E.J Applewhite on Synergetics

The following is excerpted from a past issue of BFI's newsletter, Trimtab.

In his efforts to clarify the meaning and importance of synergetics , E.J. Applewhite Jr. stands second to none - except, of course, Bucky himself. What Ed says on synergetics is source material, and his contribution to the subject cannot be overstated.

E.J. collaborated with Bucky on Synergetics 1 & 2, and he compiled - on a typewriter not a computer -- one of the oddest books in philosophical history - The Synergetics Dictionary, a 4-volume photocopied collection of 22,000 3 x 5 cards used during their work on Synergetics. On the cards he abstracted Buckminster Fuller 's thoughts on hundreds of topics from letters, books, tapes, published and unpublished papers, and thus "introduced Bucky to himself" on all these subjects. And too, in the process, he gave Fuller scholars an annotated resource beyond price.

Truth is, we should dedicate this issue of Trimtab to EJA, but since our purpose here is in search of principles, to explore the significance of synergetics, we decided to interview Ed instead of praising him.

Ed is a very busy man, so we went one step further and decided to take our "interview" from his own book, Cosmic Fishing - An Account of writing Synergetics with Buckminster Fuller, a wonderful little book, written in 1977, now out of print. In it, we get snapshots of their creative process. If we can understand better the circumstances in which Synergetics was written, we might find more, better, easier ways to approach it. Cosmic Fishing is a gold mine for answering the questions which spawned this issue of Trimtab.


Trimtab: What is Synergetics about?

EJA: Cartoonists often draw thoughts as clouds or balloons or even light bulbs, with a curving line to the thinker's skull. But for Fuller, the thinking process is not a matter of putting anything into the brain or taking anything out; he defines thinking as the dismissal of irrelevancies, as the definition of relationships -- relationships that are inevitably geometrical, and just as inevitably tetrahedral. (The familiar Egyptian pyramid has a square base; a tetrahedron maybe thought of as a pyramid with a triangular base.) It is his original conviction that thoughts not only may have shape, but that they must have shape.

The essence of Fuller's synergetic geometry is to advance a single model to describe the shape of the physical universe, the shape of energy's behavior, as well as the shape of metaphysical universe, which is the shape of our thinking. He has proposed all his life to write a book attempting to describe all physical and metaphysical experience in terms of the tetrahedron. What I proposed was to help him complete this task and to discover whether I would become a convert in the process.

If the notion of measuring all experience in terms of tetrahedra seems unduly perverse and abstract, it is really no more so than our familiar and unquestioned employment of the cube for the same purpose.

For two thousand years of Western civilization and for all the achievements of modern science, the cube has served as the basic model of geometric and volumetric measurement. The cube has come in very handy as the basis of the metric system. The three XYZ coordinates -- the height, length, and width of conventional three dimensional measurement — are part of our unconscious cultural heritage, and we tend to identify reality with this intrinsic cubical way of describing the physical world. Centimeters, grams, and seconds (the CGS system) are accounted in linear or square or cubic modules, and the rules all work with sufficiently exquisite accuracy for man to have reached the moon and returned.

Why then isn't Fuller satisfied with the metric system in the face of its towering pragmatic accomplishments? he concedes that the square and the cube do work in their awkward way, but he argues that their adoption as modules was misguided and erroneous because they have nothing to do with nature's own coordinates. Height, length, and width simply do not exist for him independent of the observer. Thus the observer always inadvertently provides the fourth (or tetrahedral!) point of reference. In his synergetics, height, length, and width exist only as aspects of polyhedra.

With the cube and the square the ancient Greek mathematicians entered the world of nature by the wrong door, eschewing the more elegant triangle and tetrahedron which were so easily available and have been so ignored.

Fuller regards the XYZ-CGS-metric coordinates as the accidental result of man's choosing the wrong tools for calculation, spawning irreducible fractions and irrational numbers like pi — with unresolved odd numbers to the right of the decimal point. The advent of the computer has meant that the irrational factors are much more easily dealt with, but in so doing the computer further obscures recognition of the XYZ system as an aberration of man and not as a reflection of nature's own most economical coordination, which is in triangles and tetrahedra rather than squares or cubes.

Though the substitution of the tetrahedron for the cube epitomizes Fuller's major claim in his life's work as a philosopher and mathematician, he had never formally published the entire scheme of his argument for academic and public scrutiny. The landscape of his writing was littered with landmines in which he had encapsulated only obscure clues to his geometrical formulations. He had produced many artifacts, but few handbooks. His triangular and great-circle tactics were incorporated in his geodesic domes. His tensional integrity structures -- which he calls "tensegrities" — forsake the compressional bonds of conventional engineering. His many patents in these fields were manifests of his original intellectual strategies. (His philosophy was never a rationale for the domes, rather the domes were an attempt to explain his philosophy.) But nowhere was there a systematic and exhaustive exposition of his claim to have discovered no less than the coordinate system of nature.

Fuller claims not only to have discovered nature's coordinate system — to which all of history up to now has been blind — but to have revealed how Einstein's relativity and quantum mechanics can be demonstrated to popular understanding in simple geometrical models. In his system, the mysterious fourth dimension is no longer relegated to the unseen manipulations of abstract mathematics; the fourth dimension became visible (to him, if not to me) in his topological accounting. With him, geometry has become polemical. The physical universe is composed of matter and energy. His new models promised to make it possible to observe and measure the forms and energetic behaviors of the universe without pi, fractions, or irrational constants. Here was an approach quite unlike that found in all the textbooks and conventions of Western scientific teaching. A claim at once so naive and arrogant boggles the mind. If Fuller is right, can everyone else be wrong? Is this not the classic description of paranoia? Or could it be rational after all. Or self-demonstrably omnirational, as he would say.

Trimtab: Why did you work with Bucky on Synergetics? Why didn't he write it himself?

EJA: One of the most puzzling aspects of Synergetics is: Why did there have to be any collaborator at all? Fuller is a man with poetic gifts of expression, extravagantly articulate, industrious, and self-disciplined to the point of compulsion -- passionately dedicated to the importance of putting on paper whatever of his thoughts he feels may be of benefit to others. . . Fuller's most successful books, moreover, were those in which he had no assistance whatever. His most effective writing had been that which he turned out longhand when utterly alone with his thoughts. [His two finest essays of this type are "Total Thinking" and "Omnidirectional Halo."]

If the completed Synergetics could have been the unfettered production of a single artist, would it not have been a finer work? My answer is that as the product of a single genius it would have more closely approached a work of art. But other answers crowd in. Most importantly, there would probably not have been any such book at all. He would simply never have found the time.

Trimtab: How did you work together?

EJA: I would never write a word for Fuller but would present him with his own statements in what seemed a logical arrangement. . . [I was] confronting the author with himself. Gathered cards became the Synergetics Dictionary.

This modus operandi was completely congenial to me; where Fuller is always synthesizing, my temperament is analytic. His whole strategy is that of "starting with Universe," going form wholes to particulars. My reflexes are always trying to identify the parts and give them names so they will be at home in my more conventional cultural landscape. Thought the result was synergetic, it was at the price of ending up with a book that Fuller has a little trouble finding his way around in. This is not too much on my conscience. His original conceptions are omnidirectional, but a book is inescapably linear.

Trimtab: What was Bucky trying to achieve in Synergetics?

EJA: Fuller's primary vocation is as a poet. All his disciplines and talents — architect, engineer, philosopher, inventor, artist, cartographer, teacher -- are just so many aspects of his chief function as integrator. . . he described the word "poet" as a very general term for a person who puts things together in an era of great specialization when most people are differentiating or taking things apart. . . For Fuller, the stuff of poetry is the patterns of human behavior and the environment, and the interacting hierarchies of physics and design and industry. This is why he can describe Einstein and Henry Ford as the greatest poets of the 20th century.

Trimtab: Just as Fuller is hard to describe, Synergetics is hard to describe. Just what kind of book is it?

EJA: Synergetics is a book without genre. The Library of Congress catalogs it succinctly under "1. System theory. 2. Thought and thinking. 3. Mathematics - Philosophy." The dilemma of this book is that it attempts to combine science and poetry and philosophy in a single work and in the very act of combining three such elements -- normally considered so disparate in our culture -- it is impossible to appeal to any one of the disciplines without risk of grave offense to the other two.

I know that the whole structure of Fuller's cosmos is a poetic one of vast harmony and subtlety. If the book is nothing else, it is one of the most complex literary and pattern metaphors of the age. It is a rare and wonderful vision of a geometry of conceptuality: how to start from a new place -- independent of Euclid, Descartes, and Leibniz, independent of size, independent of time. . . This book expresses a kind of geometry and a method of epistemology that is probably original in our civilization; if that is so, its very format means that academic recognition will be hard to come by ...

For me, the chief satisfaction of the book's publication was at last being able to share the whole elaborate design with others -- thought at the price of having robbed Fuller perhaps of a certain privacy. His geometry remained difficult, esoteric -- even hermetic -- but it was no longer inaccessible, no longer embedded in untranscribed tapes and scrawls on the backs of envelopes. I had felt up until this time artists and scientists could be excused for not listening to Fuller; now if they chose to ignore him, it would be on their conscience, not his. Nor mine.

The reaction of many first readers was one of incredulity that Fuller's imagination could function in such total oblivion of the scientific conventions and the cultural traditions of Western civilization. His philosophy was homemade, do-it-yourself, ab initio -- as if Pythagoras, Parmendies, Plato and Aristotle has never existed. It seemed barely possible that Fuller could start from scratch and still tackle the perennial philosophical paradoxes: how to differentiate and relate

* the ideal and the physically realized;
* the container and the contained;
* the one and the many;
* the observer and the observed;
* the human microcosm and the universal macrocosm. . .

It was not that he was unwilling to bestow (upon the greatest minds) a low bow or even a slight nod, it was just that he felt he had to start from scratch -- as he presumed they had done. Had he unlearned what they had taught? Or simply never listened to begin with? . . .

His concerns were simply the coincidental results of his synergetic strategies, of commencing with the wholes -- not parts, not anyone else's building blocks. ..

Fuller was not interested in learning about the great absolutes as derived from what the great minds before him had to say. He is not anti-cultural; he just regards being non-cultural as itself the highest of disciplines.

. . . For me, the book is as much of an enigma as it ever was. I know when you create a new philosophical universe -- in your own terms and with your own rules to play -- the resulting edifice may be logically irrefutable, but not necessarily deserving of scrutiny. But I have no doubts that Fuller's scheme merits the most minute examination. . . Only by completely abandoning the static frame of reference of conventional measurement could Fuller devise his new starting point for "getting nature in a corner" -- without blackboard, paper, or two lines crossing. His ambitious goal of integrating all the disciplines -- all of them from sociology and psychology to electromagnetics and crystallography -- in one grand geometric vision will continue to outrage, stimulate, and ultimately instruct, many generations to come.

(P.S. In response to this RBF wrote: You say it was my ambition to integrate the disciplines in one grand system. I did not have any ambition about it. I simply assumed that the operation of Universe is integrated and you can't understand it by isolating any of it or taking it apart.)

Trimtab: Was there anything especially odd in the collaboration process?

EJA: In the course of writing Synergetics, Bucky would say that he felt as if he were an agent for some transcendent or supernatural source of inspiration, as if he were merely an inceptor or transceiver of messages originating elsewhere. It was not like a trance or automatic writing, but there were occasions when he could not provide a rational accounting for what he had written or said -- nor did he even pretend to recognize its full significance. The thought has its own integrity independent of the thinker, and we respected it accordingly. "The thought," he says, "does not belong to you."

Of course, Fuller has always maintained that he does not invent his thoughts, that he merely separates out some local patterns from a confusing whole -- confusing just meaning "untuned" or unfused. In his world, thoughts are a priori, having a reality independent of, and antecedent to, the thinker; the individual thinker becomes merely their vessel. He has always suggested that our intuitive thoughts may be simply remote cosmic transmissions. This is how he can play his game of solitaire. Solitaire is a game that anyone can play; that no one else appears to have played this particular game is regrettable, but he is sure others will learn.

To all this, RBF replied: The information in Universe has always been there. The total information is always there, but it has been deployed into generalized-principle increments of cosmic tunability.

The information signals are forever bouncing electromagnetically about the Universe, every so often impinging on celestial entities and being either tunably received or bounced off to travel elsewhere.

If we fail to catch a cosmic fish it may be a trillion years before the opportunity comes again. It will come. . .but it may not be in this Galaxy. Sum totally, all the fish will always eventually be caught and rebroadcast, but not at all the same rebroadcasting stations.