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April 17, 2008
By John Trent
Even when his career was in its most traditional phase, when he was engaged as a theoretical physicist in theoretical particle theory, it was obvious that physicist Geoffrey West was not a traditional scientist, with a traditional mindset.
“I feel extraordinarily blessed that I’ve always been broad in my interests,” says West, who in 2006 was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by TIME magazine. “But even when I was a younger, I never could have imagined where I am today, thinking about these great societal questions that can potentially impact society. It’s fantastic and I must say I’m delighted about it.”
West, founder of the high-energy physics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is one of the leaders of an increasingly effective and productive realm of science that is explaining life, nature and society in ways never before thought imaginable.
He will be on the University of Nevada, Reno’s campus on Tuesday, April 29 when he delivers the College of Science’s STARS (Science and Research Seminar) address at 6:30 p.m. in the Joe Crowley Student Union. For details, call 682-8796.
West’s shift in his focus began in the mid-1990s, when he met ecologist Jim Brown. West realized that for all the excellent work he had done in his career, this was an opportunity to expand its scope to a new level.
The confluence of physics and biology has created extraordinary findings. West and his collaborators, through the use of universal scaling laws, have found ways that can relate an organism’s size to its metabolic rate and its natural lifespan. This, in turn, has allowed West to quantitatively detail calculations and make predictions for a far broader range of biological phenomena. This now includes the structure and dynamics of social organizations, such as cities and corporations, and the relationships between efficiency and innovation.
At age 67, West’s professional life has never been busier, or more personally enriching. He is president and distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. The Santa Fe Institute is devoted to creating a new kind of scientific research community, one emphasizing multi-disciplinary collaboration in pursuit of understanding the common themes that arise in natural, artificial and social systems.
It is a wonderfully invigorating type of work place where no two days are ever the same. It is the type of salon of ideas where Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev is a featured speaker one night (such as earlier this month, an event that West called, “Very good … and in a very interesting way, in his call for global solutions, quite moving”) and where a group of scientists can sit down for lunch with the legendary Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford professor who for the better part of five decades has called for the world to understand that there are only a finite amount of natural resources on the planet, the next day.
“That is the wonderful thing about Paul,” West added, noting that during the recent lunch Ehrlich was animated – and a bit agitated – about the world’s current state of affairs. “He’s always thinking the big picture, that all of these things, global warming, the environment, energy and resources, overpopulation and disease, these are all interconnected with other factors, such as risk and financial markets and social organizations … that if you start diddling with one of these things, there can be some very important unintended consequences.”
West, speaking on the phone from his office in Santa Fe, took a quick pause.
“These big societal questions, and how to solve them, these are all much harder problems than understanding the evolution of the universe,” he said.
Does West’s approach work?
Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann, in taking stock of West’s impact in TIME magazine, has written, “(West) has studied the relationship between the average weight of a species of mammal and such variables as blood pressure or metabolic rate. Such formulas are remarkably precise, holding true from shrews to whales. (West is) trying to see if similar relationships apply for social organizations such as cities and companies.
“Think those things don’t affect you directly? Think again. Studies of social animals, for instance, can teach us a lot about how armies and terrorist groups work, allowing us to respond better to security threats. Knowing how our brains learn can help us design better computers. Understanding the behavior of schools of fish can help us avoid disasters like the 1987 stock-market crash.”
For his part, West says his work is intended to provide society with a “coarse-grained” map of the many variables that can impact the planet’s harmony.
“There are so many variables with any system,” he said. “There are so many actors. But often, it’s not even the human beings. It can be everything we interface with, from the environment to the economy. This sort of approach translates into everything. I passionately believe that in order to solve the big societal problems that we have, you have to understand the dynamic in a quantitative and predictive fashion. Part of what we are trying to do is provide a coarse-grained, low-resolution, map of what are the crucial features that we have to address.
“Astonishingly, we don’t know them yet. I passionately believe we need to find them. And I strongly believe that the United States needs to be the leader in this effort.”
West admits that in caricature form he is probably two-sided: “There is a part of me that says, ‘We’ll muddle through these problems and the American people and ingenuity of mankind will solve these problems’ … and there is the scientist in me that is extremely pessimistic, that we really are on the brink, that it could be in the cards that the planet will collapse.”
Yet, he also believes that the right world leadership could provide one of the important variables in providing additional clarity for the “coarse-grained” map of the planet’s future.
“It really takes leaders who look beyond one or two terms, or beyond one- or two-year increments,” he said. “Our leaders should think in terms of leaving a legacy that lasts 100 years. They should have big ideas such as the Apollo Moon project or the Manhattan Project. The problem with politics is that one or two years is infinity. That’s why we are in such a dangerous place right now. Fifty or 100 years should be the horizon, and our leaders should think in those visionary terms.