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Amy C. Edmondson
A Fuller Explanation
Chapter 3, Systems and Synergy
pages 33 through 35


Implicit in the above discussion of systems is a property described accurately by only one word. "Synergy" has come into fairly widespread use recently, perhaps due to Bucky's many years of championing its cause, or perhaps just because we finally needed it badly enough. Formerly unknown except to biologists and chemists, this word describes the extraordinarily important property that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts." In Fuller's words, "Synergy means the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately."

      Consider the phenomenon of gravity. The most thorough examination of any object (from pebbles to planets) by itself will not predict the surprising behavior of the attractive force between two objects, in direct proportion to the product of their masses and changing inversely with the square of the distance between them. Another dramatic example is the combination of an explosive metal and a poisonous gas to produce a harmless white powder that we sprinkle on our food—sodium chloride, or table salt.

      Bucky's favorite illustration was the behavior of alloys: "synergy alone explains metals increasing their strength" (109.01). He enthusiastically describes the properties of chrome-nickel steel, whose extraordinary strength at high temperatures enabled the development of the jet engine. Its primary constituents—iron, chromium, and nickel—have tensile strengths of 60,000, 70,000, and 80,000 pounds per square inch respectively, and combine to create an alloy with 350,000 psi tensile strength. Not only does the chain far exceed the strength of its weakest link, but counter-intuitively even outperforms the sum of its components' tensile capabilities. Thus the chain analogy falls through, calling for a new methodology which will incorporate interaugmentation.

      A flood of examples of "synergy" is so readily available that one might wonder how we got along without the word. Bucky wondered and concluded that humanity must be out of touch with its environment. Synergy is certainly how nature works; though we pay little direct attention to the phenomenon, we are still familiar with it. Few are surprised by complex systems arising out of the interaction of simpler parts.

      Fuller took it a step further. He saw the age-old forms of geometry as models of synergy, comprehensible only in terms of relationships. His eye drawn to their vector edges, he simply did not perceive the "solid" polyhedra of Plato. Self-exiled from the formal mathematical cornmunity which would have told him otherwise, Fuller saw the static constructs of geometry as ready and waiting to elucidate the dynamic events of physical Universe.

      Determined to model the new "invisible" energetic reality, Fuller began to refer to his accumulated findings as "energetic geometry." As the search for "nature's coordinate system" progressed and the recurring theme of synergy became more and more prevalent, the term evolved to "synergetic-energetic geometry" and finally to "synergetics." Fuller's vocabulary tended to develop organically in response to his changing needs for emphasis. He felt a great responsibility to get it just right. In the thirties, enchanted by certain properties of the cuboctahedron, Fuller replaced the Greek name with his own trademark word, "Dymaxion," less from egotism than from frustration in being unable to invent exactly the right name—one with enough impact. (6) Later, he found the perfect term to express its unique property, and eagerly renamed this indispensible shape "vector equilibrium." The name remained unaltered; when Fuller found his truth, he never wavered.

      The term "synergetics," then, was a response to the single most important characteristic of energetic reality. As discussed in Chapter 1, Fuller's overriding goal was to collect the "generalized principles." The law of synergy, although too all-encompassing to seem a valid starting point for such an inventory, dictates a basic strategy of starting with a whole system and then investigating its parts. The most painstaking study of its separate components will never reveal the behavior of a system. All other generalized principles therefore must be subsets of this fundamental truth: the whole is not equal to the sum of its isolated parts.

      Now we take some time out to look at aspects of conventional geometry that will illuminate Fuller's work, despite the fact that it is not directly included in Synergetics.

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