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.