A Physicist's Search for Simplicity and Unity

Physics West 117
Tuesday 26 March 2019 (16:00-17:30)

Please contact Hilary Mousley if you have any questions about this event.


A Physicist's Search for Simplicity and Unity in the Complexity of Living Systems from Cells and Cities to Ecosystems and Companies

SPEAKER: Professor Geoffrey West, Santa Fe Institute

Many of the most challenging and profound questions facing science and society fall under the banner of “complex adaptive systems”, from understanding life to global sustainability. This talk explores how scaling can be used to develop physics-inspired coarse-grained theories for quantitatively understanding their structure and dynamics. Despite its daunting complexity, many of life’s fundamental phenomena scale “universally”, following remarkably simple power laws. They suggest that fundamental constraints underlie the generic structure and dynamics of all living systems. These originate in properties of optimised space-filling networks, thereby capturing essential features of diverse phenomena including vasculature, growth, tumors, aging and death, sleep, cell size, and DNA nucleotide substitution rates. Likewise, characteristics of cities and companies including wages, profits, patents, crime, disease, and roads, scale independently of geography and culture across the globe, reflecting universal properties of social networks. This has dramatic implications for global sustainability and the accelerating pace of life: innovation and wealth creation that fuel socio-economic systems generate singularities that potentially lead to their collapse.

Professor West is a theoretical physicist whose primary interests have been in fundamental questions in physics, especially those concerning the elementary particles, their interactions and cosmological implications. West served as SFI President from July 2005 through July 2009. Prior to joining the Santa Fe Institute as a Distinguished Professor in 2003, he was the leader, and founder, of the high energy physics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he is one of only approximately ten Senior Fellows.

His long-term fascination in general scaling phenomena evolved into a highly productive collaboration on the origin of universal scaling laws that pervade biology from the molecular genomic scale up through mitochondria and cells to whole organisms and ecosystems. The work, provides a framework for quantitative understanding of problems ranging from fundamental issues in biology (such as cell size, growth, metabolic rate, DNA nucleotide substitution rates, and the structure and dynamics of ecosystems) to questions at the forefront of medical research (such as aging, sleep, and cancer). Among his current interests is the extension of these ideas to understand quantitatively the structure and dynamics of social organizations, such as cities and corporations, including the relationships between economies of scale, growth, innovation and wealth creation and their implications for long-term survivability and sustainability.