274: Geoffrey West | Organisms, Cities, And Pandemic Effects United By Scaling Laws And Perspective


What is the damage we’re not attending to, with regards to the pandemic? How does biological and social contagion spread based on population and contact networks? How do scaling laws inform us about efficiency and person/city/network growth and change over time? Last month, researcher and professor Dr. Geoffrey West, author of Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies, co-wrote an article on the topic of scale in relation to the pandemic with fellow Santa Fe Institute President and researcher Dr. David Krakauer.

Dr. West is a theoretical physicist, who is distinguished and former President of the Santa Fe Institute, a scientific think-tank in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is able to combine multiple fields of research in ways that were not previously looked at. He is a leading researcher on a scientific model for cities, and is known for the metabolic theory of ecology. His B.A. in Physics is from Cambridge University, and his Ph.D. is from Stanford University.

I originally came across Dr. West’s work through his book Scale, which I summarized chapters of in some of the earliest episodes of this show, specifically 2, 9, and 11. It was informative to me to get a sense of how a population or network develops from early large paths to the smaller nodes at the end, and where there is efficiency in growth that is connected to non-linear scaling ratios. We spoke about the book, as well as a variety of topics.

Show notes:

  • how Dr. West progressed from his background in the UK to where he is at the current moment
  • his experience as a researcher and past President at the Santa Fe Institute
  • progressive from theoretical physics and particles to looking at cities, companies, networks, and global sustainability
  • fostering collaborations between scientists of different fields, and non-linear thinking as connected with risk-taking
  • scaling rate as it relates with food requirement for different sizes of organisms
  • how all organisms are network systems that follow scaling laws
  • the way that one’s blood vessels share these laws with roads and freeways, trees and branches, and neuron paths in the brain
  • whether the scaling laws relate with determinism as related to biology, and how biology differs with physics in that regard
  • our similarities as viewed from a long-distance perspective
  • the way that one city is similar to other cities, at their respective stages of development, taking into account the specific environmental and cultural variables of the region
  • Dr. West’s relationship with Dr. Krakauer, and the article they co-wrote
  • looking at the pandemic as something to focus on, while not forgetting that it is one element of a bigger picture situation humanity is part of
  • how one item on the planet affects something else on the planet, especially in a heavily interconnected planet
  • exponential gains, and the lack of understanding that has been associated with the concept
  • counter-intuitive responses to problems, which require looking at problems with more depth than only repairing directly what is broken at first glance
  • the reception of science in the public domain, and how that is affecting responses to problems or new scenarios
  • how higher-level education has been very prolific in its ability to serve as a backbone for society to work from
  • the way that feel of age can alter based on our current moment
  • a message for people

It was wonderful to have Dr. West on the show. You can check out Scale on Amazon, his recent co-written article, his Santa Fe Institute page, or his Wikipedia.

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