Scale: a Book Club Snapshot

‘Scale’ looks at different scaling laws throughout living systems, cities and companies. The IceLab book club enjoyed reading this in the autumn term 2023 and all the discussions it prompted. Here is the take of two members of the book club, Josephine Solowiej-Wedderburn and Maja Lindström, on their experience.

With the start of a new academic year, book club launched into a popular science book on complex systems to whet our scientific appetites, spark new ideas and stimulate discussions. We landed on ‘Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies’ by Geoffrey West as our next book club read. In this book, West tackles a range of questions from why some animals live longer than others, to whether there is a maximum size for cities. He unites seemingly unrelated entities—animals, cities, and companies—within the framework of universal scaling laws, revealing an interconnectedness that goes beyond superficial differences. Throughout the book we could draw many parallels to the research we span across IceLab, offering new perspectives on our respective questions and methodologies of interest.

‘Scale’ opens with an exploration of quarter-power scaling laws and their apparent ubiquity throughout biology. For example, when an animal doubles in size, its metabolic rate doesn’t double (as one might think using traditional linear thinking) but increases by only ¾. We enjoyed the discussions on quarter-power scaling laws in living systems, so we decided to take a detour from the book to delve deeper into the seminal paper: ‘A General Model for the Origin of Allometric Scaling Laws in Biology’ by West, Brown, and Enquist. The insights from this paper fuelled hours of meaty discussions. We also particularly enjoyed the author’s own digression on the concept of a real Godzilla. While acknowledging the physical impossibility of animals reaching such colossal sizes, we were fascinated by the exploration of how such a creature could hypothetically sustain itself in the real world. Just envision a creature weighing 20,000 tons and needing 25 tons of food every day. Gratitude is owed to scaling laws that hinder animals from reaching such colossal proportions.

Transitioning to later sections of the book, West explores scaling laws in cities and companies. His emphasis lies in constructing a conceptual framework for understanding city and company dynamics, growth, and evolution in a quantitatively predictable way. The author poses intriguing questions such as: Does a city have a maximum or optimal size? Why must the pace of innovation continually accelerate to sustain socioeconomic life? And can we make reasonably accurate predictions about the lifespans of companies? These questions led us through playful and intriguing discussions of city dynamics, corporate evolution and how and where parallels could be drawn between these organised structures and organic creatures.

We also appreciated the numerous personal anecdotes, as well as historical and geographical digressions. Although jarring at times to the flow of the scientific themes of the book, many of the tangents resonated with us and served as inspiration to infuse a bit more of ourselves into our own research practices. From the personal to the conceptual, ‘Scale’ has left us with a rich tapestry of ideas to inspire our further research.

ScaleThe Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies

Geoffrey B. West, Penguin Press, 2017

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