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Parable of the 13 Great Circles

©2004-2006 Bob Burkhardt
Last revision: March 20, 2009

Preface

At one point, I felt motivated to inflict this story on the Geodesic listserv. The story appeals to me enough and its formulation was an important enough part of my Synergetics studies that I thought I'd reproduce an inflated version here. It recontextualizes a wisdom story of my junior college physics professor into the atmosphere of Syergetics, the New Testament and shaggy dog stories. I think you will be a better person for having read it. It's not as shaggy as it should be at this point, but hopefully I'll have time to come back and further embroider it.

The Parable

I started out at Los Angeles Harbor Community College when it was referred to as a "junior" college and I was a mathematics and physics major looking to become a meteorologist eventually. In my first year, I was seduced by economics and would have left the physics gang entirely if their time-sharing connection to an IBM 370 computer hadn't appeared on the scene. One of my physics professors, William Colbert (always "Professor Colbert" to me as I was "Burkhardt" to him), told me about it and got me an account so I could teach myself to program using APL with the assistance of the other time-share groupies.

Professor Colbert was frequently on the scene working on one physics problem and another and swapping computer stories with us. One day he was standing over me as I was working at the terminal and told me his wisdom tale. He talked about how all the professions seemed to think society and the universe revolved around their particular specialty. Physicists thought just about everything could be explained with physics. Economists thought it was all utility maximization. Mathematicians couldn't see how things would work if people couldn't add. Farmers felt feeding people was the lynchpin to civilization. The military thought winning wars kept life in gear. Jesus looked to the peacemakers. Realtors thought the keystone was matching people up with housing. Christian Scientists thought God ran the whole thing. And lawyers and politicians thought they were the most important since society would fall apart without rules. His final example was that garbage collectors probably thought that the world revolved around garbage collection. (In later years I came to think garbage collectors were right in some respect in that handling the garbage is a big issue as we're finding out. And actually that's his only example that comes vividly to mind though he must have mentioned physics and economics since that's what he was professing and I was studying at the time.)

The passing of about a decade found me exploring Hugh Kenner's Geodesic Math intensively. As a part of that study, I constructed a model of the 13 great circles of the octahedron (which also fit the tetrahedron) using D-Stix connectors and thin wooden dowels. Dealing with symmetry in Buckminster Fuller's terms of using great circles instead of axes was new to me. Geodesic Math was my hands-on introduction to this approach. Later, I was in open-mouthed awe as I went through that section of Synergetics and witnessed the revelations Fuller achieved with fairly simple geometric models.

Considering and contemplating that model of the 13 great circles of the octahedron brought back my physics professor's words. I saw that one could take the octahedron's point of view and say the whole world was an octahedron with the faces broken up by a somewhat-irritating collection of other great circles and arcs, or take the rhombic dodecahedron's point of view and say the whole world is a rhombic dodecahedron with some additional great circles breaking up the faces, or take the tetrahedron's point of view or the tetrahedron's point of view, etc.

Quickly the sphere became an analogy for mankind's body of knowledge and activity and the various figures became analogous to the various specialties. It was easy to see that all the specialists were right about the world revolving around their profession and that at the same time they were all wrong. In retrospect, I also see the power of a physical model over even a well-printed diagram or picture on the page of a book. It wasn't until I made the model that I made the connection to my old professor's parable.

The Model

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank James Mc Carten for his impatient remark ("don't know why there is so much distraction about tensegrity. in the most general of terms, geodesic domes are the issue i.e. why are not most structures domes? what is it that geodesic type domes are not fully incorporated in our society?") to the Geodesic listserv which prompted me to draft an abbreviated version of this parable on October 15, 2004, which in turn prompted him to quickly apologize such was the awesomeness of its power and his magnanimity.

Contact Information

I am interested in your comments and questions. Please direct them via email to bobwb@juno.com or via Postal Service mail to me at Box 426164, Cambridge, MA 02142-0021, or come join us on the Geodesic listserv.

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