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The Scaling Laws of Life with Prof. Geoffrey West

Show Notes

What are the universal scaling laws of life and what do they mean for how our societies today function and their survival in the future?

The conversation I'm going to share with you today is one of the most important I've had to date. We live in a time characterised by extreme uncertainty, which is, in many ways, being driven by the impacts of insatiable hunger for growth. If we do not tame humanity's rapacious desire for more, it will spell disaster for all of us, and there's maths to prove it.

In order to solve this problem, we first need to understand it. There is no better lens to view things of this nature through than that off energy and information and how these primordial entities flow across time, space — across the scale of life in all of its forms, and the artifacts It creates.

Our guest today is Geoffrey West. Geoffrey is a theoretical physicist who turned his attention to biology, applying the mathematical rigour of one in his discipline to the complexities of life. He's spent decades exploring the universal mathematical scaling laws that suffuse biology, from mitochondria, to cells, people you and I, and entire ecosystems. These laws are the natural scaffolding that has guided the growth of life over the eons and can explain and predict certain characteristics of its manifestations, like lifespan, metabolic rates, and growth, with incredible precision.

Geoffrey then applied these insights to our societies and the cities they've formed. He found that cities do indeed follow very similar scaling laws to life. Given that urbanisation is increasing rapidly around the world and that cities are critical to our economies and lives, understanding the mathematical laws that these cities follow as they function and scale is paramount to developing a coherent and mathematically principled framework for sustainability.

All of this and more is covered in his book Scale, which has been the source of inspiration of this conversation. It is in, in my opinion, one of the most important books of our time, one that should be in the hands of every policy maker, change-maker, urban planner, and intellectual explorer.

Geoffrey has been the recipient of a number of awards and accolades for his work over the years. In 2006 Geoffrey was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. He was the President of the Santa-fe institue, the home of complexity science, and prior to that he was the leader, and founder, of the high energy physics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

I feel deeply privileged to have had the opportunity to speak to Geoffrey and delight in sharing his insights with you in this episode.

In our conversation we cover:

  • what complexity science is and the characteristics of complex adaptive systems
  • scaling laws of life
  • the benefits of applying the computational, mathmetisable frameworks to problems in biology and society
  • how cities are engines of efficiency, and the scaling laws that make this possible
  • Most importantly, the desperate need for a fundamental shift in how societies around the world operate, or risk collapse.


Geoffrey West's Sante Fe Institute Profile

Scale by Geoffrey West


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