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Amy C. Edmondson
A Fuller Explanation
Chapter 1, Return to Modelability
pages 9 through 12

Nature's Coordinate System

What accounts for the shape similarities among unrelated phenomena, radically different in both scale and material? Or, more fundamentally, what accounts for nature's magnificent orderliness itself? Whether honeycomb or conch shell or virus, time after time individual structures turn out true to form. The fundamental hypothesis behind synergetics—and the work of many other pioneers exploring the science of form—is that nature's structuring occurs according to the requirements of minimum energy, itself a function of the interplay between physical forces and spatial constraints.

      Wait. The role of physical forces (gravity, magnetism, electrical and chemical attractions) is clearly important, but what are "spatial constraints"?

      We are so used to thinking of "space" as empty nothingness that the idea of its having specific properties seems absurd. However, as will become increasingly clear from the examples throughout this book, space has shape. The idea is concisely expressed by Arthur Loeb in his introduction to Space Structures: "Space is not a passive vacuum, but has properties that impose powerful constraints on any structure that inhabits it. These constraints are independent of specific interactive forces, hence geometrical in nature." (9) A simple example is the fact that to enclose space with only four polygons, these polygons must all be triangles. Nothing else will work, no matter how hard you try. The limitation is a function of neither material nor size but rather of the nature of space. Fuller alludes to this active role when he says "natural is what nature permits."

      When Bucky points out that nature doesn't have to stop everything she's doing and gather the physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics departments to decide how to grow a turnip (or build a virus), he is calling our attention to the self-organization of natural phenomena. Structuring in nature occurs automatically. "Nature has only one department," declares Bucky, "one comprehensive coordinating system." How does this self-structuring occur? In the most general terms, according to the path of least resistance, or, as stated above, according to the "requirements of minimum energy." In short, systems automatically find comfortable arrangements, which are necessarily a result of the balance between specific forces and inherent spatial properties. When Fuller set out to inventory possible configurations and thereby formulate generalizations, his exploration was destined to be "geometrical in nature" because of the nature of systems, as we shall learn in Chapter 3. "Nature's coordinate system" is thus a geometry of most economical relationships which govern all structuring. In Fuller's words, "a geometry composed of a system of interrelated vectors may be discovered that represents the complete family of potential forces, proclivities, and proportional morphosis...." (215.02).

      We shall see how "operational procedure" produced a geometry of vectors and look at the specific shape of this diagram of potentials in Chapter 7, "Vector Equilibrium," and Chapter 9, "Isotropic Vector Matrix." The most notable characteristic of these models is the absence of perpendicularity. We thus shall explore Fuller's statement that nature is never operating in perpendicular and parallel directions but rather convergently and divergently in radial growth patterns.

      Another important aspect of "nature's coordinate system" is the existence of rules governing the coherence of structures. What holds its shape? If nothing is self-evident, we can no longer take "solids," or reliable structures, for granted. Chapter 5 examines Fuller's investigation into structure and the resulting principles governing the stability of systems.

      All of this takes a while to sink in. The idea that space has shape is profoundly reorienting; we are so used to conceiving of space as passive emptiness on which we impose desired configurations that an entirely new perception cannot be adopted overnight. Nonetheless, upon further study, this premise begins to feel quite comfortable and necessary—an all-embracing somethingness influencing structural phenomena. As more specifics are uncovered, this conception, which is at once so elusive and so ordinary, begins to seem more and more the latter.


The ultimate manifestation of nature's coordinate system is "Universe." Fuller deliberately omits the article, for "the universe" implies the possible existence of more than one—just as we do not say "the God" but rather simply "God." Fuller capitalizes "Universe" for the same reason: Universe is everything; it's all there is. (Or, more poetically, "Universe is all that isn't me and me." (6) ) But Fuller would never leave it at that; he is indefatigably thorough.

      Einstein revolutionized our understanding of Universe, explains Fuller; prior to his relativity theory, we could think in terms of a single-frame (simultaneously complete) picture, unimaginably vast, but still simultaneous at any given moment. This understanding must now be replaced by a ''scenario'' concept:

      301.10 Universe is the aggregate of all humanity's consciously apprehended and communicated nonsimultaneous and only partially overlapping experiences.

      He willingly disects his own long-winded definition. To Fuller, aggregate implies a complex that cannot be comprehended in totality at only one moment (302.00): "Consciousness means awareness of otherness." (That one's easy.) To be apprehended, information must first be within the range of human perception and then actually be noticed. "Communicated means informing self or others. Nonsimultaneous means not occurring at the same time" (302.00); events of Universe are instead "partially overlapping"—like generations. My lifetime overlaps my grandmother's and hers overlaps the life of her grandmother, but I was born long after the death of both my great-and great-great-grandmothers. Such are the events of Universe; every experience overlaps some but not all other experiences.

      Another facet of the "scenario" concept centers on the misconception of the environment as a static whole. For instance, looking out at a distant star it is all too easy to think we are "seeing" it just as it is at that moment, while in reality that particular star is so far away that its light takes 100 years to reach us. What we are actually looking at is a "live show" taking place 100 years ago. We are seeing an event that occurred before we were born. Universe is the integral (or sum total) of all experience. It cannot be unitarily conceived, but as thus defined it is all inclusive. "You cannot get out of Universe" (321.02).

      Fuller's definition avoids imparting a sense of thingness—part of his effort to encourage us to think in terms of "pure principle." Universe is energy and thought all knotted together by incredibly complicated webs of relationships. It is ultimately impossible to separate the physical and metaphysical; both are "experience." The scientific principles that govern the interactions of energy events-as timeless statements of truth—are themselves metaphysical. The line therefore becomes ever more difficult to draw. This is why Fuller's definition depends upon consciousness. Our awareness of energy events defines their existence; we cannot go beyond the limits set by our understanding.

      Finally, Fuller assures us that the definition is complete:

      People say to me, "I think you have left something out of your definition of Universe." That statement becomes part of my experience. But never will anyone disprove my working hypothesis because it will take experimental proof to satisfy me, and the experiment will always be part of the experience of my definition, ergo included. (306.01)

He elaborates in a 1975 videotaped lecture: "Someone might ask 'what about dreams? I think you left that out,' and I reply, 'no, for that is part of your experience.'" He seems to have all the angles covered.

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