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Amy C. Edmondson
A Fuller Explanation
Chapter 5, Structure and "Pattern Integrity"
pages 54 through 56


Structure and "Pattern Integrity"

"I'm a little child and I've just found my mother's necklace."

      Famous for his marathon lecture sessions, Fuller used to talk about synergetics for days on end. Time constraints in later years usually prohibited such extensive coverage, but he almost always told the story of the necklace. Looking a bit like a small child himself as he draped this ten-foot loop over his shoulders, Bucky explained that the process of collecting "experimental evidence" starts with children.

      Fuller was a remarkable teacher, particularly in his ability to explain difficult concepts in simple terms. Not drawn to the formal logic of proofs, his genius lay in his novel use of everyday experiences. Elaborately detailed descriptions, relying on familiar materials and specific colors, were tailored to elucidate various complex phenomena. In one such scenario he is able to explain the intimidating concept of precession, which is one of the mysteries of gyroscopic motion, through a series of easily visualized events. (1) His images materialize so vividly in the mind's eye that the underlying abstract statements can be grasped effortlessly.

      "I'm going to be a little child now." We are immediately in his world, looking out. Even having heard this routine countless times, one can forgive the simplicity of the story. This is stuff for five-yearolds, but it is riveting-and a welcome break in the often heady lecture.

      The necklace grows out of Fuller's insistence that every child is born a genius-endlessly curious, probing, full of wonder about everything. If a child's questions are rewarded with answers that feel right, that is, correspond to his experience, the inherent genius will blossom. More often, not challenged creatively by tedious memorization that doesn't seem to relate to the world around him, a child simply learns to play the game. Fuller's conviction that children spontaneously leap at the chance to understand Universe when excited by true and comprehensive information was a primary motivating force behind synergetics. His aim was to supply models to elucidate the wonders of science to adults and children alike.

      It's an unusual necklace. Ten or more thin wooden dowels are linked together with red rubber-tubing segments into a continuous flexible loop. Bucky keeps taking it off his shoulders to remove another one of the ten-inch dowels. One by one they drop to the floor, as the necklace turns into recognizable polygons. Recognizable, that is, when he struggles to hold them out flat and round. Soon, the "drapable necklace" resembles a hexagon, then a pentagon. Next, the four sticks that are easily persuaded to be a square, just as readily collapse into a bundle-four parallel sticks held in one fist (Fig. 5-1).

Four parallel sticks held together in a hand
Fig. 5-1
Click on thumbnail for larger image.

      His expression is utterly earnest, "You remember when the teacher went to the blackboard and drew a square?" (Nods fill the lecture hall.) "Well, the only reason it stayed a square was that the blackboard held it there!" The shape collapses, dangling from one hand. (Many laugh. Some look concerned; they have begun to sense that he is deeply serious about this.)

      One more stick is pulled out of the loop. Three are left dangling. If he removed another, the necklace would disappear, for two sticks alone cannot form an open loop. Connect the two ends of the three-dowel string, and suddenly, "It holds its shape," he cries out, astonished. Loudness underscores the importance of this fundamental truth, with enthusiasm undiminished by the repetition of a thousand lectures. "Only the triangle is inherently stable" (609.01).

      Bucky reminds us that the conditions and materials of the experiment did not change. That red tubing is still flexible, the sticks still rigid. So what is responsible for the sudden change? Before going on, he wants us to really understand why a triangle holds its shape.

      Two sticks connected by a hinge create two lever arms. The farther out a force is applied, the greater the mechanical advantage—which means that forces of decreasing strength can accomplish the same result (Fig. 5-2). Each flexible corner is stabilized with minimum mechanical effort by a force exerted at the very ends of its two sticks, or lever arms. A third stick, acting as a "push-pull brace," can be attached to the ends of the other two sticks, to most efficiently stabilize the flexible opposite angle. So each of the triangle's three sticks "stabilizes its opposite angle with minimum effort." Only a triangle has a built-in bracing device for each corner; therefore, only a triangle is stable.

Example of mechanical advantage in leverage
Fig. 5-2. Leverage.
Click on thumbnail for larger image.

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