Skip to content Skip to navigation

Prof. Geoffrey West: “Searching for Simplicity and Unity in the Complexity of Life: Cells to Cities, Companies to Ecosystems, Milliseconds to Millenia”

April 16, 2012 - 8:00pm
Hewlett Teaching Center, 370 Serra Mall, Rm. 200

The Department of Physics at Stanford University is pleased to announce the 2012 Robert Hofstadter Memorial Lectures, given by Geoffrey West, Distinguished Professor and former President of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) and an Associate Fellow of the Said Business School, Oxford University. Before joining SFI in 2003, he was leader of high energy physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he remains a Senior Fellow. He received his BA from Cambridge University in 1961 and his PhD in physics from Stanford University in 1966. He was President of SFI from 2005-2009. A theoretical physicist, West’s primary interests have been in fundamental questions in physics and biology, ranging from the elementary particles, their interactions and cosmological implications to the origins of universal scaling laws and a unifying quantitative framework of biology. His research in biology has included metabolic rate, growth, aging & death, sleep, cancer, and ecosystem dynamics.  Recent work has focused on developing an underlying quantitative theory for the structure and dynamics of cities, companies and long-term global sustainability, including rates of growth and innovation, the accelerating pace of life, and why companies die, yet cities survive.  The author of several books and a Fellow of the American Physical Society, West’s recent awards include the Mercer Prize from the Ecological Society of America, the Weldon Prize for Mathematical Biology and the Glenn Award for Aging research. His work was selected as a breakthrough idea of 2007 by Harvard Business Review and in 2006 he was selected for Time magazine's list of "100 Most Influential People in the World.”  We hope you will join us for these exciting lectures.

Evening Public Lecture (8:00 PM on Monday, April 16, 2012)

Hewlett Teaching Center, 370 Serra Mall, Rm. 200

“Searching for Simplicity and Unity in the Complexity of Life: Cells to Cities, Companies to Ecosystems, Milliseconds to Millenia”

Why do we stop growing, live for 100 years and sleep 8 hours a day?  Why do all companies (and people!) die whereas cities keep growing and the pace of life continues to accelerate.  Are cities and companies "just" large organisms? How are these questions related to innovation, wealth creation and global sustainability? Life is very likely the most complex phenomenon in the Universe manifesting an extraordinary diversity of form and function over an enormous range. Yet, many of its most fundamental and complex properties scale with size in a remarkably simple fashion: for example, metabolic rate (the 2000 food calories you need each day to stay alive) scales in a systematically predictive way from cells to whales. Similarly, time-scales, from lifespans to growth-rates, and sizes, from genome lengths to tree heights, scale systematically with size. These "universal" scaling laws, which constrain much of the organization and dynamics of life, are consequences of generic mathematical properties of networks that sustain life at all scales, such as circulatory systems of mammals, tumors and forests. Cities and companies also exhibit systematic scaling: wages, profits, patents, crime, police, disease, pollution, gas stations and roads all scale in an approximately "universal", predictive fashion suggesting that hidden quantifiable principles based on properties of social network dynamics govern their generic structure and life history independent of their individuality.

Afternoon Colloquium (4:15 PM on Tuesday, April 17, 2012) 

Hewlett Teaching Center, 370 Serra Mall, Rm. 201 

“Universal Scaling Laws from Cells to Cities:
A Physicist's Search for Quantitative, Unified Theories of Biological and Social Structure and Dynamics”

Many of the most challenging, exciting and profound questions facing science and society, from the origins of life to global sustainability, fall under the banner of "complex adaptive systems.”  This talk explores how scaling can be used to begin to develop physics-inspired quantitative, predictive, coarse-grained theories for understanding their structure, dynamics and organization based on underlying mathematisable principles. Remarkably, most physiological, organizational and life history phenomena in biology and socio-economic systems scale in a simple and "universal" fashion: metabolic rate scales approximately as the 3/4-power of mass over 27 orders of magnitude from complex molecules to the largest  organisms. Time-scales (such as lifespans and growth-rates) and sizes (such as genome lengths and RNA densities) scale with exponents which are typically simple multiples of 1/4, suggesting that fundamental constraints underlie much of the generic structure and dynamics of living systems. These scaling laws follow from dynamical and geometrical properties of space-filling, fractal-like, hierarchical branching networks, presumed optimized by natural selection. This leads to a general framework that potentially captures essential features of diverse systems including vasculature, ontogenetic growth, cancer, aging and mortality, sleep, cell size, and DNA nucleotide substitution rates. Cities and companies also scale: wages, profits, patents, crime, disease, pollution, road lengths scale similarly across the globe, reflecting underlying universal social network dynamics which point to general principles of organization transcending their individuality. These have dramatic implications for global sustainability: innovation and wealth creation that fuel social systems, left unchecked, potentially sow the seeds for their inevitable collapse.

Tuesday 6pm Reception & 7pm Dinner (Ming's):  Register by April 10 to attend dinner


This event belongs to the following series