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Academic & Professional Books  Reference  Physical Sciences  Popular Science

Scale The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies

Popular Science
By: Geoffrey West(Author)
481 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Scale is a wide-ranging book on certain mathematical principles underlying many things we see in life.
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  • Scale ISBN: 9781780225593 Paperback May 2018 In stock
  • Scale ISBN: 9780297869658 Hardback Jul 2017 Out of Print #235710
Selected version: £10.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Geoffrey West's research centres on a quest to find unifying principles and patterns connecting everything, from cells and ecosystems to cities, social networks and businesses.

Scale addresses big, urgent questions about global sustainability, population explosion, urbanization, ageing, cancer, human lifespans and the increasing pace of life, but also encourages us to question the world around us. Why can we live for 120 years but not for a thousand? Why does the pace of life continually increase? Why do mice live for just two or three years and elephants for up to 75? Why do companies behave like mice, and are they all destined to die? Do cities, companies and human beings have natural, pre-determined lifespans? Are we just a fascinating experiment in natural selection that is ultimately doomed to fail? And what is the origin of the magic number 4 that seems to determine much of physiology and life-history from birth to death?

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Wide-ranging and very accessible
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 8 Nov 2019 Written for Paperback

    Not since I had to read D'Arcy Wentworth's On Growth and Form for coursework have I read such a fascinating book that highlights the importance of mathematical laws in governing boundaries and patterns we observe in life. Geoffrey West is a polymath in the truest sense of the word: a theoretical physicist who, over the course of 20 years, applied complexity science to many questions in biology initially, and then extended his ideas to patterns seen in the organization and functioning of cities and companies. Scale is a wide-ranging intellectual foray with no equation in sight.

    The science of complexity studies that wonderful phenomenon of emergence: when collections of individuals (molecules, cells, people etc.) aggregate and things start to happen that you did not or could not predict based on the properties of the individuals. It's the whole being more than the sum of its parts. It's simple rules giving rise to complex patterns. It's hard to give an exact definition, says West, but, to paraphrase a certain US judge, "you know it when you see it". The scaling and scalability West is interested in, then, is how things change with size. As it turns out, many properties don't simply double when something doubles in size (i.e. in a linear fashion), but either increase slower or faster (sub- and superlinear scaling in jargon).

    This is something we are all intuitively familiar with. The phrase "economy of scale" has crept into everyday speech with the rise of large corporations such as Amazon. And most of us will be aware that the Richter scale, telling us how strong earthquakes are, is a logarithmic scale (an increase of one unit corresponding to a tenfold increase in amplitude).

    After the US government in 1993 cancelled plans to build the SSC, a huge particle accelerator to be used for physics experiments, West and many other physicists found themselves subjected to the sentiment that the era of physics was over: the 21st century was to be the age of biology. With feathers properly ruffled, West decided to apply the quantitative, analytical and predictive thinking typical of physics to open problems in biology. Already in his fifties at this time, age, death and mortality were subjects of particular appeal. But, to West's surprise, there was no proper mechanistic theory of ageing. Why do humans live for about a hundred years? And why do smaller mammals live shorter lives?

    The first two chapters to delve into West's research are, for a biologist, an absolute pleasure to read. The famous biologist Julian Huxley coined the term allometric scaling to describe how certain properties of organisms scale disproportionately with size (e.g. elephants have relatively thicker legs than mice once you correct for the difference in length). However, allometric scaling affects more than just morphology, it also affects physiological mechanisms such as metabolism. West's finding that the underlying geometric properties of the networks that deliver energy, materials and information to cells (e.g. the system of blood vessels) dictates general properties and limits is one of the many "aha" moments that this book delivers. I will not try to summarise his argument here, but suffice to say it makes beautiful sense and is well presented. It allows us to explain why mammals can't get smaller than shrews or bigger than whales. Why we stop growing with age. Or why larger animals live longer.

    But networks for distributing stuff (whether this is material goods or immaterial things such as knowledge) are everywhere. And West being the polymath he is, the book then branches out to describe how his subsequent research and collaborations have tried to apply these network principles to cities and companies. In his opinion, cities are one of the greatest human inventions, having afforded a stage for many of the social and economic developments of the last two centuries to play out on. Rapid urbanization is generating many challenges that apply to cities everywhere (water availability, environmental impacts etc.). So, can the network principles observed in biology be applied here to describe, understand and predict the growth, dynamics and evolution of cities and companies? West's findings suggest yes: the urban pace of life, crime, income, and many other things scale in a non-linear fashion when size increases.

    Similarly, though West admits this is still very much work in progress, more recent work has been applying these ideas to ask if we can formulate a science of companies. Whether looking at company income, profits, or age, non-linear scaling patterns are found when comparing large numbers of companies across the globe.

    Despite being a biologist, I found these later chapters very interesting, and here, too, moments of great insights will occur while reading. I do feel that this is where the book starts to lose focus a bit. Given how far removed the topic is from what I normally read and what I know, West does a great job at not making me lose interest and at keeping me on board, making me understand what he is talking about. But he does wander a fair bit, throwing in regular preludes, interludes and other digressions. And that's before I mention the many anecdotes and introductions to co-workers. It's not that the digressions are not interesting, nor that the anecdotes are not amusing. By and large they are, but the cohesiveness and focus of the book suffer somewhat in my opinion. An 8-page postscript / acknowledgement section in small print seems symptomatic of this, and buried in there are kudos to the editors who have pared down an even bigger initial manuscript. A further niggle is that the reproduction of certain graphs (especially those containing data points for multiple categories) in greyscale doesn't really work. Although they get across the general message, they were clearly designed with colour in mind and in my opinion should either have been reproduced in colour, modified to be comprehensible in greyscale, or just left out.

    Nevertheless, Scale is a book of exceptional breadth that talks about some really big ideas in a comprehensible manner. It's the kind of book that doesn't come along often, written on the back of a long and rich career. If you don't mind taking your time and being led around many ideas, then Scale is a great book to sit down with and will provide plenty of food for thought.
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Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist whose primary interests have been in fundamental questions in physics, biology and global sustainability. West is a distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute, where he served as the president from 2005 to 2009. He also holds visiting positions at Oxford University, Imperial College and Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. West has been cited and admired in the works of many other writers and thinkers, and has given numerous presentations and popular online appearances on TED, Pop-Tech, World Economic Forum and Google Talks. In 2006, he was named to Time magazine's list of the '100 Most Influential People in the World'.

Popular Science
By: Geoffrey West(Author)
481 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Scale is a wide-ranging book on certain mathematical principles underlying many things we see in life.
Media reviews

"The sort of big-ideas book that comes along only every few years [...] This is a book full of thrilling ideas"
Sunday Times

"Magisterial [...] you reach the end of this profound, revealing book rewarded. West shows how scientific method helps to peel back the hidden reality of our world. The concepts of physics dominated the last century. It is the concepts of biology – of networks, evolution and feedback dynamics – that are going to dominate the next"
– Matthew Syed, The Times

"Quite dazzling [...] 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 [...] written with great joy and a disarming humility"
– Steven Poole, The Spectator

"An absolutely riveting read. Like the best detective story, West lays out the amazing challenge of understanding why animals, cities and companies all scale so uniformly and then skilfully lets us into the secrets that his detective work has uncovered. This book captures the spirit of science in the twenty-first century, revealing the deep connections not just across physics and biology but society and life. The book is a perfect balance between the big scientific story and West's own personal narrative. We accompany the author on his quest to face up to his own mortality while at the same time being exposed to the theoretical discoveries that West has pioneered in his groundbreaking work"
– Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of The Great Unknown

"This is an important and original book, of immense scope. Geoffrey West is a polymath, whose insights range over physics, biology and the social sciences. He shows that the sizes, shapes and lifetimes of living things – despite their amazing diversity – display surprising correlations and patterns, and that these follow from basic physical principles. He then discovers, more surprisingly, the emergence of similar 'scaling laws' in human societies – in our cities, companies and social networks. This fascinating book deserves a very wide readership"
– Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

"Scaling is the most important yet most hidden and rarely discussed attribute – without understanding it one cannot possibly understand the world. This book will expand your thinking from three dimensions to four. Get two copies, just in case you lose one"
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb

"I can think of no more exciting thinker in the world today than Geoffrey West. By bringing a physicist's razor-sharp mind to wonderfully surprising questions – "Why Aren't There Mammals the Size of Tiny Ants?" or "Are Cities and Companies Just Very Large Organisms?" – West forces us to see everything anew, from our own bodies to the mega-cities our species increasingly chooses to inhabit. Scale is a firework display of popular science"
– Niall Ferguson

"Geoffrey West's Scale is a revelation. Based on his path-breaking theory and research on super-linear scaling, it provides powerful new insights into the basic scientific laws that power our modern society and economy, its start-up companies, large corporations and cities. The book is a must-read for CEOs, technologists, mayors, urban leaders and anyone who wants to understand the simple laws that shape the complex, self-organizing world in which we live"
– Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and a senior editor at The Atlantic

"It's rare in the history of science that someone has a big, bold, beautiful, stunningly simple new idea that also turns out to be right. Geoffrey West had one. And Scale is its story"
– Steven Strogatz, Professor of Mathematics, Cornell University and author of The Joy of X

"Scale is filled with brilliant insights. West illuminates the laws of nature underlying everything from tiny organisms and humans to cities and companies, and provides a quantitative framework for decoding the deep complexity of our interconnected world. If you want to know why companies fail, how cities persist and what is needed to sustain our civilization in this era of rapid innovation, read this amazing book"
– Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce

"If there were a Nobel Prize for transdisciplinary science Geoffrey West would have won it for the work covered in Scale. This is a book of great originality and deep importance, containing startling insights about topics as seemingly unrelated as aging and death, sleep, metabolism, cities, energy use, creativity, corporations, and even the sustainability of our existence. If you are curious about how the world really works, you must read this book"
– Bill Miller, LMM Investments

"When Geoffrey West, a brilliant theoretical physicist, turned his lens to the study of life spans, biological systems or cities he stumbled onto a game-changing universal insight about growth and sustainability. Scale is dazzling and provocative and West proves himself to be a compelling and entertaining writer – this is a book we will be talking about for a long time"
– Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

This spectacular book on how logarithmic scaling governs everything is packed with news – from the self-similar dynamics of cells and ecosystems to exactly why companies always die and cities don't. I dog-eared and marked up damn near every page"
– Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catolog

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