Dare to Be 100: Heartbeats and Car RPMs

05/21/2015 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Rare is the person who can deliver a scientific lecture complete with intricate equations and strange symbols and still be entertaining. Such a person is Dr. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute. I've known and admired Geoffrey for a long time. We met again last week at a meeting of the National Science Foundation in Washington. The title of the conference was "THE PHYSICS OF WEAR AND TEAR, AGING and FAILURE in LIVING and NON-LIVING SYSTEMS." Geoffrey and I were part of a 30-person symposium led by Dr. Krastan Blagoev, the director of the NSF section of physics in biology. A wide range of contributors, systems engineers, university professors, material scientists, a couple M.D.s, but mostly physicists as is Geoffrey. He is a Brit and thereby more skilled in the use of language than most of us colonists. His early training was at Cambridge, then spent considerable time around my home base of Stanford. The title of his talk in Washington was, "Towards a Generic Quantitative Theory of Aging and Mortality." Such a title is true to his fundamental mantra having to do with the fundamental laws of biology particularly as they scale with a one another. Geoffrey has written extensively on the myriad relationships that exist in living creatures, but he ranges widely into exploring the dynamics of cities, of economic systems, and companies. He is cited all over the place. Time magazine has featured Geoffrey as one of its 100 most influential citizens in the past.

But it is in his biology where I find most value. He finds a relationship between creatures big and small, from a 2-gram shrew to a 200-million-ton whale. For example he says that all creatures have the same number of heartbeats. This is certainly counterintuitive, but I have read similar claims by Stephen Jay Gould in the past. Geoffrey not only accesses these relationships, but extends a truly fascinating range.

I am of course interested in anything to do with aging. He probes deeply into why we live as long as we do. I recall as a youngster learning that a dog's life in years is equivalent to seven human years. Geoffrey takes this type of comparative inquiry into micro-organisms and macro organisms. He finds similarities in how they function. In fact he says that all cells of life have the same life metabolic pattern, about 300 calories per lifetime. He notes that small creatures and large creatures effectively live the same expanse of life. Small creatures live short and fast, big creatures live long and slow. All of this relates rate of living to longevity which is one of the principal tenets of the history of gerontology. This was formalized by Rubner in Germany over a century ago. Geoffrey grandly extends this theory with profuse data across a large range of creatures of different animal families and lineage. He shows how various parameters such as brain size and oxidative enzymes all scale to the same measure.

I was totally fascinated by his slide relating the total number of heartbeats per life (the same in all animals, around 1 billion per life) to the total number of RPMs in cars. Cars wear out. We wear out at relatively fixed rates.

Geoffrey is always looking for strange but important scaling. I immediately perk up my ears when I hear his name. because he is one of my most valued sources of knowledge.

I reserve this judgment for a few. He is one of the few.