Buckminster Fuller, Hope, and Glory

by John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1198) Sir Harold Walter Kroto (1939-2016), with Robert F. Curl, Jr., Richard E. Smalley, and students James Heath and Sean O’Brian as well as Yuan Liu, discovered the Carbon-60 molecule in 1985. In 1772 Lavoisier showed diamonds were carbon, in 1779 Scheele showed graphite was mostly carbon, so this was big news (of course that’s a pun on the size of this molecule).

Proving to be a truncated iscosahedron as studied in the energetic-synergetic geometry of R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), C-60 was named buckminsterfullerene; its shape is like one of Fuller’s geodesic domes. Wolfgang Krätschmer and Donald Huffman, with students Kostas Fostiropoulos and Lowell Lamb, extracted it with the carbon arc technique in 1990. Other fullerenes were found. Nanotubes, a few nanometers wide and up to several millimeters long, have high tensile strength, ductility, electrical and heat conductivity, low chemical activity – could they be used in paper batteries, or even a Space elevator?

Curl, Kroto, and Smalley were given the 1996 Nobel Prize for their discovery of fullerenes; Kroto, an Englishman, was knighted. Two years later C-60, by then long nicknamed the buckyball, was the Official Molecule of the 56th World Science Fiction Convention, another fine gesture under con chair Peggy Rae Pavlat (later Peggy Rae Sapienza; she could only have gotten more wisdom by marrying it). Implications of this amazing astounding stellar (C-60 has been seen in stars) thrilling wondrous moment of science still unfold.

Harry Kroto died on April 30th in East Sussex, England. The New York Times (6 May 16 p. A20) called him “A scientist who so loved art that he named his discovery after an architect”, one way to describe Fuller, who had two dozen patents, whose Dymaxion car and map as well as his Dymaxion house (dynamic + maximum + tension, coined by advertisingmen when a prototype of the house was on display at Marshall Field’s in Chicago) are still barely explored, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and who after all wrote “The architectural profession – civil, naval, aeronautical, and astronautical – has always been the place where the most competent thinking is conducted regarding livingry, as opposed to weaponry” (Critical Path p. xxv, 1981).

Meanwhile ET-94, built as an external tank for the Space Shuttle though never flying into Space, the last remaining flight-ready fuel tank in existence, 150 feet (47 m) long and weighing 66,000 pounds (30 000 kg), docked at Marina del Rey on May 21st after going 4,000 nautical miles (7 400 km) from New Orleans where it was completed in 2001, and was trucked across town past children in Space helmets made of paper to California Science Center where it will stand with Endeavour. The Los Angeles Times (22 May 16 p. B17) quoted a spectator “Look what we can do when we put our minds to it.”

2 thoughts on “Buckminster Fuller, Hope, and Glory

  1. Huh. Describing Fuller as an architect seems a bit misleading, even if there’s an element of truth to it. It may have been the field where he had the greatest success (in a sense—I don’t think most geodesic domes were built to his exact plans), but I think he considered himself more of a philosopher and inventor. He’s the coiner of the term “Spaceship Earth”. I was a huge Fuller fan when I was young. He was a bit crazy at times, but it was generally a good sort of crazy. He was a major influence on Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL (one of the very earliest on-line communities), and The Long Now Foundation.

    In some sense, I think Fuller was one of the first to be what we now call a “futurist”. So it’s really not that surprising that he would be remembered and honored by scientists in other fields than architecture. And, of course, by a lot of science fiction fans. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Speaking of Harold | File 770

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