Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"Synergetics" by R. Buckminster Fuller

The following review of Buckminster Fuller's major work "Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking" appeared in the New York Times Book Review on June 29, 1975. The reviewer is O.B. Hardison Jr., who at the time was director of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

I'm posting this now because "Synergetics" is one of the most important books of the 20th century, because Hardison's review is an excellent introduction to the book and Bucky's work in general, and because 31 years later both the book and the review are more relevant than ever. "Synergetics" is the roadmap to our twelve degrees of freedom. (GW)

During the last 15 years Buckminster Fuller has become something of an international culture hero and a lonely but eloquent optimist in a generation of professional prophets of doom. His great aunt was Margaret Fuller. It is therefore not surprising that his philosophy (which he calls synergetics -- viewing the part in relation to the whole) and his essentially religious belief in the benign order of nature have obvious affinities with New England transcendentalism.

Assembled with the aid of E.J. Applewhite, whose efforts make Maxwell Perkins's famous labors with Thomas Wolfe seem modest by comparison, "Synergetics" is a comprehensive gathering, a kind of summa theologica of Fuller's mathematics, philosophy and design theories. It is all here -- in 12 chapters, over 800 pages, charts, drawings, tables and digressions, from synergy to vector matrix to tensegrity to the seven axes of symmetry to wrapability, and beyond. The result is a major work whose implications will be debated, acclaimed, questioned, and, in some cases, attacked for years to come.

You grope for analogies. The Notebooks of Leonardo. The Opera of Paracelsus. Pascal's "Pensees" or Alexander Pope's remark about Creation: "A mighty maze, but not without a plan." It is alternately brilliant and obscure, opaque and shot through with moments of poetry. What becomes clear with patience is that the virtues and the liabilities are one. "Synergetics" could not have been written in any other way because its language and mathematics are vehicles for a vision. They embody the vision and if they were the vision itself would be different -- perhaps impossible to express, but certainly impossible to express convincingly.

The central fact of this book is Fuller's experience of what he calls Universe with a capital U. Universe must be partly intuited, partly discovered through science. It is not a collection of things but a harmonious, all-embracing set of relationships. These relationships are expressed in number which is the metaphysical counterpoint of physical reality. Numbers permit artists and designers to understand their own creative work. In this respect Fuller resembles Pythagoras, whose fascination with the divine numbers underlying reality stands at the beginning of Greek mathematics. Appropriately, the final chapter of "Synergetics" is titled "Numerology" and begins with a 29-page prose poem on number lore. Beyond number there is mystery: "Above all, mathematics, geometry, physics are only manifests of the eternal mysteries, love, harmonious integrity beyond further words."

From the reader's point of view, both the prose style and the mathematics of "Synergetics" present real difficulties. Each is vulnerable because each is pure, undiluted Fuller with no simplification or hedging. Both are products of a passionate lifetime commitment by a man who decided that he did not have any time for anything except absolute honesty. As Fuller's ideas become familiar, the rationale of the prose becomes clearer; it begins to seem less cumbersome, more expressive. The same thing can be said for the mathematics, or as much of it as the general reader can follow. (Actually, he can expect to follow a good deal since Fuller's approach emphasizes arithmetical calculations and basic geometry.)

Fuller has two central concerns. The first is our tendency to see the whole in terms of parts rather than parts in terms of the whole, which is the synergetic point of view. Applied to science, synergetics suggests the principal that local design configurations -- in crystals or molecular biology, for example -- tend to be adaptations of general design patterns. Fuller's science therefore tends to unity; the more so the more successful it becomes. In this respect it contrasts sharply with the fragmented, often incommensurate specialties into which science is currently divided. Fuller writes: "Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individuals leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregrate as international and ideological discord, which in turn, leads to war.

In contrast, the tendency of synergetic science is to treat problems comprehensively so that a solution in one area does not lead to catastrophe in another. This objective explains Fuller's popularity among ecologists and environmentalists. Applied to politics, the synergetic point of view leads to the conclusion that we are all passengers on a single finite planet -- Spaceship Earth, Fuller calls it. To persist in seeing it as a collection of separate, mutually competing parts called nations is to court annihilation by ignoring the first condition for survival.

Second, Fuller is convinced that we are consistently being frustrated by the lag between our mental habits and what we know about reality. One is reminded of T.S. Eliot's ideas about dissociation of sensibility. For Fuller, the dissociation is more than a slippage; it may be fatal, "it is essential to release humanity from the false fixations of yesterday, which seem now to bind it to a rationale of action leading only to extinction.

Primary dissociation occurs in language. Words carry with themselves a vast clutter of attitudes, myths, errors and sloppy approximations that have nothing to do with what we recognize, on reflection as reality. Hence, Fuller's style. It is not an accident. It is as carefully and self-consciously formed as the style of James Joyce, and its purpose is similar to the purpose of poetry; to tell the truth neither more nor less, as far as possible. Properly understood it is not English but an artificial language with -- let it be admitted -- all of the liabilities associated with the first version of any complex invention.

Mathematicians sometimes find the same combination of brilliance and perversity in Fuller's science that readers find in his prose. Fuller believes that mathematics evolved out of analogies with locally experienced space, which seemed to the Greeks to be flat and generally rectilinear. These concepts still influence the deep structure of mathematics. Since they no longer fit the modern understanding of space they encourage the same dissociation of thought and reality encouraged by language. They can be -- and have been -- hammered and bent to fit empirical observation, but the cost has been enormous: our theoretical description of the world is no longer related to the phenomena it explains. Hence scientists can no longer communicate with laymen (sometimes not even to other scientists) and science itself has been divorced from humanistic culture.

Fuller regards Universe as an infinitely various repetition of simple forms related to the tetrahedron. These forms can be energy configurations expressed by vectors or physical shapes created by the action of various forces on matter. His mathematics is therefore an exploration of the ramifications of triangles, tetrahedra, polyhedra and cognate spherical elements. Its fundamental orientation is toward relationships occurring at 60 degrees rather than 90 degrees, on triangular and spherical surfaces rather than rectangles and planes, and in real physical structures rather than the imaginary points, lines, and two-dimensional planes of Euclid or the equally imaginary rectilinear XYZ axes, extended to infinity, of Cartesian space.

To Fuller, the movement from conventional to synergetic mathematics is like the movement in the 16th century from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy. Both kinds of astronomy permitted accurate computation, but the Copernican was immeasurably simpler yet richer in implications because its mathematical model corresponded to the real structure of the solar system. The payoff of Fuller's theory of mathematics is that it would permit scientists once again to communicate with one another and with the general public, which is another way of saying that it would permit them to understand what they are doing in terms of real experience.

Beyond expressing Fuller's belief in an orderly and benign world, "Synergetics" is a how-to-do-it book. It moves more or less steadily from synergetics as a concept to its application in such fields as topology, vector analysis, quantum theory, molecular biology, tension structures and symmetry. Its language is an example of how to talk about observations without falsifying them. Its mathematics is both an example of the way that Universe can be described in number and simple geometric form, and also the basis for solving human design problems by imitating Universe. Universe teaches us the art of achieving maximum results with minimum use of materials and energy. This design strategy is embodied in the geodesic dome and the tensegrity sphere. It is Fuller's answer to the question of how to sustain the crew of Spaceship Earth with limited resources available. Hence it is also the basis for his optimistic conclusion about human's potential future.

"Synergetics" is a remarkable book. Probably no reader will go through it from cover to cover; but all readers who spend the time needed to overcome its threshold difficulties will be generously rewarded. It is the legacy of a man who has had a powerful impact on the 20th-century imagination. It is also a courageous book. Very few authors have been willing to commit so much of themselves with such honesty to a single volume. We are fortunate to have it. If it is remarkable and courageous, it is the work of a remarkable and courageous man with a great deal to teach us. Fuller's own words are an appropriate conclusion about both the man and what he has given us: "We have all heard people describe other people in a derogatory way, as being 'full of imagination.' The fact is that if you are not full of imagination, you are not very sane."

The New York Times Book Review/June 29, 1975

Sadly, "Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking" is out of print. However, it has been accessed in its entirety online here.

A spiral-bound photocopy of "Synergetics 2: Further Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking" (published in 1979) can be purchased here from the Buckminster Fuller Institute .

The R. Buckminster Fuller Digital Collection consists of more than 1,700 hours of audio and video materials. Sign up for free access here. (GW)


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