Illuminating and entertaining—heady science written for a lay readership, bringing scaling theory and kindred ideas to a...

SCALE

THE UNIVERSAL LAWS OF GROWTH, INNOVATION, SUSTAINABILITY, AND THE PACE OF LIFE, IN ORGANISMS, CITIES, ECONOMIES, AND COMPANIES

From a dean of complexity theory comes a sharp consideration of the pace and pattern of life in a universe of “complex adaptive systems.”

Everything is connected to everything else: thus the great insight of modern ecology. But more, writes theoretical physicist West (Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Santa Fe Institute), there is a “pervasive interconnectedness and interdependency of energy, resources, and environmental, ecological, economic, social, and political systems,” and this interconnection gives us something of a grand unified theory of everything. West’s book is a succession of charts, graphs, and aha moments, all deeply learned but lightly worn. By the end of the book, readers will understand such oddments as why it is that the hearts of all animals, from mouse to elephant, beat roughly the same number of times across a lifespan and why the pace of life increases so markedly as the population grows (which explains why people walk faster, it turns out, in big cities than out in the countryside). Some of the concepts West explores are much-used elsewhere but rarely so clearly explained—e.g., how does a self-organizing system self-organize, and what emerges in the case of emergence? Of overarching concern, of course, is scale: the behavior of sequences of things and events in arithmetic and logarithmic numerical relationships, whether atomic bombs or earthquakes or safe dosages of LSD and metabolic rates. These natural phenomena also have applications in social and economic systems, as West discusses in such matters as the growth of cities and the decline and collapse of companies, which are punished in time for their natural tendency to be “short-sighted, conservative, and not very supportive of innovative or risky ideas.” How risky West’s ideas are is a matter of interpretation, but there’s plenty of news in such things as his conception of the “finite time singularity” that is unfolding all around us.

Illuminating and entertaining—heady science written for a lay readership, bringing scaling theory and kindred ideas to a large audience.

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59420-558-3

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2017

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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