Scale

 

Geoffrey West, Penguin Press, 479 pages, $30. Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life, in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. Geoffrey West is the restless sort. He has spent much of his career as a theoretical physicist, working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. After a while he became fascinated by biology, then cities and companies. He is interested in all sorts of things, from Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ship designs to Ingmar Bergman’s films. On one level, “Scale:” is a book about West’s peculiar career path. But on another, it is about the hidden mathematical patterns underlying life, cities and commerce. Many things that appear unrelated are actually linked, he writes. The size of an animal is related to the speed of its metabolism and its life span. If you know the population of a city and what country it is in, you can predict fairly accurately how many gas stations it has and how many patents its citizens produce. Cities, he suggests, are a little like giant organisms. They often grow in the same exponential way. A map of truck journeys looks a bit like a network of blood vessels. Cities also scale non-linearly. Just as an elephant is a more efficient animal than a cat, big cities are more efficient than small ones. That is why people are drawn to them. West is an entertaining, chatty guide to the things that interest him. That is mostly to the good, although the chattiness does mean that “Scale” suffers from a problem of scale. Size is not always everything.

Economist