The NanoWorld of Buckminster Fuller
by Bonnie Goldstein DeVarco
I. Buckminster Fuller - Seeking Nature's Architecture
Who is Buckminster Fuller?
Buckminster Fuller, considered by many a friendly genius of the 20th century, is remembered well by some yet his name only slightly jars the memories of others. Who was he? What did he do? His name may conjure up the image of his most famous architectural masterpiece, the American Pavilion at Montreal's Expo '67, a 250-foot diameter, bubble-shaped, transparent geodesic dome. Most likely, for many people under the age of 30, a much smaller image comes to mind the beautiful, perfectly symmetrical C60 carbon molecule, buckminsterfullerene.
His artifacts and their unexpected connection with this new scientific discovery have brought Buckminster Fuller's name back into a new stream of books and articles. He called himself "Guinea Pig B" and lived his life as an experiment in problem solving and self-documentation. By the end of his 87 years, Fuller, known variously as an engineer, architect, machinist, philosopher, cartographer and poet, had become a quintessential Renaissance man and applied futurist. His vision of the future was an exercise in unlocking its seemingly elusive secrets by looking at long-term trends. He could then anticipate the problems resulting from such trends, and seek solutions to address them. Shortly after World War I Fuller thought about the largest problem humans would face in the imminent future the problem of shelter, human's most basic and essential artifact. Coming of age in the midst of the technical revolution, he vowed to solve the problem with technology.
To Fuller, a great technology had already been at work for millions of years -- Nature. To look at the way "she" designs the universe was to unlock the most useful direction one could take in designing the artifacts that would make the world work for humanity. Nature's design was fluid, ephemeral, beautifully patterned. Nature's technology was dynamic, lightweight, and driven by a functional imperative -- optimum efficiency.
Fuller could not separate the idea of technology from the natural world. If humans were part of nature, all humans' creations must be natural as well. He knew that the hard, cold inanimate industrial materials used for the technological tools and machinery of the late 19th and early 20th century were part a transitory phase that would soon pass. The lighter, stronger alloys of the early 20th century demonstrated the capacity for new combinations of various metals and elements to exhibit vastly different structural characteristics and functional propensities. Fuller envisioned that even more lightweight materials with higher tensile strengths would soon follow in the not too distant future. And the qualities inherent in these materials could be most effectively put to use by taking an entirely new approach to design itself.
Fuller's earliest designs for shelter resulted from applying the design principles he found in nature -- high efficiency, light weight, dynamic pattern. Nature designs for a fluid universe, a universe of change. The questions Fuller would ask as he looked at manmade shelter design were "How much does it weigh?" -- "How flexible is it?" -- "How does it work?" -- "Can it change or evolve through time?" Fuller's design for shelter had to be dynamic -- a home that did not sit heavily on the earth but could instead be moved around, air-lifted, assembled and disassembled with ease. A home had to be like a "machine for living," one that carries out functions, one that could be altered without losing its essential character, one that could grow, shrink and change with the needs of its inhabitants.
Through many years of listening, watching and trial-and-error, Fuller worked on what he termed "synergetic-energetic geometry." The principles he felt he had discovered came together into a system that was useful enough to apply on the medio scale -- useful enough to apply functionally in our most intimate artifact, the home. Fuller's lifelong efforts to articulate these principles evolved into "synergetics" -- the geometric system that made possible the successful demonstration of the geodesic dome, one of man's most lightweight, flexible and strongest structures.
Looking closely at what Fuller was up to with his synergetic geometry, we can see much more of relevance than merely a type of math that forms lightweight spherical enclosures of the strongest sort. Fuller introduced an entirely new approach to taking dynamic architecture of the micro and macro worlds into the rapidly accelerating medio world we inhabit. Through this unprecedented approach, he attempted to present a systematic nomenclature of "metafacts" along with his artifacts. He introduced a set of terms that could easily become a conceptual ballast for the fast-paced changes of today.
The terms Fuller introduced in synergetics, such as "ephemeralization," "synergy" and "accelerating acceleration," more than adequately frame the world we now call home. The 1990s has brought many of us face to face with an avalanche of almost daily developments in cyber-based technologies such as the Internet and World Wide Web, virtual reality, desktop3D, biotechnologies, genetics and molecular nanotechnology. As we approach the turn of the millennium, we are individually and collectively bombarded with the dynamic artifacts of information revolution. In the 1920s Fuller already envisioned and began to chart significant new trends of the post-industrial age. He saw the acceleration of the scientific and technological discoveries of early this century leading to a "One-Town World." He set out to solve some of the problems faced during such a rapid transition into a globalized and more fully interconnected world.
Fuller took on this task with vigor and originality. A maverick iconoclast, he refused to build on what had been done before. He broke bridges with the past rather than building them. Undoubtedly this practice, although opening new vistas to Fuller, also hindered the wide acceptance of his work and ideas by others. Those who saw Fuller speak or read his sometimes cryptic writings responded to his message as an inspiration for a future many wanted to see in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Now, more than a decade after his death, such a world is beginning to be unveiled. Only recently, some of Fuller's ideas for the future -- floating cities, elevators to space or ultra-micro computers are beginning to seem plausible if not utterly possible.
However, a dated quality surrounds even one of Fuller's most popular terms, "Spaceship Earth." Synergy, a word meaning "behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of its parts considered separately" is now used to describe many things, from politics to cellular automata, from economics to living systems theory. But the broader concepts Fuller attached to a word he popularized during this century are rarely, if ever, referred to. His geodesic structures reflect aspects of virus structure, quasi-crystals and fullerenes; his energized geometry embodies some of the transformative characteristics inherent in the spontaneous self-assembly of organic structures; his applications of "tensegrity" mirror the interactive dynamics of the body's cellular make-up. Yet Fuller's philosophies and his geometry are still seen as inspiring yet idiosyncratic, the poetic musings of a quirky genius. His artifacts, on the other hand, have been returned to with fresh eyes.
The Discovery of Buckminsterfullerene
In 1985 chemists Richard Smalley, Robert Curl and Harold Kroto made one of the greatest new discoveries in science when they determined the existence of a third form of carbon. Unlike the two other forms of carbon, diamond (with its octahedral structure), graphite (formed in sheets of hexagons) this amazing 60-atom closed cage molecule was shaped like a soccer ball. Faced with spectrograph readings showing a molecule of 60 atoms that was not flat, Kroto and Smalley tried to find ways in which a sheet of hexagons could close into a three-dimensional shape. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes came to mind. He built enclosures with triangles, with hexagons. How did he do it?
Kroto remembered the day he had walked around with his son inside the Expo Geodesic Pavilion in 1967. He had marveled at the triangular latticework of the huge sphere that surrounded him, a sphere that needed no internal supports. Almost 20 years later as Kroto and Smalley discussed Fuller's geodesic dome and its possible relevance to their finding, Smalley decided to check out a book on Fuller from the library and take a closer look at his domes. He found the secret in a photo of Fuller's 1958 Union Tank Car Dome in Baton Rouge, the largest clear span enclosure of its day. Fuller used pentagons! Once they figured that out, it was easy for them to build a cage structure of sixty atoms whose shape exhibited 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons. Kroto and Smalley felt it most appropriate to name it "buckminsterfullerene" for its striking resemblance to Fuller's geodesic domes.
Shortly after this discovery, the name buckminsterfullerene became suspect. Why that name? Why not name such a molecule, a truncated icosahedron, after someone or something else which came well before Fuller and his geodesics? Why not, "Soccerene?" A spherical soccer ball with its black pentagons and white hexagons is exactly the right shape and configuration and is much more commonly recognizable than the name Buckminster Fuller. Or, why not name it after the Greek geometer, Archimedes, who more than 23 centuries ago truncated polyhedra into such forms including, for the first time, the truncated icosahedron, part of a symmetrical family called the Archimedean solids? Since the structure of C60 was not solid after all but a hollow cage of 60 atoms, why not call it a "Leonardoene" after Leonardo da Vinci? In 1509 da Vinci had sketched the first open cage polyhedra including the truncated icosahedron in Luca Pacioli's treatise, "De Divina Proportione." Out of the many possible names for this new molecule sitting under our noses for millennia, why is it fitting that Smalley and Kroto chose to name it, "buckminsterfullerene?"
Although the name was intuitively applied to this molecule by the discoverers of C60, there may be some poetic justice in the eponym chosen for one of the most versatile and ancient of molecules. E.J. Applewhite, Fuller's collaborator on the two volumes that contain the broad articulations of his system of synergetic geometry "felt that there was a greater resonance between C60 and Fuller's writings and design philosophy than the mere congruence of the topology of that molecule and Fuller's geodesic domes."1. If so, what was that greater resonance?
Synergetics and the Geometry of the Sphere
Fuller's synergetic geometry and design philosophy, embodied by his geodesic artifacts, dispensed with all previously known standards of mensuration, using the tetrahedron as a base rather than the cube. A 60-degree coordinate system was primary in synergetic geometry rather than the 90-degree system we have collectively insisted upon for many generations. While purporting to mimic essential aspects of Nature's design, Fuller's synergetic geometry refused to make links to other works in history. He contended that almost all the physical phenomena now becoming visible to us through technology happens in the macro and micro ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum but remains hostage to a distorted, abstract mathematics based on the cube.
Fuller argued, "The calculations of the (only instrumentally informed) scientific activities are not conducted in the conceptual terms of humanitys popular thinking but, contrariwise, are conducted in abstruse, complex, popularly unteachable mathematical abstractions."2 He thought that what should be experiential knowledge had become distorted into a rarefied, hard to conceptualize body of knowledge relegated to the domain of specialists. Without having access to "Nature's technology" the rest of humanity would remain at the mercy of the powers that be and the arcane jargon of the scientists and patent lawyers who were in their employ. Fuller wrote:
Fuller proposed that synergetic math, based on whole numbers and easily modeled or demonstrated by anyone, would be understandable to a 10-year old. Synergetic geometry differed from conventional mathematics because it was derived from experience -- it was an experimentally verifiable, conceptual mathematics. He said that the behaviors exhibited by Nature were inherently four-dimensional. He sought through synergetic geometry to offer up an experiential base to explain, demonstrate and recreate such behaviors.
The same problem Fuller grappled with in "four dimensions" was pondered by the earliest geometers and astronomers in three dimensions, those who had to dispense with the notion of a flat earth and understand the spherical moving earth and the celestial sphere around them. Artists of the early Renaissance who began to tackle the problems of depicting the curves of life onto a two-dimensional plane had to apply geometry to the problems of perspective. Fuller joined this lineage of historical figures: pragmatic problem-solvers who attempted to render their solutions, the source of their new understandings, in the domain that 99% of humanity could understand.
Buckminster Fuller's explorations bore similarities to artists and scientists before him, such as the Pythagoreans, Archimedes, Albrecht Durer, Luca Pacioli, Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Kepler. As their works were carried into the generations that followed, however, many essential bridges these historical figures forged between disciplines did not remain intact. Emerging in the broad intersection between the art and science, music and technology, these masters looked at the architecture of the universe. Each of these artists and scientists stood out in the long history of the geometrical explorations of symmetry, harmony and balance, all aesthetics of the "ideal sphere" and the harmony of the spheres.
Yet, distinguishing itself from the ancient "ideal," Fuller's final geometric system approached even shelter as a finely tuned, tensed and resonant instrument with varying levels of frequency. He differed from those who came before by his unprecedented attempts to embrace the ideals of symmetry while showing it as but one phase in a continuing dynamic process of change. His synergetic geometry introduced motion, sound and time to the "ideal sphere" and embraced all phases of transformation of form by introducing modules, mites, and couplers, asymmetrical space-fillers that combined to form structures at various points of growth and change.
Fuller's geometry was in perpetual motion. Like dance itself, one could only appreciate synergetic geometry in process as an introduction to an endless series of ephemeral phases. Fuller's "fourth dimension" that included the transformations through omnidirectional time is something exhibited in both organic and inorganic systems, demonstrated in molecular interactions and crystal growth patterns, in the fractal structure of a coastline or the branches of a tree, in the patterned self replication of DNA. Now, however, synergetic geometry can be demonstrated in its moving, ephemeral form with Java-applet geometries, in newer, digital versions of the printed page where science, mathematics, information and aesthetics seamlessly transpose the word into mutable form.
Historically, the symmetrical aspects of Fuller's synergetic geometry and geodesic artifacts can be easily linked to the geometries of music, harmony and form, to early astronomy and the experimental sciences as well as the perspective challenges of the great painters and sculptors. Its lineage can be traced to a family of like masterworks that emerged in historical periods when the disciplines were not so strictly delineated, periods during which the arts and the sciences meshed in the discoveries of the architecture of life.
copyright 1997, Bonnie DeVarco