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Scale

The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life, in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies
Narrated by: Bruce Mann
Length: 19 hrs and 13 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (739 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

From one of the most influential scientists of our time, a dazzling exploration of the hidden laws that govern the life cycle of everything from plants and animals to the cities we live in.

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 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: West found that despite the riotous diversity in 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, including how much food it eats per day, what its heart rate is, how long it will take to mature, its life span, 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 percent more efficient - and lives 2 percent longer. 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. Cities, too, are constellations of networks, and laws of scalability relate with eerie precision to them. Recently West has applied his revolutionary work 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.

©2017 Geoffrey West (P)2017 Penguin Audio

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Fascinating and clear enough for a lib arts major

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.

22 of 24 people found this review helpful

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  • UUbu
  • Waban, MA, US
  • 10-30-17

Not for a scientific reader

If you have, somewhat, scientific background, in economics, social sciences or even biology and physical sciences, this book is not for you. The underlying concepts are quite simple, and the book is intended for an audience who totally lacks any background on the subject. Beware. I think it makes a point. However, the narrative of scaling across complex systems is intermeshed, although they have different underlying reasons. This is the part I liked least about it. Observational equivalence has not much to do with causational equivalence. Complexity is a very important subject and I am not sure this book gives to the subject the treatment it deserves.

26 of 32 people found this review helpful

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  • Loren
  • Park City, Utah, United States
  • 06-28-17

A few big flaws

There are some excellent examples and explanations in the book but I really tired about halfway through. One problem is that this audio book would be enhanced by some graphics, particularly of the different log functions he describes. In addition, the really long section on cities is off the mark and gets in the way of a compelling narrative. Finally, this often seems like an advertisement for the Santa Fe institute and I find his plaudits for all his colleagues annoying and again takes away from the message.

17 of 21 people found this review helpful

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Tedious, never gets to the point

This is a long, tedious book that never gets to the point. The author is constantly branching off on "interesting" side comments, losing the thread of the book and exhausting my patience. It's too bad, since it seems the author might have something to say on the subject of scaling if he could actually get around to it.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating and thought-provoking

This fascinating book provides a new and challenging perspective on liked, death, biology, society all away up to cosmic scale. the author leaves a ton of questions to be answered, but that is just another proof that this is a truly thought-provoking book.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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An Incredibly Inspiring Listening Adventure

This book allows for further research to be done. I look forward to this journey!

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Wow. A must read for the intellectually curious

This is one of the most satisfying books I've ever read. A mind blowing explanation into the order of the universe. Geoffrey you changed my life, please continue to raise the level of intelligence in the world.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Ridiculously Informative

What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

I love the way the author places his personal point of view into the book. Also, it's been a long time since I've learned so much new stuff. This book is chock full of interesting facts I'd never considered.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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Apparent Scientific Errors

Any additional comments?

I'm only about half way through the book but I'm trying to force myself to keep going. Some of the points are interesting but I'm noticing some apparent biological misperceptions or perhaps just flaws in explanation that are frustrating as a biologist. A few that I recall include his assertion that death of individuals is somehow required for evolution. As if evolution was some kind of 'goal' for life. Or that death of individuals is of benefit to a species because it 'allows' for necessary evolutionary change to occur. From the perspective of gene propagation; death of an older individual is largely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the spread of genes; regardless of whether they cause change or increase diversity.

He also implied that based on his scaling work that we could predict the size of the '10th branch point off the aorta' of some random mammal if we know some other information. But this is only true (maybe) if each branch point is equal in diameter and he doesn't say that. In reality small branches (like those of the coronary arteries) immediately occur at the beginning of the aorta. We can't actually say much at all about the size of the 10 branch point except that the total diameter of both vessels will be smaller than the diameter at the beginning.

He makes a point that sounds something like. 'The smallest living mammal (a shrew) is the lower limit of what is possible with regard to size due to constraints on the circulatory system and the pulsatile nature of blood flow.' But then says something that implies that since an organism smaller than a shrew couldn't support a pulsatile flow and since a larger organism couldn't evolve from that non-pulsatile system, that therefore an organism smaller than a shrew couldn't evolve. It's like he's on to something but lost the logical progression. To say that 'If a tiny organism evolved without pulsatile blood flow then larger organisms couldn't use that method.' That seems plausible, but you can't then say 'and that is why the smaller organism can't exist'. That's like saying the 'evolution' cares about the future or diversity. Evolution has no foresight.

Not to mention that mammals smaller than the smallest shrew do exist! The smallest shrew is about 1.8 grams and baby joeys emerge and climb to a nipple when they are less than 1 gram. Somehow their circulatory system are capable of supporting their metabolism.

So now I'm a little nervous when listening because I feel like when he gets to a topic that I'm not as familiar with that I might be mislead and not be aware of it. I have very mixed feelings about this book. I feel like it has potential to be illuminating and the potential to be misleading. I can see how it could appeal to a non-expert but to an expert it can be frustrating and seem to be counter to reality sometimes. I get that he's not a biologist but he is talking about biology and should have probably had several eminent evolutionary and developmental biologists proofread it.

I'm not sure if I'll finish the book. I plan to try.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Exhaustive and Persistently Surprising

This book is long and many times I wanted to give up on it but the author just makes it so darn interesting. Anyone interested to know the "why" behind all those "have you ever noticed that"s will love this book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful