Magazine article The Spectator

'Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies', by Geoffrey West - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies', by Geoffrey West - Review

Article excerpt

Trust scientists to ruin all our fun. The spectacularly beautiful 2014 film reboot of Godzilla, it turns out, is anatomically misleading. At 350ft tall, such a beast would simply collapse under its own weight, because an animal's mass cubes with a doubling of its size, while the strength of its supporting limbs only squares. The basic principle was known to Galileo, and it turns out that the simple observation that things do not scale linearly can tell us much else besides, as this quite dazzling book amply demonstrates.

Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist who became interested in biology and then in cities, and (with colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute) developed ways of looking at such apparently disparate subjects that uncovered surprising similarities in the mathematics of the networks involved. The branching of the blood-circulatory system in humans obeys the same rules as the branching of trees. Cities have a quantitatively predictable 'metabolism', in terms of how they process energy, just like living things do. There are, in general, rules to how things scale to different sizes, but they are not intuitively obvious. Where do such regularities come from, and what might we do with them?

The book proceeds by introducing one mathematical concept in each chapter (power laws, fractals and so on), and explaining it vividly through numerous examples drawn from biology, history, urban planning and many other fields. We learn, for instance, why BMI (body mass index) is a pretty useless measure: it ignores correct scaling laws and so gives inflated readings of obesity for people who are taller than average. We delve into the history of bridges and shipbuilding, areas in which the naive assumption that everything scales up at the same rate can lead to disaster. And we learn how much LSD you should give an elephant: not as much as you'd think.

At the core of this thinking is the insight that biological and human networks differ in one crucial aspect of their scaling behaviour. Biological systems profit, up to a point, from economies of scale: technically, they scale sub-linearly, which means when an animal's size increases, for instance, it requires proportionally only three-quarters as much food. By contrast, cities scale super-linearly: make a city bigger and you get proportionally more in terms of wealth and innovation per head -- but also more crime and disease -- by a surprisingly reliable factor of about 1. …

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