Cities are the future of the world, with a million people a week becoming urbanized. From cities come the world’s problems, and also their solutions, says physicist Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute. He addresses the problems of urbanization with the formulas of a scientist.
Do biology, aging, cities, sustainability and metabolism have anything in common?
Yes, says theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, a Stanford graduate, former Stanford faculty member and former president of the Santa Fe Institute. He will come back to the Farm April 16 and 17 to answer that question at this year’s Robert Hofstadter Memorial Lectures. The lecture, presented by the Stanford Physics Department, is free and open to the public.
“Physicists appreciate that we can take our training and take it into areas where conventionally, it hasn’t played a major role,” West said in an.
West’s concept of physics goes beyond the familiar notions of objects flying, light waves bouncing and superfast particles colliding. He searches for underlying mathematical formulas that characterize systems and that can be used to predict the future. West uses his methods of finding formulas to tackle problems in biology and social sciences.
“I come to it with a physics viewpoint, that is connecting things that superficially don’t look like they should be connected,” he said. “Kind of seeing a universality to the ways of thinking about questions about why we sleep, to the nature of the growth of cancer to the [question] why do companies die, to the physics of cities: seeing all of those in the same framework.”
For instance, take cities. In a particular country, metrics like the number of patents produced, the amount of gas used and the average wage paid follow a behavior that has more to do with the size of the population than geography, history or culture.
Cities in different countries, like Germany or Japan, follow the same patterns, but the magnitude is different. Violent crime scales up the same way from a small town in Japan to a city like Tokyo in the same fashion that crime scales up from a small town in the United States to New York City, even though the overall magnitude of crime is much greater in the United States.
On average, the big cities seem to obey the same underlying formula, West said. And understanding how cities scale and grow will be important.