Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bucky Fuller: revolutionary by design

The vast majority of the most pressing challenges facing society today fall into that category of problems that Einstein observed "cannot be solved with the same thinking we used when we created them." Reductionist thinking encourages dividing the world into academically convenient parts and analyzing them. Its major flaw is its inability to deal with the complexity of how the parts relate to and interact with one another. The result has been a mounting series of unanticipated environmental and related socioeconomic crises.

Bucky's discovery and articulation of Synergetic Geometry offers what may be the most effective lens through which the structure and dynamics of complex whole systems can be understood. Comprehensive Anticipatory Design represents the application of Synergetics to problem solving. (GW)

The Legacy of Guinea Pig B:

Buckminster Fuller left a forty-five ton archive, but his most valuable artifacts are weightless

Part 2

Bucky's use of nature as inspiration for design was especially prescient. Unlike the naturalism of Art Nouveau (which he correctly considered to be a short-lived style) or the present interest in building with "natural" materials such as straw bales and sod, Bucky sought to take advantage of nature's strategies, structural geometry, and principles of energy management.

This led him to explore essentially round floor plans that minimized exterior skin area. Less skin means less material used per square foot of floor area, plus better thermal performance - advantages long exploited in tipis, yurts, hogans, and igloos. To reduce the high maintenance of conventional buildings employing short-lived materials, Bucky specified corrosion-resistant metals - mostly aluminum and stainless steel- used in tension where possible. (Tension is the most efficient way to use structural metals, as suspension bridges and sailboats clearly demonstrate.) His concerns went far deeper than contemporary stylistic movements exemplified by Art Deco and Modernism. Bucky had no interest in fads.


In developing structural-tension members of the dome-shaped Wichita House, Bucky noticed that they connected points of stress with the most economical use of material. That reminded him of his U.S. Navy experience with navigation, where a "geodesic" line on a sphere represents the shortest distance between two points - two energy events. Could nature be using geodesics? If so, what was the geometry involved?

Bucky contemplated that question while simultaneously considering the problem of mapping the world onto a plane in a minimally distorted way. His investigations resulted in the now-famous Dymaxion Projection map that does not distort the shapes of the continents (most of the inevitable distortion lies in the oceans).

He used an array of triangles which were actually the faces of a flattened regular icosahedron, a twenty-faceted sphere. The thirty edges of the triangles form a self-organizing, omnitriangulated geodesic structure. Bucky intuited that the pattern might provide the basis for the strongest structure possible.

The first geodesic dome, built at long-gone Black Mountain College was literally a flop; it just lay on the ground. Undeterred, Bucky soon produced a successful folding dome fashioned from shockingly skinny tubes. It proved to be remarkably, even mysteriously strong. Moreover, it appeared to be the only known structure that became cheaper per cubic foot covered, and stronger as it got bigger.

Apparently, there is no practical limit to the size of a geodesic dome. There doesn't seem to be a limit to their uses, either: estimates show about 300,000 in worldwide use today, with many more on the way.The dramatic, recently completed Eden Project in England is a hint of things to come.


The unpredicted strength and material economy of the first geodesic dome caused Bucky to wonder if nature, which always uses energy in the most economical way, could be using a geometry that was not representable by the commonly accepted x-y-z, ninety-degree system which ignores time. This led him to Synergetics, which he considered to be one of his two most important discoveries, the other being the World Game.

Bucky defined synergy as "behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior or integral characteristics of any of the parts of the system when the parts are considered only separately." Bucky held that nature, always optimally energy-efficient, must arrange everything synergetically.

There's not room here to outline the concepts of Synergetics - Bucky needed two fat books, Synergetics and Synergetics 2, to do so.Their subtitle- Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking - is significant: Bucky strongly championed doing one's own thinking and trusting one's intuition, while acknowledging that comprehensive design is most often realized by teams of specialists.

The books are challenging for most people. Though illustrated, they need slow motion, colored computer animation to clearly represent the geometric principles underlying the discoveries. A project to do this complex task is in progress.

Bucky expected that Synergetics would inform the laws of physics, including quantum physics, as well as chemistry and biology. In a fit of characteristic hubris, he exclaimed, "I have discovered the coordinates of Universe." He also said, "I leave the mathematical proof to others," noting that formal proof was less important than physical demonstration.

Bucky responded to his detractors by pointing to the irrefutable performance of his artifacts. Indeed, he often said that the main reason he built physical objects was pedagogical- to make visible the complex natural principles involved so that ordinary people could understand what was really going on. He insisted that his artifacts bridged C.P.Snow's famous chasm separating the sciences and humanities. Some examples:

. The discoverers of the carbon-60 molecule (known today as Buckminsterfullerene or, colloquially, the "Bucky Ball"), Harry Kroto and Richard Smalley, independently recognized what shape its structure had to be when they viewed the mathematics-made-visible 250-foot-diameter Expo '67 geodesic dome in Montreal.

. Dr. Donald Ingber, M.D., has discovered that all living cells are discontinuous compression- continuous tension integrities that Bucky dubbed "tensegrity" structures, expressing principles of synergetics. Other investigators have found that the circuitry of the human brain is laid out in a geodesic pattern. (Atthe time of his death, Bucky was working on a geodesic computer memory.)

. Cyberneticist Stafford Beer has shown that Bucky's claim "all systems are polyhedra" is correct, and that any system can be organized and analyzed as such. (Bucky took this even further, predicting that energy and information would prove to be synergistically equivalent in the same way that energy and matter are shown to be in Einstein's E=mc2.)

Despite the above examples (there are many more), it is still rare to see an application or even a citation of Synergetics, much less credit to Buckminster Fuller in scientific papers. It is also common to see recent work being hailed as pioneering when it is actually mirroring concepts that Bucky investigated and published decades ago, for example, Amory Lovins's Hypercar (see www.hypercar. com) as well as many recent efforts at energy-efficient architecture.

Click here to go to Part 1.


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