November 28, 2021

1. Buckminster Fuller

I read an excellent essay in New Yorker magazine about Buckminster Fuller. Fuller was a world-famous thinker from about 1960 to 1975, known for inventing the geodesic dome. The essay that I read is by veteran NewYorker writer Calvin Tomkins. Published in 1965, the essay is an artful blend of theory and anecdote. Tomkins spent four days with Fuller at his family home on Bear Island in Maine.

As a youngster on Bear Island, Fuller says, “I often felt like being by myself, so I started making experimental houses on different parts of the island. I didn’t have any regular allowance, but I’d have money left over from birthdays and things, and I’d buy a hammer and some nails and start making a house.”

After marrying in 1917, Fuller and his father-in-law “formed a company to exploit a building-block method of construction, patented by the two men, which was used in two hundred and forty houses and small commercial buildings over a five-year period.” When his father-in-law experienced financial reverses, he sold his share of the company, and the new owners fired Fuller. Fuller considered suicide. “In his autobiography, Fuller tells how he stood on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, where he was living at the time, and found himself saying, ‘You do not have the right to eliminate yourself, you do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.’”

Fuller believed that reforming man was hopelessly difficult, but it was possible to reform man’s environment. He tried to discover the secrets of nature’s architecture.

As a young student, Fuller had been interested in math and science. His math teacher “showed us that an eighth is point one two five, and a quarter is point two five, and a third is point three three three, and so on with threes, out the window and over the hill. I noticed that some of these numbers went out the window and others stayed in the classroom.”

Fuller couldn’t stay within the academic channels. He was expelled from Harvard twice. He learned a lot in the Navy, where he came into contact with cutting-edge technology — new things were being made of new materials, to assist the war effort. He was still pondering the architecture of nature.

One day in 1917 I was standing on the deck of my ship looking back at the wake — it was all white because of the bubbles — and I began wondering idly how many bubbles there were back there. Millions, obviously. I’d learned at school that in order to make a sphere, which is what a bubble is, you employ pi, and I’d also learned that pi is an irrational number. To how many places, I wondered, did frustrated nature factor pi? And I reached the decision right at that moment that nature didn’t use pi.

From his study of chemistry, Fuller knew that nature used simple whole numbers, not numbers like pi that went “out the window and over the hill.” To make an atom of water, for example, nature used 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom (H2O). “In chemistry,” Fuller says, “we find that the associations are always in beautiful whole numbers — there are no fractions.”

Fuller suspected that nature’s architecture wasn’t based on irrational numbers, and wasn’t based on circles. He also suspected that nature didn’t build with Euclid’s imaginary points, lines, and planes. He turned instead to vectors of force, such as Galileo had emphasized. He decided that these vectors could be held together in a triangle.

Through his study of vectors, [Fuller] came to the conclusion that nature’s geometry must be based on triangles. “The triangle is a set of three energy events getting into critical proximity, so that each one with minimum effort stabilizes the opposite angle,” he said. “Now, I found that a quadrilateral — a square, for example — will not hold its shape.... So I said, ‘I think all nature’s structuring, associating, and patterning must be based on triangles, because there is no structural validity otherwise.’”

Fuller used these ideas to build his geodesic domes, which are so strong that one was built on the top of Mount Washington, one of the windiest places on earth. Fuller’s domes are also easy to erect; “previously untrained Marines were able to assemble a 30-foot magnesium dome in 135 minutes.” When he was on the faculty of Southern Illinois University, Fuller and his wife lived in one of his domes for 11 years.

Interior of geodesic dome

Fuller traveled widely, and delivered countless lectures. “I always speak spontaneously,” Fuller said, “because I’ve found that it really is possible to think out loud. Although I seemingly go over and over the same inventory of thoughts and experiences, I find that each time I do, I learn something new, and that I have to change or rearrange what I’ve learned.”

Fuller was interested in all the sciences, he could integrate them, and he could explain them with lucid metaphors. We shouldn’t speak of the sun setting, Fuller argued, because the sun isn’t really moving, the earth is.

Many of you think of yourselves as scientists, and yet you go off on a picnic with your family, and you see a beautiful sunset, and you actually see the sun setting, going down.... I’ve made tests with children — you have to get them right away, before they take in too many myths. I’ve made a paper model of a man and glued him down with his feet to a globe of the world, and put a light at one side, and shown them how the man’s shadow lengthens as the globe turns, until finally he’s completely in the shadow. If you show that to children, they never see it any other way, and they can really understand how the earth revolves the sun out of sight. But you scientists still see the sun setting....

You say that the wind is blowing from the northwest, which means that there must be a place called northwest that it’s blowing from — being blown, I suppose, by one of those little fat-cheeked zephyrs that used to be drawn on maps. When you scientists say the wind is blowing from the northwest, what’s actually happening is that there’s a low-pressure area sucking it toward the southeast, pulling the air past you. So why don’t you say the wind is sucking southeast, which is what it’s really doing?

Tomkins describes having dinner with Fuller and his family on Bear Island, then going

outdoors to look at the full moon and feel the earth’s rotation. If you stood with your feet wide apart and faced the North Star, [Fuller] explained, you would, after a certain length of time, begin to sense the motion of the earth in the night sky as it turned with you aboard. You could actually feel it, he said, as a pressure on your left foot.

Fuller says that technological progress comes not from a secure society, not from terra firma, but from the “outlaw area” — the middle of the ocean, for example, or outer space. In the outlaw area, man confronts the powers of nature, and needs to be resourceful to survive. The pressure of war also forces man to be resourceful. Fuller says,

The important hardware comes originally from those people who are producing the weaponry — battleships and airplanes. The first electric-light bulbs were developed for use on board battleships. The same thing with refrigeration and desalinization plants, which the Navy has had for half a century.

Tomkins seems to have a perfect memory of Fuller’s remarks. Did Tomkins use a recording device? A notebook? Or did he just remember?

Fuller had a proclivity for holistic thinking, systems thinking; he often spoke of “synergy.” He said, “Synergy means behavior of whole systems, unpredicted by behavior of their parts.” He said that the moon and the earth are held together by synergy, as are the sun and the planets.

Fuller came from an illustrious NewEngland family. He was related to Margaret Fuller, etc. He was born in Milton, Massachusetts, and attended Milton Academy.

Fuller’s son-in-law, Robert Snyder, was a documentary filmmaker; his films about Fuller are available on Youtube (click here or here).

Some of Fuller’s historical theories strike me as absurd. For example, he says that SouthSea islanders were the first experts at navigation, and they sailed to India, then their descendants became the priests of Egypt and Babylonia, then they became the founders of Minoan civilization, and finally “they became known as Vikings, and [sailed] down the rivers of Russia and out across the North Atlantic to Greenland and America.”

Fuller strikes me as a gifted scientist but a mediocre humanist. His speculations about the future seem wildly utopian. He sees the world in terms of nation-states, and doesn’t anticipate the importance of non-state entities like Al-Qaeda. He sees international relations as either nuclear war or peace, and doesn’t anticipate that non-nuclear war would continue. He puts his faith in the development of science and technology, and in the young people who flocked to his lectures:

This generation knows that man can do anything he wants, you see. These people know that wealth is not money — that it’s a combination of physical energy and human intellect — and they know that energy can be neither created nor destroyed and that intellectual knowledge can only increase, and that therefore total wealth cannot help but increase. They also know that they can generate far more wealth by cooperation on a global scale than by competition with each other. And they realize — or at least they sense — that utopia is possible now, for the first time in history.

In my view, cooperation is as difficult now as it ever was, and civilization is as likely to regress as it is to progress. Fuller despairs of changing man, and he pin’s his hopes on changing man’s environment. I doubt that architects can accomplish much, but I think we can change man by changing his beliefs. Fuller is interested in matter, stuff. I’m interested in spirit, in the non-material. Fuller is interested in energy, the enormous hidden energy revealed by Einstein. I’m interested in quantum physics, the mysterious connectedness revealed by quantum physics.

2. Blue is the Warmest Color

Saw a movie called Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). It was made by Abdellatif Kechiche, the Tunisian-French filmmaker who made The Secret of the Grain (2007). Since I was impressed by Secret, I wanted to see Blue; Blue was a hit with both critics and the public, Blue seems to be Kechiche’s magnum opus. Blue is loosely based on a graphic novel by Jul Maroh, while Secret was an original screenplay by Kechiche and his co-writer Ghalia Lacroix.

Now Kechiche is trying to make a trilogy called Mektoub, My Love. In 2017, Kechiche auctioned off the award he received for Blue (the Palme d’Or), to raise money to finish Mektoub. He’s deeply committed to his art, and he’s one of the great filmmakers of our time, though his work sometimes veers into pornography.

Blue is the Warmest Color is a powerful film, one of the most moving love stories you’ll ever see.

3. Time Slips

I read an interesting article in the New York Times about time slips — a feeling that you’ve suddenly slipped back into the 1950s, or into the Middle Ages, or slipped forward twenty or thirty years in the future. According to the article, “The web is awash with ordinary peoples’ stories of ‘time slips.’” There’s a “global community of believers building an archive of temporal dislocations from the present.”

Perhaps time slips tend to occur when people are tired or absent-minded — not alert, energetic, focused. Perhaps time slips tend to occur in particular places.

Philosophers have long insisted that time and space aren’t what common sense says they are; Kant, for example, said that time, space, and causality are merely categories of the mind, not part of reality itself, not part of the “thing-in-itself.” When we’re tired, or dreaming, we descend beneath the surface of reality, like a swimmer going underwater. Or perhaps these experiences occur when we’re carried away by strong emotion, when we’re lifted above everyday reality by strong emotion.

The intellectual establishment (the media and academia) focus on “surface reality,” and deny the existence of an underwater realm, deny the existence of a realm where time and space melt away. So the New York Times doesn’t question the reality of time and space, it tries to translate time slips into ordinary events; the New York Times is like a person at the beach who will only put his toes in the water. While discussing time slips, the article dismisses them as “urban legends,” “collective fiction.” There’s no magic here, the article says; the “real magic [of time slips] is what they can tell us about our relationship to time.” “Paranormal trappings aside, [a time slip] speaks to the feeling of whiplash brought on by time’s passing.”

The article mentions a “forward slip.” It was posted on the web by a woman who, as a young girl,

used to see a woman in a blue bathrobe in her room: “Her hair was long and messy, a reddish brown. I didn’t see her face because she was usually turned away. I used to mistake her for my mom.” Years later, grown up, the poster’s daughter slept in her former bedroom. “One day I realized ... I was wearing the same blue bathrobe.”

So the poster was seeing herself as she would appear ten or twenty years in the future. In an earlier issue, I discussed something similar, a “forward slip” experienced by Goethe:

Goethe once anticipated an event that happened eight years later: after leaving a woman named Friederike, he “saw his double riding towards him, ‘not with the eyes of the body but of the spirit’... Eight years later Goethe rode back along the same way to visit Friederike, wearing, to his own amazement, the same attire, ‘smoky grey with some gold,’ that had struck him on encountering his double.”

I also discussed “backward slips”:

In 1901, two English schoolteachers visiting Versailles had a hallucination of Versailles at the time of the French Revolution; “they observed details of the layout of the garden... which could subsequently be verified from the old plans and charts.”

While time slips (and other occult phenomena) are shunned by the establishment, they’re experienced every day by ordinary people. Those who research the occult try to collect the experiences of ordinary people. The Internet is a useful tool for collecting these experiences.

Before the Internet, newspapers were used to collect these experiences. In 1974, “Arthur Koestler ran a competition in The Sunday Times, in which readers were invited to send in the most striking coincidence they knew of.” (Koestler’s “competition” was won by a person who pointed out that a Poe story bore a striking similarity to an event that occurred about fifty years later. One might call the Poe story a “forward slip.”)

© L. James Hammond 2021
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