• Scale

  • The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life, in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies
  • By: Geoffrey West
  • Narrated by: Bruce Mann
  • Length: 19 hrs and 13 mins
  • 4.4 out of 5 stars (1,115 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

Critic Reviews

"An enchanting intellectual odyssey…also a satisfying personal and professional memoir of a distinguished scientist whose life’s work came to be preoccupied with finding ways to break down traditional boundaries between disciplines to solve the long-term global challenges of sustainability.... Mr. West manages to deliver a lot of theory and history accessibly and entertainingly.... Provocative and fascinating.” (The New York Times)

“Scale, a grand synthesis of topics [Geoffrey West] has studied for several decades, makes an important and eloquent case for the significance [of universal laws of size and growth] in an ecology of the natural and human world - and in understanding whether the two can fit together.” (Nature)

“West’s insightful analysis and astute observations patiently build an intellectual framework that is ultimately highly rewarding, offering a new perspective on the many scales with which nature and society challenge us.... A fascinating journey.” (Science Magazine)

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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.

43 people found this helpful

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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.

35 people found this helpful

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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.

21 people found this 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.

14 people found this helpful

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Warning: do not use while driving long distances

Is this book simply a metaphor for its contents? Like Hermann Hesse, we are not intended to listen to the words (of which there are so, so many), but be left with a mind-changing perception from the whole. This book is about scale, size, and growth. To demonstrate the fact, the book uses an exponentially larger number of words, increasing by the power of 0.85 as the story progresses, than could possibly be needed to convey the simple message. It repeats the same argument with modest changes to the words (or maybe using longer and longer words, I'm not sure, because I fell asleep and drove of the road). Mice, LA, elephants, Oklahoma City, Microsoft, please let it end. And admittedly, I did not get to the end, at which point I would hope that the exponential growth would have ended in a Big Bang and a whispered, minimalist haiku. Would have given 1 and 3/4 stars, but it was not possible. Oh, its non-linear, by the way.

9 people found this 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.

6 people found this 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 people found this 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 people found this 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.

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That poor elephant doesn't live in a linear world

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 naively 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 that 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 by explaining what is being observed and contrasting that with Newton's Laws which tell how things necessarily are based on a priori truth.

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 a 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.

4 people found this helpful