6 Jun 2017

Why mathematics is at the heart of life

From Afternoons, 3:07 pm on 6 June 2017

Simple mathematical laws govern not just biology, but even human constructs such as commerce and cities – and if you feel like time is speeding up, you're correct says physicist Geoffrey West.

Geoffrey West - Physicist

Geoffrey West - Physicist Photo: www.santafe.edu

West is one of the 100 most influential people in the world, according to Time magazine.

West says an interest in his own biological finitude led him into this area.

"If you want to understand ageing and mortality you have to understand what is it that's keeping you alive and what's going wrong.

"Where the hell does [the human lifespan of] 100 years come from? Why not 1,000 years or a million years or five years?"

The first thing to ask was what is common to all animals, he says.

He discovered that despite the diversity in mammals, scaling laws apply – all organisms are, to a large degree, scaled versions of each other.

"It's kind of weird that the same scaling laws apply to mammals and not just birds, fish and insects but also to plants and trees."

The discovery of scaling laws shifted West's research to a new question.

"What is it that constrained natural selection and led to these great regularities and systematic behaviour?"

He and a team of biologists realised that network systems similar to the human respiratory system had evolved within natural selection.

"Once that was done all of these scaling laws came tumbling out."

But how can a theoretical framework about the natural world help us understand cities and companies?

Because human constructs operate something like humans, he says.

"Cities and companies are derived from life, they're products of our existence, but more importantly they're network systems – in that sense, they're like us."

Roads, electrical lines and water lines are clearly networks not dissimilar to the human respiratory system, he says.

"Cities metabolise much like we do – they turn resources, energy, into living phenomena."

But cities have another function that is beyond biology as we know it – they produce ideas and innovation.

Most of human social development has taken place in the 200 years since the industrial revolution, West says, and this accelerating rate of change is speeding up both time and the demand for progress itself.

"Whereas innovations a thousand years ago may have taken 100 years to develop … The next innovation – which has to be as big as IT in terms of paradigm-shifting – has to occur in 20 years, and the next one may have to come in 15 years and so on."

Geoffrey West's latest book is SCALE: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life, in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies.

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