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From Geometry to Geodesics: A Personal Perspective
What college student (or human being for that matter) would not be overjoyed to receive an invitation to work on "ever-more relevant affairs" from the person she most admires? That is precisely what I found in my mailbox in 1980 when Buckminster Fuller actually answered my letter, the timid plea of an undergraduate: "What can people do toward furthering your vision of making this planet work for everyone? And where can I apply the experience of having studied synergetics"? I was later to understand that Fuller's responding to an undergraduate's letter was not a miracle but instead revealed his profound trust in the integrity and capability of human beings- and especially of youth. His action was typical of his life and work, which relied heavily on intuition, with a powerful faith in the willingness of others to apply their minds as diligently and joyfully as he applied his. We have to take Fuller at his word when he claims to be not a genius but an "average healthy human being" who exercised his option to think. He embraced that potential in all of us.
I was introduced to the intricate discipline of geometry in a Harvard course "Synergetics: the structure of ordered space" taught by the editor of this series, Arthur L. Loeb and I had been fascinated by this material for a couple of years. Reconciled to its obscurity, I was enchanted by the perfection and complexity of this body of geometric knowledge, which was all but completely hidden from popular awareness. In those days Loeb's course was similarly hidden, a bizarre option within the two-inch-thick course catalog, taught in a sequestered attic in Sever Hall where one would never wander accidentally. My peers had no doubt that there was a reason for that. In fact, my academic pursuits were perceived by most as an irreverent cross between kindergarten games and mathematical torture. My roommates, forever tripping over cardboard tetrahedra and unsuccessful tensegrity wheelbarrows while gingerly avoiding small deposits of Elmer's glue, were tolerantly confused. I can't blame my classmates for their bemused head-shaking; I had trouble taking myself seriously. Mathematical elegance aside, I felt deep down that I had chosen an unbelievably fascinating road to nowhere, a choice that would no doubt ultimately bar me from all chance of meaningful participation in human affairs. But still I was trappedlike an addict immune from better judgmentin my polyhedral playpen.
Then one February evening, I heard Fuller speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It's easy to understand how pivotal the experience could be: in love with geometry but distressed by its nonapplicability, I heard Bucky Fuller that night spin out-in an omnidirectional web of ideas, predictions, and obscure but brilliantly juxtaposed factsan unfamiliar version of world history in which synergetic geometry (and other aspects of comprehensive thinking) somehow played a crucial role in rescuing humanity from its current crisis of squandering vast resources in an unwinnable arms race. We are suddenly at a turning point in history at which it is possible to provide adequate life support for everyone, declared Bucky. Malthus is obsolete. (He didn't know about alloys. (3) ) There is no such thing as a straight line, the sun does not go down, and it is time we updated our language.
A funnier, more serious, more mesmerizing discourse I have never heard. I walkedno, skippedback home down Massachusetts Avenue: not that I could have told you exactly how it worked, this planetary success, but I was sold. My geometry had relevance! I worked harder than ever.
I still can't explain exactly how synergetics is going to turn the world around, but I have found at least that I can explain synergetics. My hope is that if enough other people become aware of these principles, the missing pieces will ultimately come together. So far, this has been a valid working hypothesis. In giving lectures and workshops to clarify Fuller's material, I have met people who found significant applications in their own work. Synergetics has provided both useful models to elucidate scientific phenomena and methods of solving structural problems. Examples of both aspects will be cited throughout the book; see especially the end of Chapter 15, "Case In Point: Donald Ingber" which can easily be read independently of the rest of the book.
After Fuller's lecture, the next step was clear: read Synergetics. If I expected easy answers, I was in for a surprise. Fuller's ambiguous writing called for considerable interpretation. With the patient guidance of Arthur Loeb, I struggled through Fuller's massive text and learned that truth was far more elusive than he had made it sound that night at MIT. But the geometry was no less seductive, and ultimately I decided to risk a thirteen-cent stamp.
And then his unexpected letter arrivedin response to my earnest but decidedly indirect questions. Even a photocopied list of organizations would have been received with joy. How it was that my letter filtered through the procedural maze that lay between Buckminster Fuller and the formidable stack of mail that was opened and sorted by various trusted assistants every day, I'll never know.
The signature was real:
Dear Amy Edmondson:
...I would like to take advantage of your offer to come and work with me. ...Iam busier and busier with ever more relevant affairs.
Ever more relevant affairs! A college student's dream andshe is convinced after three years of first-hand acquaintancean accurate description of Fuller's experience. Even with a healthy dose of skepticism about some aspects of his philosophy, one could not help being stunned by his tireless enthusiasm for work. At four times my age, he was awake and working before I arrived and long after I had crept home to bed exhausted. The secret of this energy was his conviction that humanity had a viable option of designing an unprecedentedly successful environment aboard "Spaceship Earth" (4) , and that his work just might play an important part in that. I found that the more deeply involved in the actual work I became (in my case, calculations and drawings for Fuller's engineering projects, including the progressive refinement of geodesic designs), the more impressed I was by the scope of his vision. Gradually, as is generally the case, naive youthful worship disappeared. But as is not generally the case, its place was taken by a new deep respect for the mind of my friend, Bucky. (It would be unimaginable for anyone who ever spent more than an hour with Bucky to call him anything else, with the sole exception of his friend and colleague, Arthur Loeb, who calls him "Buckminster.")
Bucky was extraordinarily generous with his timeperhaps due to an uncontrollable urge to teachand treated every listener as an intellectual equal. This might be called a brilliant teaching strategy, except that it was utterly spontaneous. One of the most important lessons of my three-year experience was the difference between Bucky on the other side of his deskspontaneously lapsing into simple clear explanations as a result of the catalyst of a pair of expectant human eyes which would cloud into a worried frown when lostand Buckminster Fuller's dense polysyllabic prose in the 800 pages of Synergetics. I became accustomed to translating the Fullerese into lay English for various befuddled readers who went so far as to call the office for help.
This is not a book about those three years; it is about synergetic geometry. Here I have only tried to give you some of the background that has led me to attempt to explain what is in many ways unexplainable, for no one can speak for Bucky Fuller but himself. The goal of this volume is to help readers get through the barriers imposed by Fuller's idiosyncratic use of language, and to introduce the major concepts of synergetics in an accessible format. The next steps are up to all of us.
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