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Energy=Mass of City squared
December 24, 2010 10:24 AM   Subscribe

A Physicist Solves the City

“I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.” After a pause, as if reflecting on his hyperbole, West adds: “Look, we all know that every city is unique. That’s all we talk about when we talk about cities, those things that make New York different from L.A., or Tokyo different from Albuquerque. But focusing on those differences misses the point. Sure, there are differences, but different from what? We’ve found the what.”

Geoffrey West, a controversial theoretical physicist, attempts to reduce the myriad complexities of the city into a series of equations and correlations.
posted by Ndwright (37 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
You can also listen to his contributions to Radiolab in the episode on cities. It is fascinating stuff.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 10:33 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Basically, Asimov was right in Caves of Steel, then.
posted by wuwei at 10:40 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


“I can’t tell you how satisfying this was,” West says. “Sometimes, I look out at nature and I think, Everything here is obeying my conjecture. It’s a wonderfully narcissistic feeling.”

One of the most important abilities a scientist needs is the ability to withstand this feeling.
posted by escabeche at 10:40 AM on December 24, 2010 [19 favorites]


Forest spotted: trees yet to be found.
posted by Dmenet at 10:46 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one who gets a NYT login screen?
posted by sidereal at 10:47 AM on December 24, 2010


Oh. Cookies. My bad.

think twice, post once
posted by sidereal at 10:48 AM on December 24, 2010


But the escape is only temporary, as every innovation eventually leads to new shortages. We clear-cut forests, and so we turn to oil; once we exhaust our fossil-fuel reserves, we’ll start driving electric cars, at least until we run out of lithium. This helps explain why West describes cities as the only solution to the problem of cities. Although urbanization has generated a seemingly impossible amount of economic growth, it has also inspired the innovations that allow the growth to continue.

That's bleak as shit.
posted by codacorolla at 10:59 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I say, be a small person. We needn't all be blue whales.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:13 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting idea. Most big things tend to slow down because of the amount of energy that it takes to maintain them, at least in a biological sense. A big thing like a city, however, can move at a faster pace than a small thing like a town (an elephant compared to a mouse, in the words of the article) because it's effectively creating its own fuel, which are the productive interactions of its inhabitants, which lets it grow even faster and create even more things.

A corporation, on the other hand, starts out with the act of creation, and in order to grow has to compromise the things that made it unique in the first place, leading to wasted resources on maintaining the system simply for the sake of maintaining the system, as opposed to any productive ends. The same thing that becomes a benefit for the city (which is relatively free in the interactions it allows of its participants) becomes a liability for the corporation because so much energy goes into maintaining structure, and that structure actually acts to limit productivity.

It makes me wonder what he thinks of the Internet, which is sort of mega-city unto itself. The sort of shoulder rubbing interaction that makes a city great also happens (in an intellectual sense) on the Net. You can be exposed to new ideas and new culture even being geographically dispersed from the rest of humanity.

Cool article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by codacorolla at 11:18 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


West’s paper in Science ignited a flurry of rebuttals, in which researchers pointed out all the species that violated the math. West can barely hide his impatience with what he regards as quibbles. “There are always going to be people who say, ‘What about the crayfish?’ ” he says. “Well, what about it? Every fundamental law has exceptions. But you still need the law or else all you have is observations that don’t make sense. And that’s not science. That’s just taking notes.”

If your fundamental law is riddled with exceptions which you handwave away instead of investigating further, may I suggest that you're a piss-poor scientist and don't appear to understand the meaning of "fundamental law"?
posted by xbonesgt at 11:40 AM on December 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


obXkcd
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:46 AM on December 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Randall Munroe of all people criticizing someone else for being condescending. My world is spinning.
posted by codacorolla at 12:04 PM on December 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Instead of making a snarky comment, I'll just admit that it would only reflect the fact that I'm jealous no one is paying me to sit around in Santa Fe, shoot the shit with Cormac McCarthy and look for scaling laws in piles of data.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 12:28 PM on December 24, 2010


Metafilter: There are always going to be people who say, ‘What about the crayfish?’
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:41 PM on December 24, 2010




If your fundamental law is riddled with exceptions which you handwave away instead of investigating further, may I suggest that you're a piss-poor scientist and don't appear to understand the meaning of "fundamental law"?


To be accurate he never said "riddled"...but that's beside the point.

You may very well think that West's science is merely "piss poor", but you would be in the minority. You might be enlightened to learn that his scaling theory (to which the crayfish reference applies) has become accepted as valuable and highly relevant in the fields of ecology and evolution. Richard Dawkins calls West's work "a theory of enormous power, explaining a huge range of facts with great economy".

Just sayin'...
posted by DavidandConquer at 1:58 PM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


>You might be enlightened to learn that his scaling theory (to which the crayfish reference applies) has become accepted as valuable and highly relevant in the fields of ecology and evolution.

I'm not saying his work isn't important. It clearly is, as both you and the article state. My objection is to West as a scientist. He presents his research as describing a "fundamental law" of biology (his words, not the article's), objections to the research are raised by his peers, and instead of responding to the objections West ignores (and belittles!) the data that contradicts his theory and apparently declines to perform further research and leaves the field completely. And, according to the article, the same thing is happening with his research in urban development. He's so satisfied with what he's done that he's moving on to yet another area of study, even though other experts in the field disagree with his conclusions and even though he admits his laws aren't even correct. That sounds more like a dilettante than a responsible scientist.
posted by xbonesgt at 3:31 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Somebody please tell Bloomberg that corporations have an average life span of 40 or 50 years. The mogul mayor insists that education, social services, police, fire and all other departments follow a business model -- which means that what is best about New York City won't survive 40 years. The magazine piece was great -- and would have been better if shorter.
posted by KathyBraid at 3:43 PM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


His math validates Toffler's Future Shock.
posted by shnarg at 4:04 PM on December 24, 2010


As a result, West argues, creating a more sustainable society will require our big cities to get even bigger. We need more megalopolises.

That's a pretty big mandate on the basis of one theoretical physics paper.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 5:22 PM on December 24, 2010


“Because you can take the same person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.” While Jacobs could only speculate on the value of our urban interactions, West insists that he has found a way to “scientifically confirm” her conjectures. “One of my favorite compliments is when people come up to me and say, ‘You have done what Jane Jacobs would have done, if only she could do mathematics,’ ” West says. “What the data clearly shows, and what she was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together, they become much more productive.”

I think Adam Smith was the first to point that out at length. And it was Marx and Engels who compared the city to a factory.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 5:28 PM on December 24, 2010


Geoffrey West ... attempts to reduce model the myriad complexities of the city into with a series of equations and correlations.
posted by phliar at 5:36 PM on December 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


This raises the obvious question: Why are corporations so fleeting? After buying data on more than 23,000 publicly traded companies, Bettencourt and West discovered that corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, was entirely sublinear. As the number of employees grows, the amount of profit per employee shrinks. West gets giddy when he shows me the linear regression charts. “Look at this bloody plot,” he says. “It’s ridiculous how well the points line up.” The graph reflects the bleak reality of corporate growth, in which efficiencies of scale are almost always outweighed by the burdens of bureaucracy. “When a company starts out, it’s all about the new idea,” West says. “And then, if the company gets lucky, the idea takes off. Everybody is happy and rich. But then management starts worrying about the bottom line, and so all these people are hired to keep track of the paper clips. This is the beginning of the end.”

Is a physicist claiming to have demonstrated the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall? Eat it, Milton Friedman.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 5:39 PM on December 24, 2010


Geoffrey West ... attempts to model the myriad complexities of the city with a series of equations and correlations.
posted by phliar at 5:36 PM on December 24 [1 favorite +] [!]


Much better phrasing, thank you. I pondered over how to write that sentence for a while, not having much of a science background.
posted by Ndwright at 7:03 PM on December 24, 2010


You may very well think that West's science is merely "piss poor", but you would be in the minority. You might be enlightened to learn that his scaling theory (to which the crayfish reference applies) has become accepted as valuable and highly relevant in the fields of ecology and evolution. Richard Dawkins calls West's work "a theory of enormous power, explaining a huge range of facts with great economy".

Just sayin'...


I happen to be a grad student in ecology and was just talking about the power law with the editor in chief of one of the top journals in the field, and he's less than convinced and I've heard other colleagues say similar things.

I think it's more controversial than you're conveying here at least in part because no mechanism has been proposed to account for the law. While it's true that things "just are" in physics, that's not how it works in biology (or ecophysiology). If the law is true, something underlies it. That mechanism may or may not be forthcoming, but I'm irritated that West washed his hands of the entire field rather than actually responding to the criticisms raised.
posted by zug at 7:06 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a (former) complex systems physicist I find discussion and potential explanation of allometries interesting, but this article really illustrates why, in general, these Santa Fe Institute guys are The Devil. Their M.O. is to go slumming in some other field and "solve" everything: obtain a bunch of data and produce a theory that, often as not, explains relationships that the invested experts would consider epiphenomena. Then when the experts point out data contradicts the theory, they ignore it, basically saying "we've worked out all the important bits, now you math-illiterate morons can worry about the details".

As a theorist, I do think there it's useful to have people looking around for simple relationships and explanations, trying to find low-hanging fruit, but I think the fame and accolades this kind of theorist obtains is far beyond their actual contributions to the fields they dabble in. Stop comparing yourself to Kepler, you just AREN'T. And if most of the experts in a field don't agree with your shiny new theory, maybe they aren't nitpicking idiots, maybe you just haven't made your case yet. Integrity demands that you stick around long enough to become an expert yourself. That's a lot of work though, so fuck it.
posted by Humanzee at 7:16 PM on December 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


"A corporation, on the other hand, starts out with the act of creation, and in order to grow has to compromise the things that made it unique in the first place, leading to wasted resources on maintaining the system simply for the sake of maintaining the system, as opposed to any productive ends."

Taking the argument to its rational end, a city with no corporations would be a great place to live. A place like Pyongyang for example.
posted by storybored at 8:56 PM on December 24, 2010


Whoops no, I think i strawmanned the argument. Apologies for the snark.
posted by storybored at 9:14 PM on December 24, 2010


Integrity demands that you stick around long enough to become an expert yourself.

This kind of demand seems like it's more conerned with celebrity than science. If some theoretical physicist comes along and says, "Hey I ran some numbers and did some statistics and look! This explains all kinds of stuff you guys have never really noticed before, seeyabye!" then it seems totally counterproductive to ask that physicist to take a few years attempting to get to know your subject just so he can better defend his theory.

Surely if the theory has any merit, people in your field would be far better equipped to defend it. If you raise objections and no one in your field can answer them, the theory probably wasn't really worth bothering with and you can all move on to something else.

The only reason to demand that the original physicist try to answer your objections is to take him down a peg. He's unlikely to be able to give the best answers to your objections even if he were to spend several years trying to get up to speed on your subject. Science would be better served by someone in your field attempting to defend the theory if it's worth defending.
posted by straight at 11:08 PM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


If some theoretical physicist comes along and says, "Hey I ran some numbers and did some statistics and look! This explains all kinds of stuff you guys have never really noticed before, seeyabye!" then it seems totally counterproductive to ask that physicist to take a few years attempting to get to know your subject just so he can better defend his theory.

Why is it more productive to ask everybody else to learn enough mathematics so they can make a thorough assessment of the proposed theory? After all, if we physicists are so much smarter than everybody else, it must be easier for a physicist to pick up enough biology or economics than the other way around.

Doing Your Homework is a fundamental concept in science, you really are expected to exhaust your own resources in validating your ideas before you waste other people's time with them - doubly so if you are going to be in the New York Times comparing yourself to Newton, where 99% of your audience is unequipped to judge the actual merits of your
argument.

The only reason to demand that the original physicist try to answer your objections is to take him down a peg.

For someone comparing themselves to Newton and Kepler, this might not be a bad idea.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:54 AM on December 25, 2010


Knowing a field before publishing in it is basic to competency in science. You can't solve problems if you don't know what the problems are, how people talk about them, and what's been done to address them previously.

When I was in (physics) grad school, my group was arguing with people who said that the brain was fundamentally just like a sand pile (not exaggerating) or that the internet could be taken down by taking out a few critical websites, thus severing their hyperlinks and fracturing the web (also not exaggerating, they got that one in Nature). They had some favorite mechanism that produced scaling (typically power laws) and would drift from subject to subject, "solving" the field by finding power laws that no one really cared about. Power law -> therefore their favorite mechanism -> Science or Nature publication -> on to next field. Eventually people who worked in the field and understood the fancy-pants math would publish something pointing out the absurdity (in a lower-tier journal, of course), but it didn't matter.

Eventually I realized they weren't even worth arguing with. For starters, they didn't engage, they just moved on. Secondly, almost no one cared about or could follow their work. I've talked to plenty of biologists about self-organized criticality and they almost all seem to think it's interesting. But they don't understand it, and they certainly aren't going to go teach themselves renormalization group. So I stopped worrying about them, and tried to be an expert in my field. Now I have a much better handle on the problems neuroscientists find interesting, as well as how to talk about them comprehensibly. The downside: no Nature publications yet. Oh well...
posted by Humanzee at 6:19 AM on December 25, 2010


"A corporation, on the other hand, starts out with the act of creation, and in order to grow has to compromise the things that made it unique in the first place, leading to wasted resources on maintaining the system simply for the sake of maintaining the system, as opposed to any productive ends."

Taking the argument to its rational end, a city with no corporations would be a great place to live. A place like Pyongyang for example.


A junta is a corporate body.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:19 AM on December 25, 2010


Oops, didn't see your follow-up comment.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:21 AM on December 25, 2010


Serious question: West claims that per capita crime goes up 15% as the population doubles. But the statistics that I've seen suggest that per capita crime goes down as density increases. On the other hand, I tend to trust West more for this kind of data than the urbanists I've read. Anybody know: which is it?
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:51 AM on December 25, 2010


Sometimes people at my work start projects and don't finish them. They expect that once they do all the fun and easy stuff, they can get someone else to finish it while they split the credit. I hate these people.
posted by cman at 4:03 PM on December 25, 2010


Is there a link to an actual paper or other non-journalist-simplified publication on this?
posted by signal at 7:16 PM on December 25, 2010


Sometimes people at my work start projects and don't finish them. They expect that once they do all the fun and easy stuff, they can get someone else to finish it while they split the credit. I hate these people.

Also, people who bust in on other people who are doing some hard work and saying "Stop! I have a much simpler way of solving this problem which I have unfortunately not yet started. I'll yell about the sunk cost fallacy if you try to finish your current work."
posted by breath at 11:06 PM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


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