Scaling laws (Statistical physics)

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Video conference

Interview with Geoffrey West, Shannan Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. West provides a brief history of SFI as a collaborative idea between Murray Gell-Mann, Phil Anderson, and David Pines, and he explains the funding sources that launched the Institute. He recounts his childhood in England and his family’s Jewishly-observant household. West describes his switch from math to physics as an undergraduate at Cambridge and his interest in becoming involved in the origins of SLAC at Stanford. He discusses Panofsky and the “Monster Accelerator,” and studying fold factors of the triton and helium-3 nuclei under the direction of Leonard Schiff. West describes his subsequent postdoctoral work at Cornell and the formative influence of Ken Wilson, and his next position at Harvard where he pursued research on the quark proton model into a kind of a covariant framework. West explains his decision to join the faculty back at Stanford, he conveys the excitement at SLAC in deep inelastic research, and he provides a backdrop of the work that would become the “November Revolution” in 1974. He describes the importance of meeting Peter Carruthers and his reasons for transferring to the theory group at Los Alamos. West discusses his moral conflict working at a Lab with such close ties to nuclear weapon research, and he credits the Manhattan Project as the intellectual source for the Lab’s multidisciplinary approach. West discusses how the culture at Los Alamos served as a prototype for SFI, and how at that point he had migrated intellectually from high energy physics to string theory, and how both organizations encouraged the kind of multidisciplinary approach that encouraged his interests in biological populations. He describes his tenure as SFI president and his developing interest in sustainability, he prognosticates on what the SFI education model could contribute to post-pandemic higher education, and he explains how the pandemic has influenced his views on the future of cities. At the end of the interview, West describes his current interest in biological lifespans and he reflects on the extent to which is unorthodox career trajectory could serve as a model for scientists who will increasingly work in realms less bounded by strict departmental divisions.