they lose diversity, as they become more supportive of tried-and-true products in order to guarantee short-term returns. As companies grow, so too does their bureaucratic control. And, this is at the expense of innovation and R&D (Research and Development).

At times, the narrative deviates from scaling, and goes into various qualitative aspects of cities and companies. The author is rather opinionated in these areas, but his conjectures are interesting, though open to controversy. My only complaint about this book is that, while theoretical scaling laws in biology are developed and tested successfully against data, the book does not offer theoretical scaling laws for cities and companies. To some extent, these are more difficult to develop, because they depend on socio-economic structures and social networks. Data for these, especially for companies, are more difficult or expensive to obtain. Nevertheless, this book offers a wealth of information, and is endlessly fascinating. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews493 followers
August 1, 2017
If you are only going to read one book on networks/ systems, let it be this. Whenever a physicist takes on the question of What is Life, like Erwin Schrödinger did in 1944, spectacular things come from it. Physicist Geoffrey West has carried on the Schrödinger tradition and given the world some serious food for thought.

This is probably going to be the longest review I have ever written because this is, without question, one of the most important books I have ever read and is an essential read for anyone who wants to better understand the changing face of evolutionary theory or better understand systems.

In Scale, Geoffrey West has written a paradigm shifting, seminal work in the area of evolution. In this book, West remains modest, so much so, a typical reader might not know how significant a contribution to the theory of evolution he has made. He does not detail the shortcomings or virtues of previous contributions to the theory. He merely relates to his reader what his decades of research have uncovered and how they relate to the theory of evolution. Since West did not give his reader an adequate understanding of how the past research of evolution has fallen short, and how his research, along with the work of other greats like Jermey England and Nick Lane, is changing the very fabric of the modern synthesis of evolution, I feel compelled to provide a short history of paradigms, so that West's works can be seen for the fundamental shift that it is. First though, I would like to thank the people in West's life who convinced him to write a popular book detailing his work. His previous book Scaling in Biology was decidedly written for scientists. Everything found in that book can be found in this book as well, only without the graphs and maths. West was again going to write a similar book, this time including his work on the metabolism of cities. When he told his ideas to Amazon's Jeff Bazos, historian Niall Ferguson, and other non scientists, they told him that his work was too important to keep in the ivory tower and that he must write in a way that conveys his brilliant ideas to curious minds of all educations levels. The result is this fantastic and mind-blowing book.

Many new and exciting additions to the conventional theory of evolution are being made to help researchers and the general public alike understand Darwinian evolution in more complete terms. Darwin got the ball rolling by helping citizens of the world understand that humans were not the result of God placing us here on Earth, already fully formed, but rather the result of heredity, as each population handed down modified traits to their offspring, over billions of years. Helping complete the picture of heredity, researchers like Neil Shubin and others helped map the gene switches that turned cells into fish, fish into tiktaalik, tiktaalik into treeshrews, and treeshrews into humans. This type of research really helped fill in our understanding of what role the environment and genes play in evolution. Unfortunately, until recently, progress for the theory has been significantly harmed by the very people who did the most to help convey the complex science of evolution to the general public. Richard Dawkins and other neo- Darwinists made it their job to speak for Darwin. They brought forth extremely incredible ideas that were exciting to the general public, who devoured them as they read articles and books, which all featured the star of evolution, the selfish gene. Trying to understand the selfish gene was worthwhile in the 1970s, when scientists still failed to understand the role that thermodynamics played in evolution. Prior to better understanding how thermodynamics affects the formation of living and non living systems, the emergence of life seemed like a wonderful accident. Indeed, Dawkins is still calling the emergence of life an "accident".

Unfortunately as time passed, Dawkins and his fellow old school Darwinists shamed, bullied, and discredited anyone who attempted to contribute new findings to the theory of evolution that would replace the notion of the selfish gene. Dawkins is famous for his vicious attacks on scientists such as E.O. Wilson, Eva Jablonka and other researchers working in the very exciting field of epigenetics. In response to anyone trying to include the role of epigenetic modification of genes in the process of heredity and evolution or anyone challenging kin selection by examining the role of cooperation in the process of evolution, Dawkins accused them of being uneducated and not understanding evolution. As the decades pressed on, it became clear that it was Dawkins, and not the researchers working on epigenetics and systems (networks), who did not fully understand the science of evolution. Dawkins learned new and exciting science that had occurred from 1859 (when Darwin's Origins was published); through the 40s and 50s when many advancements in understanding DNA, RNA, proteins, viruses, and molecule interactions took place; into the 70s when scientists had a fairly good understanding of the way genes work inside organisms throughout many, many generations. After the 70s, Dawkins (who did a lot to help the theory of evolution gain the respect it deserved) stopped paying attention to the newer science. He had written about the selfish gene and attacked anyone who threatened his selfish gene fame by showing it to be brilliant but outdated.

This brings us into the present, including Geoffrey West. More progressive researchers continued to expand their understanding of evolution to include more recent findings, such as how genes are epigenetically modified by various environmental factors and, more importantly, how thermodynamics, and not genes, truly drives the process of evolution. One of the most noteworthy researchers in this field is Jeremy England, an MIT professor who rocked the science world with his likely overhaul of Darwinian evolution. England calls Darwinian evolution a special case of a much larger and general phenomenon. In England's estimation, evolution itself is the process of dissipating energy. That is to say, living systems are really good at capturing and dissipating energy by converting it to heat. The emergence of life itself was merely a response to thermodynamics. Atoms gradually restructured themselves in order to dissipate increasingly more energy; that restructuring of atoms *is* life. To England and many of today's top researchers studying evolution, the emergence of life is *probable*, meaning that Dawkins' view of life being a random accident is outdated since it doesn't take into account the newer evidence on why and how atoms would assemble into lifeforms.

Nick Lane and his colleagues also shook things up in evolutionary research when they created models of the emergence of life at deep sea hydrothermal vents. Lane agrees with England that the emergence of life is actually expected in the given conditions and is not the random miraculous accident that Dawkins thinks it is. Like England, Lane and colleagues are focused on energy. Every living organism takes in nutrients packed with energy. Cells take in various nutrients (CO2, Na+, K+, Ca2+, etc) and expel waste products (H2O, CO2, etc) in order to remain active, repair, and reproduce. Plants take in nutrients (photons of light, carbon from the air, and water and nitrogen from soil) and expel waste products (H2O). Animals take in nutrients (oxygen, water, whole plants, other animals, grains, etc) and expel waste products (you know what you expel; no need to spell it out). All of these nutrients are packed with life giving energy- even that horrible donut you ate after telling yourself you wouldn't. Even the waste products themselves are wonderful energy packed nutrients. An animal's feces are a yummy energy filled treat to plants growing in soil. The oxygen that plants expel are poisonous to them, and if they could think, they might view oxygen waste just as we view feces as disgusting waste. But we *love* to breathe in their waste. Who doesn't love a fresh breath of oxygen rich air? No matter what the system (cell, plant, animal, or machine), it requires energy to live, reproduce, and evolve. Thus, anytime a theory of evolution cannot account for the energy necessary to evolve, that theory is unquestionably incomplete. Lane was able to provide the current best guess about from where life sprang, precisely because he came at the problem by asking what the energy source for creating new life might look like. It turned out that it is surprisingly easy to find the necessary energy at hydrothermal vents. Acidic conditions make it so there is a bubbling stream of rich nutrients that are pushed through the rocky vents. The pours in the rock are the shape and size of cells. It is believed that perhaps nutrients were taken under ground when they were submerged along with huge chunks of tectonic plates. Then the earth ripped apart the rock, freeing the nutrients. The nutrients, which can build the stuff of life, were then expelled through vents in the ocean floor where they went on to flow through the rocky membranes and make the molecules of life. But these first cells were stuck to the vents, because they were entirely dependent on the energy provided by vents. Over time, those cells developed channels that allowed them to take in nutrients that made enough energy to keep them alive when they floated away from the vents and out to sea to eventually evolve into single cells, then multicellular organisms, algae, plants, cartilage fish, boney fish (our ancestors), tiktaalik, horses, bats, monkeys, humans, insects, reptiles, dinosaurs, and more. No other theory can currently account for the energy needed to continue to remain active long enough to replicate. It might turn out that the RNA World hypothesis is correct (RNA came first and replicated itself, creating DNA, more RNA, and proteins) but it will first have to account for the energy needed for that first RNA to replicate.

Whatever the answer of how life began -- be it they hypothesis of Nick Lane et. al. that suggests it began at the hydrothermal vents, the RNA world hypothesis, or an altogether different hypothesis, it will *have to account for the energy needed*. The fact that Lane focused almost solely on that is what makes his guess stronger than any other guess currently on the table. England was able to gain fundamental new insights because he too focused almost entirely on energy -- what is the energy source that creates and feeds the form; what is the response of the forms to energy streaming, cycling through the system, or being transferred to heat as they leave the system; how do forms react to each other as they share the large energy sources among them (e.g. virtually all living forms on Earth have to share the energy sent by the sun in the form of photons, which are extremely energetic).

Geoffrey West too is obsessed with how energy enters a system, how it is extracted and turned into ATP as it cycles through that system, and how fast that energy is used up and what happens when it's gone. He is also interested in what makes up a system. Your cells in your body make up you. But what about each organ? What about your dependence on other animals to give you the energy you need so you can turn it into ATP to keep on living and producing offspring? What about the electricity and shelter of houses and buildings that humans depend on for their economies, healthcare, and daily living? West tries to understand the many networks that help cycle energy. Are there systems that act just like organisms? His answer is yes and no. Some systems that seem like they might be alive are merely constructed, while others (like cities and companies) exhibit the traits of energy consumption and energy evacuation that are remarkably similar to how animals metabolize energy. Whether or not West turns out to be right about cities and companies (something I am still thinking about), asking about evolution from this perspective will increase society's understanding a significant amount from the little we understood when Darwin first brought us his brilliant insights. This is because the answer *always* lies in energy consumption, conversion, and transfer. The answer always lies in thermodynamics because it is what drives everything. When someone can understand evolution through the lens of thermodynamics, then they will have the most complete and up to date understanding of the process that a human being can have. That understanding might still be limited, but it will be more complete than any theory or hypothesis that does not take thermodynamics/energy into account.

When looking at evolution in relation to energy production and consumption (and all that entails), researchers like England, Lane, and West make it easy to see that the emergence of life is far from a random accident. Instead, life is the result of all molecules following the laws of nature. Life arises when certain molecules, which are subjected to the same forces and laws that every molecule is exposed to, are exposed to the various conditions found on Earth. As has been pointed out in criticisms to Peter Ward's Rare Earth hypothesis, it's hard to say for sure if all of the conditions are necessary (a moon that holds the earth at an axis of 23 1/2 degrees, being at our exact proximity to the sun, having the exact # of planets in our solar system, being at our exact position in our galaxy, and so on) for the emergence of life, but it has become increasingly clear that life can and will emerge when subjected to conditions such as those on Earth because the molecules have *no choice* but to behave the way they do. England understood this well when, years ago, he stated that given everything we know about the fundamental laws of nature, the emergence and subsequent evolution of life "should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling down a hill." Believing in 2017 that life is a happy random accident, as Dawkins and his crew do, in the face of the abundance of evidence to the contrary, which has been filtering in for quite a while now, is to think exactly like the creationists the neo-Darwinists are fighting. At this point, it's absurd. I am so thankful for researchers like West who are ushering the theory of evolution into the 21st century.

With the summary over of why West's book is important to the theory of evolution, it's now onto the review of the actual book:

Most of the book deals with scaling in biological systems. As mentioned at the start of this review, West wrote a book Called Scaling in Biology, written for academics -- lots of graphs, detailed the maths, and was published in article form-- which blew my mind. I loved that book so much, I slept with it beside my bed for about a year, looking at it whenever I wanted to think more deeply about scaling. Basically, if West were hard pressed to narrow down what scaling in biology means (and he has been pressed to do so; look up his many wonderful talks and lectures on youtube) he would probably say something like this: Scaling means that all organisms are governed by the same physical laws, which makes them grow, live and die in remarkably similar ways. For example, every animal has about 1.5 billion heartbeats in a lifetime. Small mice have hearts that beat fast and use up their heartbeats very quickly, resulting in a very short lifespan. Large elephants, on the other hand, have hearts that beat slowly, making their 1.5 billion heartbeats occur over a much longer life span. But, why should this be so? Brilliantly, West has spent an entire career uncovering a few simple laws that put constraints on the evolution of any organism (or non organism for that matter). Because of the laws of physics, organisms must take in energy to remain active. They must unpack and harvest that energy and turn it into a waste product. The way every organism does this is the same. It doesn't matter if that organism is a huge blue whale, a tiny ant, or even a microscopic cell.

Understanding energy processing in organisms has allowed West to mostly (he is still working out some kinks here and there) understand everything in terms of networks and systems. Once he understood energy processing (metabolism), he could understand how an organism develops, what structures an organism can have, what role fractals play, what role power laws play, and more importantly for West, what other forms might metabolize just like living organisms. I have zero doubt that cities metabolize. The only thing that remains unclear to me is, to what extent does it actually scale with biological systems. I am not sure I like the measurement tools he used for companies. So again, I buy the argument that companies metabolize, that is process, energy. I am just not sure about the scaling aspect of it. Even with these concerns, the mere understanding of the common, truly universal, laws that apply to all systems (be it an organism or a city) is a significant contribution to society's understanding of how the laws of physics govern the world and larger universe.

When writing specifically about evolution, West challenges the notion of natural selection. In order to have selection, there must be variance. However, once organisms are understood in terms of systems, it is clear that there are many aspects of life that are invariant. West repeatedly describes this phenomenon throughout the book. Some of the most intersting parts of this book have to do with what West calls terminal units. For example, veins are scaled down versions or arteries, and capillaries are scaled down versions of veins. Thus, the capillaries, since they are fractals, are smaller versions of the arteries. The capillaries are the terminal units. (In cells the terminal units are things like respiratory units inside mitochondria). Most damage occurs at terminal units. This damage is aging. Terminal units also dictate how large an animal can get. (Check out West's captivating discussion on the Crow's radius. I loved that part so much). When West discusses aging, he does so in terms of entropy. It is the only way we should ever talking about aging. Brilliant!

What does the processing of energy, and the fractal nature of energy transfer, have to do with the fact that if you are cut on an artery, you die, but if you are cut on a capillary, you simply need a band-aid? West provides an entertaining answer.

In this book lies one of the best histories of the discovery of fractals. No other book that I can recall has given Richardson his due. Mandelbrot is always highlighted, as he should be, but Richardson rarely receives the recognition he has earned.

West spends quite a bit of time discussing aging. He believes Ray Kurzweil might be wrong about how long humans can live. West explains at length, but never assumes he is correct. He simply relates what he knows and tries to understand what constraints that might have for maximum human lifespan- even with the aid of technology. Personally, I think Kurzweil is far too optimistic, but I think West is discounting what future technology can do. Nothing can live forever. Our sun will eventually swallow the earth if something else doesn't crash into or eat it first. But humans might be able to live a bit longer than West suggest. I won't know the answer in my lifetime, but i enjoy the hypotheses. The take home message from West is that disease is not the leading cause of death. So, we have to take that into account.

A small criticism:

One thing that bothered me a great deal about this book was West's discussion of Zimbardo's prison and car studies. I think of West as a critical thinker. Zimbardo fiddled with his own studies! You cannot trust findings from researchers who do sketchy things. West accepts the results of Zimbardo's studies without critiquing them. It's a small complaint when I consider the rest of
Profile Image for Sebastien.
252 reviews286 followers
July 9, 2017
Very well done popular science book. Explains concepts of scaling both from cellular, individual, to large system levels. Fascinating analysis on what kind of patterns and general rules we see with scaling in nature but also in human systems (cities, corporations, etc). I did this one in audiobook, kind of wish I'd done it in physical book format so I could have taken more notes/do more underlining. There are a lot of things mentioned in this book that I'd like to read up on and learn more about, especially in the realm of large human-engineered systems' dynamics coupled with the role and arc of technological innovation and resilience/sustainability of these systems. I thought the material presented had a good balance between accessible concepts and gritty details, although as the author mentions he did have to flatten certain things out to make some concepts more accessible to general public, which is to be expected but also something I appreciate otherwise I'd never get a toehold on any of this stuff.

If you are interested in systems, patterns, biology, life cycles (of both organisms and systems), def recommend this one.

One crazy awesome thing is that Cormac McCarthy helped edit the book. This is mentioned in the epilogue and I thought that was pretty cool and out of left field.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,064 reviews698 followers
August 6, 2017
Geoffrey West is a physicist who in this book has attempted to provide some modeling tools that will enable understanding and predicting the future directions of "highly complex systems" involving human behavior. He does this by first describing the scaling observations from the study of Allometric growth in the first part of the book, and then in the later parts of the book moving on to the fields of city planning, economics, and business with the assumption that their development and growth is analogous to biological growth. In the final section he suggests a path toward a "grand unified theory of sustainability."

I pause here to note that Goffrey West brags in the book's end notes that he has not used a single mathematical equation in the whole book. Some people will find that to be an attractive feature, but I found it a detriment. In my review that follows I have used an equation which I think succinctly summarizes a whole paragraph of words.

Allometric growth is the regular and systematic pattern of the size of any organ or part of the body in relation to the total size of the entire organism. An example to illustrate this is the difference in size between a cat and a mouse. Most people would guess that a cat that weighs 100 times more than a mouse requires 100 times more energy to sustain its life. This kind of linear extrapolation is incorrect. In fact, a cat that is 100 times heavier than a mouse requires only about 32 times as much energy to sustain it even though it has approximately 100 times as many cells. That rate of growth can be expressed with the exponent of 3/4 as follows:
100^(3 / 4) = 31.6227766 ≈ 32
The above relationship is called Kleiber's law and can be expressed more universally as follows:
Y = bx^α,
where Y = mass of the organ,
x = mass of the organism,
α = growth coefficient of the organ,
b = a constant.
It turns out that there are many different growth coefficients and curiously, the number 4 keeps showing up in the exponent.
There are probably well over fifty such scaling laws and another big surprise is their corresponding exponents the analog of the three quarters in Kleiber's law are invariably very close to simple multiples of one quarter.

For example, the exponent for growth rates is very close to 3/4, for lengths of aortas and genomes it's 1/4, the heights of trees 1/4, the cross-sectional areas of both aortas and tree trunks 3/4, for brain sizes 3/4, for cerebral white and gray matter 5/4, for heart rates minus 1/4, for mitochondrial densities in cells minus 1/4, for rates of evolution minus 1/4, for diffusion rates across membranes minus 1/4, for life spans 1/4 . . . and many, many more. The "minus" here simply indicates that the corresponding quantity decreases with size rather than increases, so, for instance, heart rates decrease with increasing body size following the 1/4 power law . . .
Geoffrey West provides an evaluation of these quantities and explains how the ratios are the result of biological evolution finding the most efficient size or quantity for these parameters, and that these scaling ratios could have been predicted on that basis.

His explanation for the repeated appearance of the number four is as follows:
It is the mathematical interplay between the cube root scaling law for lengths and the square root scaling law for radii, constrained by the linear scaling of blood volume and the invariance of the terminal units, that leads to quarter-power allometric exponents across organisms.

The resulting magic number four emerges as an effective extension of the usual three dimensions of the volume serviced by the network by an additional dimension resulting from the fractal nature of the network. . . . . . . natural selection has taken advantage of the mathematical marvels of fractal networks to optimize their distribution of energy so that organisms operate as if they were in four dimensions, rather than the canonical three. In this sense the ubiquitous number four is actually 3+1. More generally, it is the dimension of the space being serviced plus one.
Geoffrey West then takes a look at cities and considers their similarity to biological life. In the case of biological life the terminal (i.e.smallest) unit is the cell. For a city the terminal unit is a person. He proceeds to show evidence that cities become more efficient at the dissemination of information and the utilization of energy in proportion to their size at ratios (a.k.a. growth coefficients) that reflect those of biological beings.

There is one difference between cities and biological life. Living beings grow old and die, cities don't. At least cities don't die as long as there are plenty of young terminal units (i.e. people) available to replace those who die.

Then Geoffrey West evaluates the performance of business companies. I was surprised to learn that the average half life of businesses is less than ten years. In other words, on average they die (a.k.a. go bankrupt) young. For cities there seems to be no upper limit for their size to benefit from the benefits of being larger. This was not true for businesses. Their efficiencies seem to top out as they become very large.

The book closes with these words:
Given the special, unique role of cities as the originators of many of our present problems and their continuing role as the superexponential driver toward potential disaster, understanding their dynamics, growth, and evolution in a scientifically predictable, quantitative framework is crucial to achieving long-term sustainability on the planet. Perhaps of even greater importance for the immediate future is to develop such a theory within the context of a grand unified theory of sustainability by bringing together the multiple studies, simulations, databases, models, theories, and speculations concerning global warming, the environment, financial markets, risk, economies, health care, social conflict, and the myriad other characteristics of man as a social being interacting with his environment.
The book contains multiple graphs and charts which I found helpful. Many of the graphs in the book use logarithmic scaling which the books explains in excruciating detail.

My favorite quotation:
I have met scant few economists who do not automatically dismiss traditional Malthusian-like ideas of eventual or imminent collapse as naive, simplistic, or just plain wrong. On the other hand, I have met scant few physicists or ecologists who think it's nuts to believe otherwise. The late maverick economist Kenneth Boulding perhaps best summed it up when testifying before the U.S. Congress, declaring that "anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."
An interesting fact that I learned from the book:
The total number of heartbeats per life time on average is the same for all mammals. The hearts of larger long-lived mammals beat slower than small mammals, but the total number of beats over a lifespan is about the same. This was also true for human beings up until about two hundred years ago. Humans have since managed to double their lifespan, thus doubling the average number of lifetime heartbeats.
55 reviews28 followers
September 17, 2018
This book is frustrating, it has some really cool facts and a lot of his philosophy of science which I mostly appreciated. I feel like I'd really enjoy some of his papers. About 80% of this book is a waste of time though. He repeats himself in nearly every chapter. He frequently goes on 10-page irrelevant tangents. About 100 pages of the chapter on cities talks about sociology; it's framed as historical background which will help you explain his theory. By the end you realize it was just him covering up for the the fact that he doesn't have a theory. The best he can do is to say something along the lines of: our brains are fractal and this causes our societies to be fractal and it makes a lot of sense to assume cities are fractal in reflection of this.

Let me save you from reading this book: Many properties of many different species can be predicted with surprising accuracy given just the size of the animal, in some weird sense you can see every animal as just a scaled version of some idealized animal. As animals increase in size these properties grow exponentially, with an exponent of some multiple of 1/4. This is because there are fundamental constraints involved with existing in 3D space. It turns out that space-filling fractals are the best way to fit things such as lungs and capillaries into 3D space. Since all life has independently optimized its metabolism: all life has discovered fractals. Space-filling fractals result in scaling laws with 1/4 exponents, and this causes many properties of species to follow the same scaling laws.

I wish I could tell you more, but he goes out of his way to avoid written equations. Mind you, the book contains quite a few equations! But instead of writing them down he explains them with prose; to get at an actual equation you have to work backwards from the explanations he gives of their consequences. Why do space-filling fractals result in scaling laws with 1/4 exponents? It apparently has something to do with fractals acting as if they're in 4D space but that part of the book has no citations.

His philosophy of science is nice, although not very novel and of course he repeats himself many times:

As Einstein wrote, "we followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul as it reveals itself in man and animal". Regardless of one's belief system, there is something supremely grand and reassuring when one perceives even a tiny piece of the mystifyingly chaotic world around us conforming to regularities and principles that transcend its awesome complexity and seeming meaninglessness. As I argued earlier, analytic models such as the growth theory are deliberate oversimplifications of a more complex reality. Their utility depends on the extent to which they capture some fundamental essence of how nature works, the extent to which their assumptions are reasonable, their logic sound, and their simplicity or explanatory power and internal consistency in agreement with observations. (page 172)

Science at its best is the search for commonalities, regularities, principles, and universalities that transcend and underlie the structure and behavior of any particular individual constituent. [...] And it is at its very best when it can do that in a quantitative, mathematically computational, predictive framework. (page 269)

Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,363 followers
June 8, 2017
Um daqueles livros raros e excelentes que integra áreas enormes com conceitos claros, bem explicados e detalhados por alguém que entende muito do que está falando. Geoffrey West trabalhava com física de partículas, mas com a idade avançando, bateu aquele medo da morte e ele se envolveu com envelhecimento e fisiologia. E trabalhando no Santa Fe Institute, ele estava no centro da interdisciplinaridade.

Ao longo do livro, ele discute princípios gerais pelos quais o mundo opera quando mudamos de escala. O que acontece quando uma cidade cresce (crimes, poluição, uso de recurso), quando uma empresa cresce ou envelhece (chance de decaimento ou inovação), quando nós crescemos e envelhecemos. Tudo isso discutindo pesquisa recente, com explicações claras e sem nenhuma fórmula matemática. Ele faz um esforço enorme para deixar mesmo conceitos mais pesados como leis de potência e crescimento exponencial acessíveis. E para integrar isso tudo, conta várias histórias e detalha muitos assuntos, por isso o livro é enorme.

Economia, envelhecimento, diversidade de profissões em cidades, fractais, aceleração do ritmo de vida... com certeza está entre os melhores livros que li.
Profile Image for Phrodrick.
870 reviews38 followers
October 28, 2017
In rating Geoffrey West’s Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies a four star read; I am stating that I liked the book. However I have a lot of sympathy with those who are more critical. In the main I think he is on to something. I enjoyed what was for me an introduction to an effort to fit the laws of physics to other sciences, esp the biological sciences. This may be a very old effort, but the fact of it is new to me.

I have to agree that West can be repetitious. Worse than that, I get the impression he will provide supporting proof for a few assertions and then uses the trust that engenders to make conclusions beyond his evidence. The deeper into Scale I read, the more suspicious I become of initial arguments.

A solid case can be made that the biological sciences, must conform to the rules of physics. It is a reasonable assumption to maintain that biological processes must conform to things like the laws of conservation of energy. Successful biological systems, mammalian or not should align with the laws of physics; esp as applied to fundamental activities like respiration, metabolism and decay. So far so good. But West knows that this approach is not so well developed to make it possible to offer more than “Coarse Grained” estimation and generalizations.

The further he moves from biological systems; specifically to corporate cycles, urban cycles and his version of a TOE, Theory of Everything. I got the impression that he has ever less solid science under his feet, and a determination to apply the tools he likes to whatever he is observing.
His fondness for the relative stability of cities, has him making no observations about those that collapse. His information about the life cycle of companies, does not always distinguish those that are bought out which likely were bought out because of their success, with those that go bankrupt.

These issues nag at me, yet I like this book. Mostly it is not technical. The writing style is, for me inviting and challenging without being too academic. Even if he does go beyond his evidence there is much here to leave you thinking.

Specific to climate change. I do not think he uses the expression. Instead he make the case that to the degree that humans have separated themselves for the more natural processes of a “Pristine” earth, the more we have taken upon ourselves the problem of sustainability. It is not reasonable that the earth can provide to specifically its human population an unlimited supply of the materials we now need for the relatively comfortable to extend our level of comfort to everybody or at ever increasing levels of comfort to an ever increasing number of humans.

All trends lines change. A fact he rarely mentions when discussing the log tables he so loves. Present technology depends on more than supplies of carbon burning energy – petroleum, coal, natural gas, etcetera. Other limitations include fresh water and rare earth metals. Items he lists more than once. Changes in technology may change dependence on rare earth metals, petroleum perhaps even water. This raises the question of how fast these changes can be developed, who will pay for them and what new costs will be imposed by these changes. West believes that these changes are likely to happen but also believes that such changes must come at an accelerating rate. Perhaps, let me think about it.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
912 reviews314 followers
April 3, 2019
Throws lots of ideas at us.

False data. One of his introductory graphs is of company size vs. income. Shows income near $1 million/year for a 1-person company. If true, we'd all do it. For his fraction-of-people-surviving-this-long-vs.-age graphs, he gives us a smooth curve, then a stairstep one, for the same thing--he wants to identify supposed causes of death, so he redraws the curve to fit what he wants to say. Early in the book there's a plot showing all animals have essentially 1 billion heartbeats per lifetime. Later there's a graph showing larger animals such as horses with lower heartrates and much shorter lives than us. Walking speed is /negative/ in small cities? And nowhere more than .6 m/s (2.16 kph)? (Fig. 42)

No, it won't do. If you don't start with a commitment to true data, your conclusions can have no value.

Starts by trumpeting the value of log-log plots for the kind of relationships he's looking at. Correct. Then retreats to linear plots for just the kind of graphs that need to be log. His log-log plots have a different distance per decade on the horizontal compared to the vertical. So you can't tell by looking at it what the slope is. Numbers an axis, "10^1, 10^2, 10^3," /in thousands of dollars/! Don't do that to us. Say ten to the 4, 5, 6, /in dollars./ Labels axes, 4.5, 5.5, 6.5--meaning ten to the that many people in the city. No. Label 10,000 100,000 1,000,000. City population "6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16" (Fig. 42) means what? No log or linear scale I can think of makes sense of these numbers as range of city populations.

Mishandling graphs really isn't excusable in a book /about/ visually representing relationships among quantities.

He's quite taken with himself and his fellow Deep Thought Thinkers.
Profile Image for Adrian Buck.
268 reviews39 followers
May 23, 2022
This is an unnecessarily long book. The style veers from the prolix to the colloquial, and it could have done with a decent editor. The big ideas offered come late in the last chapters, and they are not enlarged upon. It unluckily seems to have missed the 'singularity' it predicts will happen. I found it a slow and frustrating read.

The first 200 pages are given over the role of scale in biology. In a nutshell, knowing the size of an organism gives you a pretty good idea of its metabolic rate and lifespan. High metabolic rate creatures are small and age quickly; low metabolic rate creatures are large and age slowly. This wasn't news to me, in Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life Nick Lane is able to cover these ideas in 80 pages; explain the mechanism that makes them so; and in addition, explain why the unusual energy demands of flight make birds outliers for these power laws.

There seems to be a general problem with mathematicians like West in that they are so overwhelmed by the discovery that there is a mathematical relationship between apparently disaprate phenomena such as size, aging and metabolism, that they stop to marvel at the numbers rather than ask themselves why, why should this be the case. This is particularly galling where the mathematical relationship is statistical, and they ignore the outliers.

In the second half of the book, he turns his attention to socio-economic phenomena such as cities and corporations. He discovers that all sorts of properties of cities are correlated to scaling power laws, and is again astonished. By this time I would have thought it not surprising that cities based on the same human technologies, should behave like creatures based on the same cell biology. When he provides graphs of these scaling laws across different countries - for example the number of gasoline stations in cities in Germany and France - he marvels at their approximation to the mathematical mean. I however marvel that these lines have different gradients and cross the axes at different points. As with birds, where universal laws exist, the exceptions are more interesting than those that obey the rule.

He later on applies some sort of Pareto analysis to what determines the properties of cities; claiming that 10-20% of the observable properties of cities are determined by "their individuality and uniqueness, which can only be understood from detailed studies that incorporate historical, geographical, and cultural characteristics." pg. 384. So far; so uninteresting....Then it gets interesting.

In comparing companies to cities, he claims that companies are similar to creatures, in that they scale sublinearly, and as such are subject to 'ageing' and 'death' in the same way creatures are. Cities however, scale superlinearly, and will to grow superexponentially until they require infinite resources within finite time - giving rise to a singularity. Now I wish he had spent 400 pages explaining, and carefully repeating this, because I'm not sure what a 'singularity' is, but he didn't. I am left that with the notion that this 'singularity' represents some sort of phase shift: in the same way heated water turns into steam, a overheated city apparently turns into Detroit, somehow.

However, this comparision gives rise to the the biggest idea in the book, certainly one that overturns centuries of economic analysis,
"As such, [cities] exude an almost laissez-faire, free wheeling ambience relative to companies, taking advantage of the innovative benefits of social interactions whether good, bad or ugly. Despite their bumbling efficiencies, cities are places of action and agents of change relative to companies, which by and large usually project an image of stasis unless they are young" pg 408
i.e. cities are more important agents of economic change rather than corporations. This might explain the solid economic growth achieved by the Soviet Union before the 1970s. In the absence of corporations as we know them, maybe it was a consequence of moving the population into cities. This certainly correlates with the history of industrialisation in Great Britain and in the People's Republic of China. Again no mechanisms are offered, though he does admit that mechanistic research is necessary.

In his discussion of cities he again overlooks the graphical information he provides to illustrate the superexponential growth of cities. The population of London dipped significantly between 1940 and 1990. This reminded me of a recent trip to Rome. The capital city of Italy is obviously larger than the capital city of the Roman Empire, but the latter is obviously larger than the capital city of the Papal States. Is it just geographical convenience that allows us to call all three cities Rome, whereas historically they might be quite distinct. Nowhere does he offer a definition of what a 'city' is.

It is quite striking that in a book that explains at length how the physical properties of networks determine the distribution of blood in a creature's body, and the distribution of utilities in a city, he overlooks how the internet might have enabled the singularity he is expecting. In fairness this book was published in 2017, two years Before the Covid Era. Whereas the internet had existed alongside cities, it was only during the covid lockdowns that the internet was expected to replace cities, and determine the distribution of 'people' through workplaces and social spaces.

For months in 2020 and 2021, I taught from home, my students were not a few metres away from me, but in some cases many kilometers. It rarely made a difference to me in the performance of my work. My eldest daughter, an IT consultant who graduated in 2o21 works from her home in Manchester as part of a team nominally based in London. The phase change has happened. We are in the process of working out what that means. Jacob Rees-Mogg is unhappy about it, but the UK Department of Education has already sold its desks. Certainly the definition of 'city' in terms of the social and cultural interactions it offers has been enlarged. This book suggests that this could happen, but offers little help in the process of determining what has happened.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,866 reviews421 followers
December 26, 2017
'Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies' surprised me. I learned so much from this book!

Why can we live up to 120 years, but not 1,000? (laws of Thermodynamics)

Why do mice live for up to 2 to 3 years, and elephants live up to 75? (laws of Thermodynamics)

Why do organisms and ecosystems from cells to whales to forests scale with size in a predictable fashion? (Underlying universal math principles of biology)

Why do we stop growing?

Why do most companies live only for a few years (they die or merge)?

Why do cities keep growing and live almost forever? (cities are 'alive', basing assumptions on socio-economics)

Can a 'hard' science of cities and companies be developed? (physics equations)

Why does the pace of life increase?

What is metabolism?

Is there an optimum size of cities, animals and plants?

Why do we need Innovation? (The answer to this one is scary, actually).

How can human-engineered systems co-exist with Nature?

Some of the answers West describes to the above questions are accepted by most scientists because equations have long been developed and proven from observations and data. But some of the answers to some of the above questions have been only recently (in the last 25 years) sussed out by a team of respected researchers and scientists from the Santa Fe Institute. They have been looking at Big Data, so while the maths look promising, some people think West's and the Santa Fe Institute's assumptions are still speculative.

I feel incredibly robbed in not having been born with any genes that make mathematics easy for me. However, Geoffrey West is a terrific writer and his explanations were clear and complete. He is a theoretical physicist, but he branched out from looking for atomic particles to researching the physics of biology, cities, and companies.

West promised to not use equations in this book and he kept his promise! However, the subject matter was medium difficult for me. I had never heard of the science of scaling except in architecture and modeling. I had never heard of scaling being used scientifically in the study of biology before reading this book. The predictive power of equations to explain why animals live as long as they do, or why Godzilla would have collapsed under his own weight before trashing New York City is amazing to me!

Basically, the detailed answers to the above questions, and many other answers to interesting questions presented in the book, are fascinating despite that the explanations often boil down to it is simply because the math equations say things must be so for functionality!

Almost all scaling is nonlinear, a fact which was unknown to many early researchers, so terrible errors of judgement were made in the past, such as in how much drugs to give children and elephants (linear assumptions were made instead of nonlinear). Scaling theories predict behaviors from building full-size ships or bridges from table-size models, to biological metabolism, networks, Mandelbrot fractals, cities, companies and gravity.

For most of the concepts West describes, he wants to suss out the underlying principles, not simply describe mathematically their surface nature and complexity. He wants to know the underlying common maths, the general quantitative theories and dynamics that seem to mechanistically link apparently disparate phenomena such as stock markets, vascular networks, fractals, size metrics and how they will evolve.

Gentle reader, I could tell that there were even more sophisticated ideas from the physics and scaling maths that West left out of his book because it would be beyond what general readers such as myself would understand. West successfully got across many ideas anyway about scaling and some of the amazing physical mechanisms in biology, cities and economies. However, his ideas about cities and companies, while interesting, seemed undeveloped to me. I think he and his team are only beginning to explore the underlying maths of scaling and physical mechanisms in those areas. (Keep in mind I am not a mathematical person by nature.) The fruits of having and analyzing Big Data are clearly just beginning to bloom.

Geoffrey West studies fundamental questions in physics, biology and global sustainability for a living. He is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He also holds visiting positions at Oxford University, Imperial College, and Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. Some of Geoffrey West’s honors and awards include: Leo Szilard Award (American Physical Society, 2013), Harvard Business Review (Breakthrough Ideas 2007), Oxford University’s Glenn Award (Aging research, 2006), Weldon Memorial Prize for Mathematical Biology (2005), Mercer Award co-recipient (Ecological Society of America, 2002). He’s one of 10 Senior Fellows of Los Alamos, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and an Associate Fellow of Oxford University’s Said Business School.

Extensive notes and an index are included.

YouTube link to a Tedtalk: https://youtu.be/XyCY6mjWOPc
Profile Image for Katia N.
581 reviews638 followers
February 13, 2018
I am a little impartial to this book as it reminded me my uncle who is a nuclear physicist and our conversations in his kitchen whether economics is a science and other very interesting topics (not not directly related to physics). This book is written by the physicist who spent the last 20 years of his career investigating something which is not directly related to physics.

I like how physicists are looking at this world. I sympathise totally with their practical approach and attempts to explain everything with the laws of nature. West has established a quantifiable physical framework how organisms are developing and why. The books summarises his findings. It is written for general public in a rambling and discursive style with a lot of deviations from the main plot. But they are always very curious. The main idea of the book is the theory of scales for studying highly complex systems.

Scaling is how complex systems respond with their size change. He comes to the conclusion that “the dynamics, growth, and organisation of animals, plants, human social behaviour, cities and companies are, in fact, subject to similar generic “laws”. He shows that many quantifiable parameters of such system demonstrate an exponential relationship with its size (power law).

And such an elegant idea helps him to approach a range of very serious questions:
-why we can live for up to 120 years but not a million?
-why mice live just 2-3 years while elephant live for up to 75?
-why do we stop growing?
-why do almost all companies live relatively few years whereas cities keep growing and manage to circumvent death?
- can we develop a conceptual quantitive framework for understanding the dynamics of growth and lifecycle of the cities and the companies?
- can our development be sustainable?

The book is especially strong when he talks about biology and connects the theory of evolution with the underlying physical laws and fractal theory. His explanation of the growth of an organism is vigorous (in spite of the fact that he is not allowed to use maths for general audience). He relates the growth to the laws of thermodynamics and hydraulics.

In the process, he talks about a lot of interesting personalities and anecdotes such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his construction projects. Also  Lewis Fry Richardson, a polymath who tried to develop a mathematical theory of war. He was trying to investigate the probability of a military conflict as a function of the length of the countries’ joint border. Instead. he was amazed to discover that the measurement of those borders depend on scale. He inadvertently came across the phenomena of fractals. There are a lot of such mini-stories in the book.

The application of the scaling framework to social systems (companies and cities) is still work in progress, I felt. However, his findings are very curious and, to some extent, counter-intuitive. The main idea is the companies have a quite limited average lifespan and behave more like alive organism. The period of rapid expansion is followed by the period of a slow growth, stagnation and death. The cities however, are drivers of super-exponential growth - the economic activity in the city grow quicker than its size. Respectively, he considers cities as source of unbounded economic growth which brings the challenge of sustainability. (Or he uses the term “singularity” when the growth shoots to infinity for some finite size of population with all unimaginable consequences). As the number the cities will be only growing he talks about the necessity of the “unified sustainability theory”.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It is rich in stories and very personal as well as scientific. It felt more like a conversation with a very knowledgable and enthusiastic older friend. Some might find it irritating in a science book, but I liked it. Only minor complaint which I am sure is not his fault - I aways appalled how such books try to avoid even elementary formulas and equations. Surely it is much easier to explain what is power law if you write it down in the language of maths! But it seems to be a taboo in popular science books. And for me, it makes vigorous theories look more muddled than they have to be.

A few quotes:

"The amount of energy needed to support an average person living in the us is 11k watts compared to just 90 watts for food."

"To maintain order and structure in an evolving system requires the continual supply and use of energy whose byproduct is disorder."

"Because animals obey power law scaling both within individual terms of the geometry and dynamics of their internal structure as well as across species they and therefore all of us are living manifestation of self-similar fractals."

Mandelbrot succinctly put it: “smooth shapes are very rare in the wild but extremely important in the Ivory tower and the factory”.

"The behaviour of the stock market is a self-similar fractal pattern that repeats itself across all scales following law that can b quantified by its exponent or equivalently it’s fractal dimension."

Profile Image for Dan Graser.
Author 3 books100 followers
June 18, 2017
This is one of those very rare "big-science" books that actually accomplishes the fiendishly difficult double-act of maintaining a firm grasp on its explanatory power without going overboard into tedious philosophizing while at the same time actually delivering on the broad sweep and revelatory promise of its telos.

Noted physicist, former director of the Santa Fe Institute, and expositor of complexity theory Geoffrey West introduces several concepts of physics, biology, urban development, business creation/death, and resource consumption with a running thread of seemingly disparate connections between these areas in the form of scaling laws. Using very helpful and sometimes eerily consistent (when applied to a huge array of topics) graphs throughout, West delivers in very bold fashion on several fundamental concepts behind everything from the fundamental similarities of heart activity in mice and blue whales (also Godzilla just for fun) as well as the development and business activity in the largest and fastest developing cities in the world. The latter data area reveals the absurdity of the current course of development and its completely untenable relationship to any notion of sustainability.

This is big science done right and West is to be commended not only for his engaging prose throughout but also for setting a reasonable goal for a book of this magnitude and delivering on his early promises. Great stuff!
4 reviews1 follower
March 24, 2018
While the concept of a mathematical formulation of biological scaling laws outlined in the first few chapters is interesting, unfortunately I did not like the style of this book and found it increasingly irritating as it went on. Some of things that annoyed me:

Fawning descriptions of people the author has worked with and a general humble brag style of writing.
Excessive use of pretentious words like 'concomitant'
Patronising descriptions of how exponentials work, or pointless examples of basic maths
Poorly labelled graphs
Pointless and bad quality images that add nothing to the book
Weird meandering anecdotes of personal experiences that bear little or no relevance to the point of the chapter
Underwhelming conclusions on the scaling laws of cities and companies, demonstrating naive understanding of how companies function and die.
Endless repetition of the core arguments of the book e.g. complex adaptive systems, allometric scaling, invariant terminal units, optimised space-filling systems, every single time an example is outlined to demonstrate them. This must fill dozens of pages across the book.

Sadly I would not recommend this book.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,216 reviews550 followers
September 14, 2017
I would have given this 5 stars except it was enough over my head that I couldn't quite grasp all the connotations. The fault is in the telling too at times, it is dry. But so filled with pure gold that you don't mind digging. All of it deposited around the allometric power laws.

This is one of those "what's it all about Alfie" books. But far, far better than most of them are. It is an interdisciplinary approach, strong on the physics. But includes so much of other philosophies or psychology of thought (cognition) and their practical applications in the real world- that it would be impossible for me to clearly categorize it here. Beyond my ability, but I will try.

It's awesome! Probably could have been edited more rigidly, but the intersects would also have been less obvious?

I'm going to buy it and peruse different parts when they have more relevance to my particular passages. But as I age, some of them are gleaming nuggets to ponder.

He has a 5 or 6 star mind. But many will not grasp the first assumptions he makes? Possibly? He is in many ways a non-linear thinker. So I'm pretty sure that many laypeople, especially those who serve or work "out of the sciences" might not understand the interplay. Perhaps not even understand the difficult language or equivalencies? I didn't get them all and had to use some word research on the side.

Dense, dense reading.

But I picked up some gems that I never knew before this book. Which makes it 5 stars plus for when the life "windows" are so widely pulled open. Making less chaos out of a ultimately complex world.

Brunel- all about him and that awesome and very short life. Civil engineering and so much of what was "true" before him, wasn't. How linear and non-linear thinking works in the present day of "we think" agendas and power propaganda. And how emotion colors that process. Especially on what is taught as "truth". As if consensus means reality! And how linear thinking has butted against science and its research to approximate the reality of this planet and the wider universe in the past and still does. (How there can never be a physical body like King Kong's or Godzilla's, for instance. Despite the movies making him agile.)

Also why cities go on and on and rarely, rarely ever die. While companies, businesses of every persuasion and corporate forms always die. And quite quickly in most cases. (This part gave me hope for Chicago which is in a strong reversal decline after a stagnation plus period, but will rebound. But very differently to the individual style owned before.)

That all animals/humans too have nearly identical numbers of heart beats in their "average" or norm lifespans, despite the number of years those species may live or the size/weight of their physical bodies. And why! Handfuls of these golden nuggets in each chapter, IMHO.

If you read it, know you will have spent time and time and time on this project. That's why I am going to buy it and share it too. Despite knowing that those in mid-life will never have enough extra leisure hours to spent on this one for quite some years.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,353 reviews461 followers
November 21, 2019
For people who don’t know science, this could be an OK introduction to fractals and Galileo and whatnot, but even then the book is just too filled with meandering self-congratulatory anecdotes about the author and random repetitions. There are a few interesting graphs and factoids that are worth pondering. But as other Goodreads reviews have pointed out, there are some problems with those astounding graphs.
One issue is the human lifespan stuff. We live longer than cows (for example) but according to his graphs bigger animals live longer than smaller ones. He gets around this with a MacGuffin that "as I have already emphasized, it is only in the past one hundred years that we have been living this long.” (P. 196). Except what he emphasized—correctly—in the previous pages was that human lifespan had changed very little over time, even though life expectancy has doubled. This is because the improvement in life expectancy is from a decrease in infant mortality. And he also explained correctly that the decrease in infant mortality was from environmental interventions, i.e. not a change in biology. As he points out, life expectancy at age 100 has barely changed at all. So his logic about how he's illustrating a biological law just falls apart. If the other ideas in the book are like that, then it’s just a house of cards built on cherry-picking data points.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
December 15, 2017
Really fascinating primer (and more) on complexity theory. He talks about the universal rules that govern growth--for people, cities, companies. Bad news for Peter Thiel and the Silicon Valley bros who are trying to overcome dying and some terrible news at the end for humanity. He resurrects some of the Malthusian predictions about population growth. It's a fascinating book and I can't wait to read more from
Complexity scientists. If I have a criticism, it was too long
Profile Image for Mengsen Zhang.
72 reviews23 followers
June 24, 2017
Throughout eastern and western philosophy and mysticism, the analogy between one's body and a city has been a cardinal theme, and contemplating on this analogy may be a means to a deeper understanding of the world (e.g. Plato in Republic using this analogy to talk about "justice", or "the city of nine gates" in Hinduism). This kind of cross-scale analogy has stirred up the curiosity of many, including myself.
Remarkably, here Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist, took a scientific and quantitative approach to demonstrate where animals and cities are the same and where they are different. The comparisons are all based on a rather simple property: how the energy turnover (or "metabolism") of systems (e.g. multicellular organisms, cities, companies) scale with system size. West shows a surprisingly universal Power Law relation (log-log linear relation between metabolism rate and system size) across systems at very different scales and of very different constituents, where the "Power" (or slope on log-log scale) is highly indicative of the system's underlying network structures (fractal property of vascular or social networks) and dynamics (growth and death). And the specific value of this "Power" have great implications for medicine and the overall sustainability of human society. It would be a bit taxing to summarize this book in full scope, so I'm just going to say: this book showcases decades of solid work on natural scaling. If you are looking to read a popular introduction to Power Law, this is so far the book.
That being said, with all my admiration, I think that the universality of certain scaling laws should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, I notice that many of log-log plot in the book are not technically linear (especially regarding cities and companies), but rather appears as a nonlinear function with a regime where it can be approximated linearly. For another example, in chapter 3 section 4 "universality and the magic number four that controls life"*, you will notice that the quarter power laws are illustrated in separate domains rather than as a continuum. That brings me some questions: with all possible scaling functions, what is the true proportion of linear regimes? Are the nonlinear, or say, inter-linear regimes not interesting? Are we missing some big pictures? Maybe I just don't know enough. Maybe after reading West's academic publications all doubts will be dispelled. Until then, I will remain skeptic.
* (This title also got me a bit wary. How far would one go in calling a number multiples of 1/4? If you refer to some concrete numbers provided in chapter 4, you will start to wonder.)
Speaking egocentrically, I'm quite frustrated with elusiveness of the presentation of theories in this book, perhaps partly due to West's absolute avoidance of any equation. I do think the clearest way to describe scaling relations is to complement those figures with (minimal but nonzero amount of) grade-school level math (in footnote or appendix). In fact, West's equation avoidance was so extreme that he spent paragraphs narrating equations in words (thing a is just thing b times thing c divided by thing d), just didn't like to print out the actual equation with the benefit of visual clarity. With or without math, I'm walking away without a really clear picture of the physics/theories behind those scaling laws (first four chapter on biological scaling is clearer, but the later chapters on cities and companies got pretty foggy, especially the word "network" itself carry very different meanings in these two domains). I will trade many interesting digressions in book for a more detailed account of the physics/mechanism, especially when many important academic references are behind paywalls.
But after all, this is still a very good book that every student of complexity science should read!
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
958 reviews570 followers
August 13, 2017
We live in a complex world. As the author says in the book, the bible is based on "opinions, intuition, and prejudices" and is up to us to determine if "life has meaning or is without purpose". For us to bring order out of the chaos we need a narrative to hold the story together. The author tries to tie together all the items that are in the subtitle of the book into a coherent universal truth about the world by seeing the world as a recursive holistic entity tied together by a scaling parameter expressed through emergent properties. The author speaks trenchantly on each of the topics and ties each of the topics together with his universal way of seeing the world with his system wide approach for understanding.

We live in a non-linear world but we always intuitively think linearly (oh I felt for that poor elephant who was given a too large of dose of LSD). When we scale we default simplistically by using a linear interpolation. Most of the world is not best modeled linearly (this is why we have statisticians). The author takes our false default position and refines it by adjusting for the dimensionality between area (2 dimensions) and volume (3 dimensions) and adding a dimension for the fractal (recursive) nature inherent within all systems and making the power function such that every doubling means a corresponding increase of 168 % (i.e. 2 to the 3/4 power). The core of the author's theory lies within that power function or variations of it.

He never really talks down to his readers and moves the story fairly fast. He speaks statistics fluently but doesn't use a single equation within the book to intimidate math phobic readers. When there is randomness in the creation of a system there will always be an exponential distribution. Just think of a young boy sitting on a dock fishing. The number of fish the boy catches in a very short time will never be more than one. The time between catching the fish will always be an 'exponential distribution' (and the number of fish the boy catches will follow a Poisson Distribution, poisson is fish in French). All I needed to establish those very special distributions was independence and identically distributed events at a subsystem level (and a few other non specified and minor regulatory conditions). The author takes this fact about the real world and uses it to create the self similarity inherent within subsystems across a network. The author gives an example about aging that illustrates the magical properties inherent within this special distribution and why it is so special and is worth knowing about. (My favorite fiction book, "Gravity's Rainbow" does that too and I highly recommend that book).

The author is a polymath. He drops a lot of philosophers names and usually that annoys me, because most writers who do that don't seem to know anything beyond the name that they dropped. This author seemed to understand the connections. Aristotle (who he mentions, but mostly for his politics not his metaphysics) would see the world in terms of 'whatness' or 'thatness', the universal verse the particular, or like Spinoza (who the author mentions multiple times) the quantitative verse the qualitative. The author wants to take the intuition (the narrative, the story we tell to understand our place in the universe) and replace it with analytic truths. He'll say at the end of the book, that 'more data is better, but less data is best' because a theory that connects is most powerful of all. He brings up Kepler's laws based on Tycho Brahe's data sets, Kepler developed his laws (rules) by intuiting the data to a set of rules (going from the particular to the general, the 'thatness' to the 'whatness') which explained the data but doesn't identify the first principles, and the author contrasted that with Newton's Laws which tell how things necessarily are based on a priori truth leading to understanding of the particular from the general. The author seeks understanding of the universal whatness in the style of Newton.

The author wants to establish a universal holistic systems understanding of the world through analytical truths. (I would recommend the movie available on Youtube, "Mindwalk" for anyone who is interested in these kind of things. The movie is based on a Fritjof Capra book but not his famous book "Tao of Physics" and Liv Ullmann and Mont St. Michael are always beautiful to behold). Within the author's theory there was an unfolding of the necessity of evolutionary theory similar to Alfred Whitehead's as expressed in the delightful lecture "The Function of Reason", and parts of Nietzsche's 'eternal recurrence of the identical will to power', a way of seeing the world such that everything that is is that way because it has to be. The self similarity inherent within all systems as expressed by the author would fit within a Nietzscheian frame work of the world, but the author doesn't connect those dots.

The author is bothered by the 'finite time singularity' that he thinks we're coming to. His thoughts on economic growth overlap with Robert Gordon's book "The Rise and Fall of American Growth". They both seem to lean towards that spectacular innovation is behind us. That's just their opinion and I respect that even though my opinion lies differently (I'm more optimistic, maybe foolishly, but that's just my opinion). Both books, had a bigger problem for me. Both covered too many topics all of which I'm very interested in and consequently have read many books on the topics and the books seldom told me things that I was not already aware of. Authors should always assume that readers are interested in the topic and tell us things we don't already know from recently published books.
Profile Image for Markus.
194 reviews67 followers
October 6, 2020
1962 verabreichten Wissenschaftler dem Elefanten Tusco 297mg LSD. Das Tier starb. Die Dosis hatten sie ausgehend vom Erfahrungswert, den sie mit einer Katze hatten, dem Gewicht nach linear hochgerechnet, ein dummer und fataler Fehler. Ganz abgesehen davon, dass solche Experimente schon aus ethischen Gründen abzulehnen sind!

Der Biologe Kleiber fand schon 1930 heraus, dass der Stoffwechsel mit dem Gewicht nicht linear zunimmt, sondern exponential mit dem Exponenten von 0,75 (Kleibers Gesetz). D.h. ein doppelt so schweres Lebewesen braucht nur etwa 2 hoch 0,75 (= 1,68) mal soviel Energie. Es klingt unglaublich, aber um eine Zelle mit Sauerstoff zu versorgen, benötigt zB. ein 200 Tonnen (oder 200 Mio. Gramm) schwerer Blauwal nur 1/100 der Energie, die eine 2g schwere Spitzmaus dafür benötigt - dabei unterscheiden sich die Zellgrößen von Maus und Wal kaum.

Skalierung, also wie groß oder klein etwas sein kann und warum, die Bedingungen und natürlichen Grenzen von Größen wie Wachstum oder Alter, das ist ein Thema, das mich schon lange interessiert, meine Erwartungen an das Buch - nicht zuletzt wegen der guten Bewertung, waren entsprechend hoch. Leider hat mich das Buch gelangweilt. Es gab wohl einige interessante und für mich neue Fakten und Aspekte, besonders über die Skalierungsgesetze im Bereich der Biologie, und die Tatsache, dass die Exponenten dieser Funktionen immer wieder Vielfache von 1/4 sind, wie zB. 0,75.

Der Versuch, diese Gesetze auch in sozio-ökonomischen "Organismen" wie Städte oder Unternehmen anzuwenden, hat mich nicht ganz überzeugt. Es ist wenig überraschend, dass sich die Anzahl von Tankstellen, die Länge der Kanalisation oder die Lohnsumme einer Stadt im Verhältnis zu den Einwohnern leicht sub- oder superlinear verhält. Die Exponenten bewegen sich dabei mit starker Streuung im Bereich 0,85 bis 1,15. Daraus ein Gesetz abzuleiten, erscheint mir wegen der hohen Varianzen zwischen und in den Datensätzen eher erzwungen. Viele der hier zitierten Erkenntnisse sind auch veraltet und längst überholt.

Die eigentliche Substanz des Buches ließe sich locker auf 50 Seiten abhandeln. Die restlichen 450 Seiten sind Füllstoff: mehr oder weniger interessante Abschweifungen, Anekdoten und Anekdötchen aus dem Leben Galilei', des Autors und anderer Größen der Wissenschaft, philosophische Plattitüden, Kraut und Rüben. Lobenswert und zum Thema passend, aber auch nichts Neues, ist die Forderung nach Nachhaltigkeit und die damit verbundene Kritik am Glauben an ein grenzenloses Wachstum, dem allein schon die Gesetze der Entropie entgegenstehen. Leider hat Geoffrey West auch keine konkreten Vorschläge, wie man die Gläubigen belehrt.

Allerdings wirbt der Autor damit, den wissenschaftlichen Stoff didaktisch aufbereitet zu haben und ohne eine mathematische Formel auszukommen. Hier wird es für mich richtig ärgerlich: Wenn mir jemand erklärt, dass die Stoffwechselrate der Lebewesen mit einem Exponenten von 0,75 im Verhältnis zum Gewicht wächst und deshalb ein doppelt so schweres Tier 75% mehr Energie braucht, ist das keine didaktische Vereinfachung sondern schlichtweg falsch. Zu allem Überdruß wird das noch in einer Fußnote so relativiert: ganz genau genommen wären das 1,68 mal soviel, weil 23/4 = 1,68 ... *.

Das ist das Hauptproblem des Buchs. Die Vereinfachung wird so weit getrieben, dass es kontraproduktiv wird. Ich denke, in einem Sachbuch, das sich an wissenschaftlich interessierte Laien richtet, und in dem Mathematik eine Schlüsselrolle spielt, kann und darf man mit einem Mindestmaß an mathematischem Verständnis rechnen. Einfache Formeln und Ausdrücke kann man der Leserschaft zumuten und könnte ihr Fehler und langes Geschwurbel ersparen.

Ein weiterer, ins Eingemachte gehender Kritikpunkt, würde hier zu weit führen. Für interessierte Leser sei nur diese, im Buch unterschlagene Quelle nachgereicht, nämlich ein Modell von Wissenschaftlern der Pennsylvania State University 2002.

Das Buch ist dann auch noch recht lieblos mit Bildern und Grafiken ausgestattet. Die XY-Diagramme sind falsch beschriftet oder sind überhaupt blanker Unsinn: so liegt das durchschnittliche Gehtempo in Städten mit 6 Einwohnern bei -0,2m/s während sich die Bewohner von Städten mit 10 Einwohnern mit 0 also gar nicht fortbewegen. Auch die deutsche Übersetzung hat ihre Tücken: mathematische Begrifflichkeiten werden wortwörtlich und ohne Rücksicht auf die in deutsch übliche Ausdrucksweise übersetzt. Was genau ist ein Exponential lautet zB. eine Überschrift. Man kläre mich ggf. auf, aber mir ist das Exponential als Substantiv im Deutschen nicht bekannt.

Fazit: Geoffrey Wests interdisziplinäre Forschungsarbeit und seine Erkenntnisse über die Skalierungsgesetze in Organismen, Städten und Unternehmen mögen großartig sein. Hier geht es jedoch um sein Buch und dieses war für mich eine Fehlinvestition. Meine Motivation entwickelte sich verkehrtproportional zur Seitenzahl, sodass ich die letzten Kapitel nur mehr im Schnelllauf überflog.

* ein Fehler in der deutschen Ausgabe, es muss heissen 2 hoch3/4 = 1,68
Profile Image for Lew Watts.
Author 3 books31 followers
October 2, 2017
I first met Geoff West for coffee in Santa Fe. At the time, I was deeply involved in network theory, principally linked to innovation processes. But what I really wanted was an opportunity to learn the genesis of his landmark series of papers on scaling laws in biology. At the end of this review is a haibun I wrote on the meeting that was published in Contemporary Haibun Online, in April, 2015.
West's early papers, co-authored with James Brown and Brian Enquist, have spawned a myriad of works, extending scaling laws beyond biology into almost every fabric of our lives. This work, and the potential for further discoveries, are summarized and discussed in this seminal book that should be essential reading for anyone interested in what makes this world tick. As a scientist, I longed for the occasional equation to circumvent pages of explanatory narrative. Indeed, this is the one criticism of this magnificent book, that it is sometimes repetitive and long-winded. But then, it was always West's intention to make this available to the non-scientist, and from most of the reviews I have read, he has achieved this. Buy it, read it, read it again, and luxuriate in the wonder of scaling.

And here is the haibun...


That is Geoff West summarizing one conclusion from his mathematical paper* on why animals show a consistent scaling phenomenon. I nod uncertainly over my coffee, but decide to ask him for a simpler insight that I can share with some of my non-scientific friends.

“Tell them this,” he says, “that sometimes you need a key, a way to unlock two seemingly unrelated observations. For example, large animals have slow heartbeats, yet small animals have fast heartbeats—why? Then again, small animals live for a short time whereas large animals can live for many years—why? When all is said and done, it’s because our vascular systems age. You see, all animals live for around one and a half billion heartbeats.”

Tick tock …

final days …
driving through aspens dad asks
are we there yet

*The Origin of Universal Scaling Laws in Biology, by Geoffrey B. West, James H. Brown and Brian J. Enquist, in Scaling in Biology, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Profile Image for Daniel Frank.
265 reviews34 followers
July 26, 2017
Scale is a very interesting book with a huge amount of insights and fascinating information. Geoffrey West is clearly brilliant. However, the book is pedantic and verbose, and badly needs an editor (which makes it quite humorous that the book was edited by Cormac McCarthy). While many people might enjoy the content of this book, this book is unlikely to be readable by the lay person interested in science due to its complexity and poor writing.

Scaling is an important concept, and I'm glad West drilled it into my brain. While this entire book is ostensibly about the idea of scaling, West doesn't give much attention to why some things scale, why other things don't scale, and how this concept can be applied to understanding new topics. Further, it would have been nice if the book wasn't only descriptive, but also prescriptive (Ie what the information about cities can provide urban planners). The first section on biology is truly wonderful. There was only a minor nexus between the three themes of this book (organisms, cities, and corporations), and the two second topics were far less interesting to me.
Profile Image for jrendocrine.
526 reviews29 followers
March 8, 2020
This is a really enjoyable book, superbly written by a theoretical physicist that has applied himself to size and growth of biological and human defined constructions. I especially loved the first half, which is about metabolic scaling in organisms (metabolic rate, strength, blood supply). This should be taught in medical school. For example, the fact that metabolism decreases as animal size increases is provocative - - thus mice live faster have more cancer than whales (who have basically none) – certainly begs the question of mouse models for human disease.

I love that the brilliant author (Geoffrey West) finds that everything – organisms, machines, cities, companies - can all be described by scalable numbers – and they all grow before dying (except maybe cities that never stop growing?) Lots of examples provided throughout, informative graphs and figures. West is also very generous with sharing credit, especially to include his scientific predecessor, D'Arcy Thompson.

Highly recommended. I wish I could retain more of it, might have to reread.
Profile Image for Rick Wilson.
614 reviews220 followers
September 21, 2022
Fantastic and thought-provoking book that maybe could’ve used an editor to streamline and punch up some parts.

The theory itself is amazing. And it’s one of those things, having read this book a couple years ago, I noticed it seeping into so many aspects of my life. I keep looking at things as diverse as crime statistics and football scores and wondering what kind of the universal underpinnings are. Fortunately, for my league mates in fantasy football, I am an amateur with all of this. Whereas West actually teased out some signal from all the noise. More so on the crime statistics than the football scores, although my DMs are open, my team needs some help.

What results is a really interesting inverse of kind of a common accepted wisdom around organism scaling. To maybe butcher my freshman biology, but as in organism scales with size, it essentially is constrained by sort of a 3/4 power law. Basically saying that within the same sort of class, (mammals, invertebrates, etc.) the larger an organism gets the harder it is to spread around nutrients. Blood vessels get smaller and smaller the farther away they are from the heart in a mathematical way. This impacts things like metabolism, heart size, and so on, and so forth.

The really fascinating bit that I keep coming back to mentally is that the inverse is true for systems. I’ve been fortunate to work at a handful startups as they’ve grown from 10 people to 20 to 50 to 100. and it’s always interesting to reflect back and look at how the
problems you solve at 10 people and at 100 people differ so wildly. The last couple I’ve worked in an operations role so it’s everything from on boarding people to IT support. And with 10 people you can do it all by hand, FaceTime me personally and I’ll solve your computer issues by lunch. That doesn’t work when you have 100 or 200 people. You have to set up entirely different systems to support them, from wikis, to recorded videos, to paying for actual IT software. I have a nightmare where I would be forced to do this for an organization of like 10,000 people and from scratch have to figure out how to navigate that tar pit.

So the really cool part of this book is that there’s some actual mathematical underpinning for all of that. As an organization scales, the complexity scales exponentially. As a city scales, the resources to deliver essential services like crime prevention and fire fighters scale in an exponential way as well. I’m sure we all can instinctively tell that traffic does not get more congested on a linear path. As an aside, I would say it’s more of a jump diffusion model, but I think it also fits in here with Mr. West musings. It’s fascinating as a theory, and I do think it should be more talked about.

As a minor criticism, I do think the book was clearly written by an academic. Despite being one of the more fascinating books I read in 2019, it’s kind of like eating porridge without add-in’s, nutritional but oh so bland. And I wouldn’t necessarily comment on it because the core ideas do carry the day, except for the fact that, while reading, I found myself quickly rendered comatose on more than one occasion. Having to reread whole chapter because my mind had decided to run off elsewhere. In my version of the world, where everything runs perfectly and I always win my fantasy football matchups, this guy meets up with Randall Munroe to produce the next edition of this.
Profile Image for Rama Rao.
721 reviews103 followers
August 1, 2021
The nature of complexity

The philosophical framework presented in this book represents a physicists’ perspective which states that one universal principle of scaling law applies for all complex systems such as living systems, cities, or companies. And this scaling law reflects systematic regularities from geometric and dynamical behaviors. For example, for a mammalian system, the author argues that a network that supply energy and remove waste from the animal’s system leads to the outgrowth of circulatory network constructed according to size of the mammal in question. This is the principle of scaling law that he argues also applies to all complex systems like cities and corporations and to living systems.

The scaling law falls short of explaining the complexity that arises when matter (non-living) transitions to living matter (living cell) by caging a set of biomolecules in a highly organized manner that appears to contradict the second law of thermodynamics. In this scenario, less information creates more information, disorder becomes order, non-living matter becomes living where the newly created entity becomes independent and self-regulating that becomes aware of surviving, adapting, growing, and multiplying itself. Consciousness seems to pervade the living cell that continues to adapt and evolve.

Consciousness seems to pervade spacetime where matter and energy behave according to the laws of physics. The physical reality we observe, and experience is based on the reality we perceive here on earth. The observable reality consists of 5% of visible matter and the rest 95% is made of dark matter and dark energy. We still don’t know the nature of spacetime and how reality appears for other living species in the cosmos. Near extreme gravity, where spacetime is highly curved (close to black holes,) the images look highly distorted. Scaling law is a highly simplified concept, and one may question author’s contention that it has universal application. The author is from the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), a reputed research institution dedicated to the multidisciplinary study of complex adaptive physical, computational, biological, and social systems.
Profile Image for Denis Vasilev.
616 reviews87 followers
March 17, 2022
Книга в стиле Santa Fe, про complexity. Если уже знакомы, нового не так много. Подробно разбирается рост городов как живых организмов.
Profile Image for Kim.
329 reviews12 followers
May 29, 2017
This is an amazing book with a broad perspective on the statistical foundations of how things are born, grow, and die. Beyond just the life of plants and animals it expands its thinking into the life cycles of economies, corporations, and cities (the last of these apparently being the only immortal entity on the list).

Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist and former president of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Ten or fifteen years ago he began to wonder whether the mathematics of his discipline could be applied to other sciences. He found a major gap in the study of biology where there was a great deal of information gathering and identification but few attempts to answer questions out of the information gathered using statistics. West wanted to see if there could be insights into some of the fundamental questions of biology. Why do things die? Why can animals only reach certain sizes, and beyond that how did whales become so big?

In biology he found startling comparisons, that the arterial systems of animals compare in design and scale to plants and trees. He found that arterial systems branch out uniformly to the point that blood stops surging but flows through capillary branches. He found the math almost identical to the way limbs and channels branched off in trees until reaching the constant flow in leaves. He learned that animals have nearly identical systems, from the smallest shrew to the whale, and that once you know, say, the size of kidneys in one you can calculate the same in other animals. More importantly, perhaps, he notes that the increased size of animals creates efficiencies so that an animal that is double the size of another needs far less than double the caloric energy.

This efficiency of scale transfers using the same mathematical constants to non-living entities. West found that cities grow at the same uniform scales, so that knowing the population of a city will allow you to make calculations on statistics such as the number of attorneys, the number of restaurants, the number of residential units, etc., with only small variations on some items that will define the unique personality of a city.

West also found comparisons of scale for corporations, with great similarities among all sizes, and identified a life cycle of birth, growth, and death lasting around half a century for those that survived the first five years.

Because the math used in all the different areas is consistent it's easy to grasp (even for this liberal arts major) and it's fascinating to watch these ideas redevelop in areas that seem so widely divergent.

West is a personable writer and includes information about how these discoveries were worked out with researchers in the different fields and even occasional talk about his children, such as calculating quantities of medications for his infant son.

There are also enlightening discussions on logarithmic scales and visualizations to help understand what exponential means and the alarming things it could mean for population growth.

The book moves from topic to topic with just enough time spent on each so the reader feels neither cheated nor overwhelmed in each, with every section building on the last. It's an excellent book for anyone interested in health, public policy, economics, or management.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
566 reviews11 followers
January 2, 2019
This is a fascinating and important book. Before even mentioning the content, this book was written really well, and it was written as to be understandable to the intelligent layperson. The ideas and theories presented are mostly new to me and I learned a lot as a result.

It is really hard to concisely summarize this work, but I'll give it a shot, and I don't promise that my explanations are accurate. Certain aspects of biological organisms seem to follow mathematical laws. For instance with mammals, from the smallest (Etruscan shrew) to the largest (blue whale), the largest is more or less a scaled version of the smallest. All mammals hearts beat about 1.5 billion times in their life (since the human life span has been growing in recent times, human hearts are beating more than this now). Shrew's hearts beat much faster than a whales. In fact, as a mammal species gains mass, certain characteristics scale by a 1/4 power. For instance, its life span grows by 1.25 and its heart rate drops by 0.75. West shows a lot of interesting data along these lines. So there seems to be some sort of underlying law that biology is following. You can make accurate predictions about animals using these scaling laws, including that a mammal can't really be any smaller than a shrew or larger than a blue whale. This is in part due to the fractal nature of the circulatory system, which mathematically scales down all the way to its terminal capillary units. He goes on to explain why our lives will always be finite due to entropy (we stop growing and ultimately die because our metabolic rate scales sublinearly).

West goes on to show these same laws exist with cities, which scale superlinearly, meaning they can grow forever (at least until they hit a singularity). Cities resemble biological organisms except scale generally at 1.15 or 0.85. Good and bad things like wages and crime scale around 1.15, while things like gas stations scale at 0.85 showing economies of scale. Cities also follow Zipf's law - the largest city is twice as big as the next largest and three times as big as the third largest, and so on.

West concluded with a discussion of companies, and while this is probably his most speculative area, it was still an interesting review. The average life of a company once it goes public is 10 years. I couldn't help but think that many don't think this base rate would apply to them, at their peril. Another takeaway I had was an analog to the biology of strength, which scales sublinearly with weight in humans (the strongest humans must weigh a huge amount, but if comparing say Olympic weightlifters, have been shown to be about 2/3 as strong as their weight increases). Similarly, a companies' net income seem to scale sublinearly with the number of employees. This whole relationship seems quite complicated however and I am not sold overall.

This was a fascinating read and his ideas are certainly worth understanding, and I can't help but feel I will be hearing much more in the future about this science.
Profile Image for Stetson.
195 reviews144 followers
January 13, 2021
Scale is Geoffrey West's ambitious attempt to synthesize a universal theory of scaling (i.e. how things grow, shrink, change) for a lay audience. As West would admit, this framing is somewhat grandiose and purposefully over-claimed (to excite and provoke readers), but generally West's research findings are deeply intriguing and merit serious consideration (from laypeople and scientists). Part of West's angle is quantitatively examining dynamical systems (organisms, cities, economies, etc) using a "coarse-grained" perspective (basically a stepped-back, low resolution view). He's a theoretical physicist but applies his mathematical mind (with colleagues) to problems of economics, biology, city planning, etc. Some of the insights produced by this approach are truly fascinating.

I'm not eager to rigorously evaluate every claim made by West as he is generally right. His approach is quite powerful. In fact, I wish Scale explored the practical implications and applications of West's work a bit more. I can forgive this oversight because West is primarily concerned with theory and the philosophy of science. However, some phenomena are better suited for his approaches than others. His claims concerning organisms and allometry are probably the most persuasively and rigorous supported, while the claims concerning how cities, economies, and companies scale are a little more dubious (though they shouldn't be dismissed or ignored).

Of the critical philosophical issues raised by West's work, maybe the most salient concerns the race between human populations (economic growth) and natural resources. Can we grow forever on a plant with finite resources? Is our pace of growth sustainable? The Malthusians and eco-activists say "NO," while the futurists say "OF COURSE!" West comes down somewhere in the middle, criticizing both sides for prior or current oversights. However, it seems the historical record and current trends/developments suggest that the futurists/techno-utopians are winning the argument at this moment and by quite a bit. There is, of course, some upper limit (at least for human populations on earth itself), but it is far from clear that we are anywhere close to this upper limit. Moreover, West's discussion here doesn't seem to account for possible unforeseen developments or even account for how much human behavior and culture is changing as society advances and grows (mentions declining fertility rates and population flux back toward cities but his discussion doesn't explore these trends). West's coarse-grained approach inevitably misses some important factors though West's caution is reasonable.

Ultimately, Scale is definitely a book worth reading and probably more than once!

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