Universal Mathematics: All Life on Earth Is Bound by One Spooky Algorithm | Geoffrey West
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Universal Mathematics: All Life on Earth Is Bound by One Spooky Algorithm | Geoffrey West


So I think it’s one of the more remarkable
properties of life actually, but just taking mammals: that the largest mammal, the whale,
is—in terms of measurable quantities of its physiology and its life history—is actually
a scaled up version of the smallest mammal which is actually the shrew, but a mouse is
very close to that. And everything in between, that they are scaled
version of one another and in a systematic predictable way to sort of 80 percent or 90
percent level. So the kinds of things that you might measure
might be as mundane as the length of the aorta, which is the first tube coming out of your
heart, or it could be something as sophisticated and complex as how long each one of these
mammals, for example, is going to live or how long it takes to mature. So all of these things scale in a very predictable
way and they scale in a way that’s nonlinear. So even though it’s simple it’s highly
nonlinear, and that can be expressed in the following way. So perhaps the most well known of these is
the scaling of metabolic rate. And metabolic rate is maybe the most fundamental
quantity of life because metabolic rate simply means how much energy or just how much food
does an animal need to eat each day in order to stay alive. And everybody’s used to that and is familiar
with that. It’s sort of roughly 2,000 food calories
a day for a human being. So you can ask “what is that for different
mammals?” and what you find is that they’re related to one another in a very simple way
despite the fact that metabolism is maybe the most complex physical chemical process
in the universe. It’s phenomenal because metabolism is taking
essentially almost inorganic, something that’s inorganic an making it into life. And so here’s this extraordinary complex
process and yet it scales in a very simple way. And you can express it in English, it can
be expressed quite precisely in a very simple mathematical equation but in English it’s—roughly
speaking—that every time you double the size of an organism from say two grams to
four grams or from 20 grams to 40 grams or 20 kilograms to 40 kilograms or whatever and
just doubling anywhere. Instead of what you might naively expect—double
the size, you double the number of cells roughly speaking; therefore, you would expect to double
the amount of energy, the amount of metabolic energy you need to keep that organism alive
because you have twice as many cells—Quite the contrary you don’t need twice as much. Systematically you only need roughly speaking
75 percent as much. So there’s this kind of systematic 25 percent,
one-quarter “savings.” And it turns out that anything else you measure
as I mentioned a moment ago scales in a similar way with this sort of 25 percent role occurring
in some interesting way. So, for example, if you take mammals: we have
beating hearts, we have a circulatory system with a beating heart. So every time you double the size there’s
a systematic decrease in heartrate as most people are familiar with. An elephant’s heart beats much slower than
ours and ours beats much slower than a dog’s or a mouse’s, for example. And that also obeys this kind of quarter-power
scaling, so in a very systematic way we see this repetitive nature. And what is amazing about that is that each
animal, each one of these animals—and by the way it’s not just true for animals,
it’s also true of plants and trees—but each one of these organisms has evolved by
natural selection, each subsystem has evolved evolutionary by natural selection, each cell
type, each genome that comprises of the organism has its own unique history that ended up being
this particular organism. So you might have expected, in fact, you would
sort of think of that (and often colloquially we think of it) as some kind of random process,
natural selection. And that you would therefore have expected,
if you look at something like metabolic rate or length of aortas or whatever it is, lifespan—They
would sort of be randomly distributed because they would simply represent or reflect the
evolutionary history of that organism, or of the components of that organism. And quite the contrary, as I say, it’s not
that. Somehow natural selection has been constrained
by some underlying principles. And what I have spent quite a lot of time
thinking about and developing a theoretical structure based on underlying principles and
put into a mathematical framework for understanding where that regulatory comes from, and why
it should be this number one-quarter. Where does that magic number fall—so to
speak, arise? And the work that I did with some marvelous
biology colleagues, Jim Brown and Brian Enquist, we developed this what I consider very elegant
theory: that what these scaling laws are reflecting are, in fact, the generic universal mathematical
physical properties of the multiple networks that make an organism viable and allow it
to develop and grow and so on. And the ones we’re all familiar with, many
of them like our circulatory system and our respiratory system. But our neural system is like that, it transmits
information. But these are networks that have evolved to
distribute energy from something macroscopic like a heart or a pool of blood down to deliver
oxygen to the cells by going through a hierarchy called network delivering as I say oxygen,
resources, metabolic energy to the cells. And it is the universal properties, the universal
mathematical properties of those networks that transcend the evolved design. So the same mathematical – now this is extremely
important. It’s the same mathematical and physical
principles applied to a mammal which has a beating heart as applied to a tree. And a mammal, you know, our circulatory system
is a bunch of tubes like in your house the plumbing and the building that we’re sitting
in. That’s our circulatory system. But a tree and a plant, they’re not like
that. They’re a bunch of fiber bundles kind of
joined together like electrical cables that spray out, and that’s what you see when
you see a tree. In each branch there’s actually just these
fibers transmitting, transporting fluid to the leaves and so on. And they don’t have beating hearts as we
well know. And yet they satisfy the same mathematical
principles, and those mathematical principles give rise to this quarter-power scaling in
mammals but also in plants and trees. But also in fish and birds and crustacea (in
principle) and insects and so on. That’s the idea. So one of the nice things about this theory
is that if you like it’s kind of a unified theory because it brings – since metabolism
underlies, you know, pretty much the way we live, the way any organism lives because it
is the way energy and resources are being supplied to cells and so forth.

100 Comments

  • Stefan Hohnwald

    Now the question is, does this mathematical principle apply to alien organisms aswell, which means that it really is a universal restriction for all life in the universe, or does it only apply to organisms that evolved from earth, meaning earths conditions are somehow responsible for these mathematical principles but for aliens it might not apply since their species didn't evolve on earth.

  • Break Free

    wow this is one of the coolest things I've heard in a while, and I think this discovery will have numerous implications

  • Ken Ke

    i consider myself to be a scientifically literate person but these men and women on big think and ted talks etc., just blow me away. i am in awe of their intellectual prowess.

  • Nico Grunenberg

    Saying that the universe is written in mathematics is a fallacy. The language and way in which we chose to explain the universe, is the abstraction called math. Obviously we would see the universe follow the laws of this abstraction, since we have built upon it using only this concept.
    Other civilizations might use different ways to describe the universe and they would also, falsely, believe that their abstraction is the absolute nature of the universe.

  • Trevor Miranda

    The recommendation thing is messed up that places videos at the end of the clip (not the YT one, the overlay you guys have over the last 30 seconds.) One of the recommended videos is this video.

  • Dusty Partition

    One thing was said that I have to disagree with. Natural selection is NOT random. Life has evolved into what it is because of the nature of reality, i.e. the fundamental physical laws, and the nature of the different environments on Earth. Life adapts to what pushes back. The mathematical laws of this universe apply to non-living matter the same exact way to living matter, thus you will find curious math in life's patterns.

  • xaedes

    What happens if you apply that to the planet earth? Can we get any valuable information out of this? Can we test gaia hypothesis with that?

  • Mario mario

    this is getting into the new age woo territory. there aren't "magic" numbers as they are simple descriptions and life will naturally have variability within bounds. it isn't just one magic number

  • Raghuraj Hoshing

    Umm The metabolic rate is simply explained by the fact that the bigger you are in volume, the surface area does not go up as much. Therefore the metabolic rate doesnt need to go up as much.

  • stasyszy

    The universe is just waves energy. Right now on earth this observation is a product of the energy slowly moving through its cycle in our neighborhood of the universe. IF the conditions of earth change the ratio will change

  • Adam Nelson

    Some believe in reincarnation, where your individual unique soul reincarnates into another life form. YOU don't reincarnate, "you" doesn't exist. IT reincarnates, and it is Life. Life has many perspectives but it is one entity. Individualism is the greatest lie ever told. We are all branches of the same tree. We are not separate, and humanity's inability to understand this simple idea will very possibly put an end to the grand story of Life (at least the current evolutionary line on this planet).

  • maxoutputt

    Go to the root… math is derived from 1+1=2… the rest is definition.. cells.. two cells joined need less energy to survive, approximately 25% less. that is the base… the rest is results of.. side note… marriage offers the same 25% savings…

  • parityviolation

    Well… Besides the observations about how metabolism/energy-management scale with size, He did just talk about all life obeying the same mathematical principles without telling us what these principles exactly are… To me it was beating around the bush, now I have to google him and try to find any papers with information about what he was not talking about…

  • Shadow Generator

    so with the 25% rule. . so what if instead doubling the size of one rabbit I double the amount of rabbits? can I just feed him 75% of what I feed the other ? ok next this guy actually trying to apply something completely made up by man..math.. the very fact he mentioned that he used English which is also made up destroys his argument. by all means we as non omnipotent beings we gotta figure stuff out for ourselves and naturally put the information into an efficient form we can share. An infinite knowledge being would have no need for building blocks to reach a a concussion but Instead perceive each idea as separate with the knowledge (aka any specific​ law) of how it will interact with something else and always know that there is a specific outcome. ok back to his obsession with math (I would probably try to pretend my profession was that important too knowing if we assend to godhood that I could be compared to a ​ philosophist) his ground breaking algorithm is actually simply Called "general relativity" and the perception of time and it's interaction with gravity and other forces… for example say how bacteria is able to evolve so rapidly. to them looking back up at us we are probably hardly moving and vise versa you couldn't pick up food off the floor fast enough to prevent contamination. brought to you by laws of nature and logical thought processes part of a balanced diet of not feeding into bull crap.

  • Justin K.

    Math is just a system of principles and structures us as humans use to try and explain the unfathomable and unseen aspects of life… My description of math!

  • AW Crowe

    All those systems he was discussing subscribe to the mandelbrot series for their patterns. Simple algorithms with feedback loops are used to create complex structures. not sure what he has been studying…

  • Iago Silva

    On the origins of interspecies 'portability', it is interesting to ponder that of all possible metabolic pathways possible, Nature chose the one which uses ATPs as 'cell-energy-currency' (also GDPs, etc.) essentially randomly; many organisms in the Gaean primitive biosphere, once settled into this 'economy', started producing banks and clerks (ATPases, etc.) around it, so that these scaling laws our bud mentions (reminds anyone else here of the critical exponents of condensed matter?) are 'universal' because all cells (?) use the same 'economy', but the scaling factors themselves stem from the ATPist system. Maybe this is simply a corollary of what he's talking, I dunno

  • Mark C

    Evolution isn't all that random as described here. Sure, the mutations are random and the sexually occuring offspring gets somewhat randomized genes, but the evolution is guided by what is most effective. Clearly, the 25% drop-off for doubling the size of a mammalian organism is what seems to work best. Get it straight people, even among us there's individuals with a 26% or 27% drop-off! Will they be the next big step? Depends on the climate, on the resources, on the gravitational force of the planet, on the distance from the Sun and other pressures effecting the direction of life on this particular planet. A single individual is only a momentary representation of selfish genes in a grander picture of this Game of Life. And it might succeed more than it's peers or it might fail in it's infancy and never propagate.
    Also, don't get hung up on the 25% number just cause it's 1/4 of 100. A mere conveniance for us humans. Might as well have been 17% or other less likeable number.

  • Mathieu Laflamme

    I'm surprised he didn't mention gravity and air/ground resistance as explanation for the 1/4 rule… I was sure that was related.

  • VibratorDefibrilator

    "Double the size"… In three dimentions that means factor of: 2^(1/3)=1,259921049…=1.26 approx. Here's your quarter. Easy-peasy.

  • Donza Thompson

    Before man invented math , there was no math in the universe . I think what deceives us is that our limited perception gives us a separation of entities when on a certain chemical level , everything is the same And certain growths by a quarter are offset by reductions in some quarter that's beyond our perception . If the universe is infinite , it's beyond the constraints of math

  • bamischijfje123

    so if an animal is bigger it means it has more energy left. Why aren't we HUGE?

    We are huge already though (if you realise we can't even see the cells we are made of).

  • Zoophilia Consultant

    creationists will never believe it, but just show them the picture with kid that has ears growing out of his forehead and misplaced eyes!

  • Jamie Kuess

    I wonder if this mathematical principle is also true for man-made constructs such as a economies of scale. Does a business that doubles in size become approximately 25% more efficient?

  • High Vibes

    From the beginning of the universe every physical event which transpired could be modeled with a mathematical equation. this holds true into the present moment. it begs the question are we operating on a predestined mathematical equation which lies hidden underneath?

  • S Bell

    9 minutes to explain somthing that is supposed to explain an elegant trend in all life. He could have done it in 3 minutes avoiding the dilution !
    Still, great work

  • Divergent Evolution

    Isnt this like saying that the universe is english just because we described it in english?

    Math is just our communal language we use to describe and define our environment. We use it, that doesnt mean the universe does.

  • Trevor Doge

    Well it is great that it can all be chalked up to mathematics, but he didn't mention a single number within the presentation…I want my money back

  • Adam Berk

    If life conforms to mathematical principles, and mathematical principles are universal, does that mean intelligent life on other planets could actually be really similar to us?

  • Nikola Demitri

    I suggest listening to his interview on Sam Harris's podcast. It's much longer, and he gets to go much more in depth, and it's quite fascinating. Much more rewarding listen than this. It's hard to get all the interesting aspects of his research on scaling into a ten minute bigthink vid.

  • Shakes McTremens

    Another classic case of get to the fucking point …three and a half minutes to say nothing other than "Across the entire size spectrum of mammals, from the very smallest to the very biggest, when you double the animals' weight, their energy requirement increases by 0.75".

  • Player_1

    Fluid dynamics govern how fast our hearts can beat based on their size, the formation of canyons, and the transfer of water from the roots to the leaves.

  • David Wilkie

    Sifting and sorting pre-existing conditions of cause-effect by resonance-combinations the structures of rational-numerical relationships inflated and maintained dynamically by irrational continuity has many formal and informal descriptions. The principle of connection, ..Quantum Fields of temporal superposition mechanism, ..emergent characteristics of gauge and impulse, etc..

  • Lloyd Martin

    So this underlying algorithm that shapes evolution and creates a "range" that viable living organisms must fall within… It would probably be different for other planets suitable for life. Because in a way, all life on Earth evolves to adapt to Earth's atmosphere, pressure, gravity, and resource availability. Think about what carbon based life would look like on a planet with a thicker atmosphere and much stronger gravity. Bones, skin, organic mechanisms would all have to be different. One can only imagine. I am sad that I will probably never find out in my lifetime.

  • CowBoys Buds

    I saw something similar to what he is speaking during an intense DMT experience. Life itself and the universe around us are one big mathematical equation.

  • Do Like You Would Be Done By

    I believe nature has the perfect math…cuz for example when humans fck up like playing God… ( dna editing, gmo"s etc etc) its poison to men…so what can be more perfect than nature

  • Alfredo Pacheco

    If you double your size you don't double your volume. In case of a cube will be that number to the 3rd. That's why the relation is non linear.

  • WestOfEarth

    Quarter power…for what tho? Arghh. This was frustrating. I'm sure he's a brilliant man. But his examples could have been given in one or two minutes, and then provided a hypothesis for the existence of the quarter power rule. Is it caused by Earth's gravity? The amount of sun light that hits Earth? Atmospheric pressure? Laws of Thermodynamics?

  • Adog Supreme

    God created the heavens and the earth it was created not evolved. The evidence of an itelegent designer are evreywhere please i encorage you to do your own research dont just pass this by. God loves you and wants a relationship with you.

  • muthukumaranl

    God…i wish math was taught in this way to arouse curiosity back in school/college…given that its the one sense that lets us see/perceive a version of reality that is more true than the one evolved by the other senses that focused only on survival as a goal in shaping it….while math itself is more likely an approximated interface to the true nature of reality..its probably the closest that we can get to in the human form..

  • Gumby The Green

    Big Think, PLEASE start offering these people a teleprompter! Most technical people with ideas worth sharing are deep thinking introverts who have a hard time explaining things both clearly and concisely to a lay audience without writing the talk ahead of time. Many of these videos are missed opportunities as a result.

  • Threelly AI

    http://www.threelly.com/ Threelly uses state of the art A.I. to analyze videos for key insights: topics, scenes, people, sentiments, and much more.

  • Inner Vigilance

    We are conscious conglomerations of atoms repeating themselves with slight variations over long periods of time.

    The repetition happens at every level.

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