Sunday, June 11, 2017

Today On Book Nook, the FT's Izabella Kaminska Reviews "Scale" (Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations And People Always Die, And Life Gets Faster*)

Oh and she interviews the physicist/complexity-scientist author as well.

From FT Alphaville:
Geoffrey West on why some things stop growing other things don’t

Geoffrey West, theoretical physicist turned complexity scientist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, first became fascinated with the idea of Scale two decades ago as he began to approach his 50s. Coming from a long line of short-lived males, he says this age more than any other triggered a foreboding sense of his own mortality.

Being a scientist, however, he wasn’t prepared to accept the ageing process as a given without at least trying to understand it first. He wanted to know more about where the span of human life emanated from. And why, for example, had no-one been able to live beyond 123 years of life?

In Scale, West outlines his quest to answer these questions and in so doing the associated research which has since guided him towards the beginnings of a universal theory of growth — or scaling — which goes well beyond the spectrum of human lifespans, encapsulating natural organisms, corporations and even cities. It could, he suggests, be applicable to financial markets and economic growth too.

West’s particular obsession now lies with cities. Unlike all the other investigated systems, they are unique because they never stop growing and hence curiously defy the ageing curse. “It’s very hard to kill a city,” says West, noting that even Hiroshima revived itself after being wiped out in an atomic attack.

All this thinking is framed within the context of complexity science, something the Santa Fe Institute specialises in. Not unironically, explaining what complexity science actually is isn’t all that easy. For now it remains a relatively obscure field centred on trying to understand how and why seemingly unrelated interactions between many constituent parts give rise to much greater ’emergent’ effects such as, for example, the majestic patterns of birds in flight.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the journey towards zoning in on a single universal scaling rule which could finally give insight into how and why all systems grow and die is powered by data collection and number crunching. A lot of it.

West assesses everything from how quickly people walk in variously sized urban areas and metropolises to the number of gas stations and patents per capita in cities in the hope that common links can be found. In the biological world, meanwhile, West tracks how quickly animals burn energy, the average number of heartbeats in a lifetime, average lifespans, average weight, average volumes and much more.

Impressively, consistent patterns can be detected everywhere.

For example, if a natural system doubles in size, most of the time its corresponding properties do not double in equal proportion. The growth is what can be dubbed “non linear”.
A case in point is the growth pattern of mammals. As they grow they adapt, hence a mature version of a human or an ape looks nothing like a doubled up version of the infant equivalent. Something somewhere has been tweaked for every bit of growth.

Fascinatingly, West’s work shows that in natural or living organisms, these tweaks tend to result in economies of scale as things get larger. As a consequence, as animals get bigger they get more efficient, demanding less energy per unit of size. This sort of energy-saving growth is best expressed by the fact that a whale needs only one hundredth the amount of energy needed by a shrew to supply blood to one of its cells.

But as in economics, there is never a free lunch....MUCH MORE, including the podcast.
*The second half of the headline is lifted from Edge.

There are a couple recent findings in biology that touch on aspects of this, we'll link next week.
In the meantime, some of our previous links on complexity:

Izabella Kaminska Talks Scale
"The Limits to Racketeering" 
A Simple Measure of Economic Complexity
Youth, Age and Fractal Complexity  
"To Understand Finance, Embrace Complexity"
Scale: "The Hidden Power Laws of Ecosystems"
"Another Problem with Complexity" 
Networks, Complexity and Scientific Discovery
Financial Physics: "Power laws in finance"
"DARPA seeking novel mathematical frameworks for understanding and representing complexity"

"The Philosophy of Complexity: Are Complex Systems Inherently Tyrannical?"
In the end the universe itself is inherently tyrannical.
You are not the boss....
Sic semper tyrannosaur
Or something.
As the philosopher Sting said to Tyrannosaurus' cousin (actually Apatosaurus but syllable count):
Hey there mighty brontosaurus
Don't you have a message for us
You thought your rule would always last
There were no lessons in your past
We have quite a few other complexity posts but most, sadly, are sans dinosaurs.