Geoffrey West

Shannan Distinguished Professor and Past President Geoffrey West has been awarded the 2018 Los Alamos Medal by Los Alamos National Laboratory “for his groundbreaking contributions to science.”

“Dr. West’s work in scaling theory is world-renowned and has fundamentally changed multiple scientific disciplines,” said Terry C. Wallace, Jr., the director of the Laboratory.

West is a theoretical physicist who founded the Laboratory’s high energy physics group in 1974. However, in the mid 90s, he became interested in biological scaling laws. He began spending time at the Santa Fe Institute, and working with biologists Jim Brown and Brian Enquist, used a physics-inspired framework to investigate scaling laws for everything from aorta lengths to lifespans. They found that as organisms get bigger, the pace of life slows and they need less of everything, relative to their size. So, a mammal twice as large as another needs only 75 percent as much food.

In a 1997 paper in Science, they showed that these cross-species scaling relationships originate in the mathematics and physics of branching, fractal-like structures of distribution networks — circulatory systems in mammals, or xylem systems in plants.

With SFI’s Cities, Scaling, and Sustainability group, which included External Professors Luis Bettencourt and Jose Lobo, West extended his investigation of scaling laws to human cities. The group found that cities also show predictable scaling patterns, but of two sorts. Systems that deliver resources, like roads and power lines, scale sub-linearly: a large city needs only approximately 85 percent as many roads, power lines, etc. compared to a city half its size. Socioeconomic outputs, like wealth, crime, disease and even innovation (as measured by patents), scale super-linearly: a large city produces approximately 115 percent more wealth, crime, etc. than a city half its size.

West served as SFI’s president from 2004-2008.

Today, he is still working with the Cities, Scaling, and Sustainability project, pursuing big questions related to the structure and dynamics of social organizations, such as cities and corporations, and its implication for their long-term survivability, the increasing pace of life, and global sustainability.

"West remarked that he was extremely flattered and honored to receive the award but that none of his achievements could have been made without the unique ambiance of how science is done at the Lab and at SFI, both in terms of their continued support and the broad multidisciplinary atmosphere created by his many colleagues over more than 30 years. It’s a great recognition of the value of basic research.” 

Read the announcement: Three Los Alamos Medal winners changed the course of science on the Los Alamos National Laboratory website.

Read more about Geoffrey’s work in his book Scale: The universal laws of life, growth and death in organisms, cities, and companies (Penguin Random House 2017)