Friday, December 09, 2005


A & B modules by Richard Hawkins
(SGI workstation, early 1990s)

Through 2005, Americans were still complaining that USA Medal of Freedom winner R. Buckminster Fuller wrote "indecipherable" poetry and prose.

Academics ridiculed his propensity to invent new shoptalk, even as specialists continued to multiply the number of technical terms within their respective disciplines. For some reason these A and B modules (each 1/24th the volume of the reference tetrahedron) were just too arcane, too esoteric, to merit further mention.

A simple approach to polyhedra, using lots of wholesome whole numbers, embedding them within a lattice well-known to scientists (crystallographers especially), got shelved by the math and science educators, as either too difficult or too trivial, depending on which audience was hearing the excuse.

This all seemed pretty lame to me. I called for a Math Makeover and suggested students might want to exercise some civil disobedience or employ other non-violent tactics, given their heritage as Americans was being denied them (like many of my generation, I was inspired by the civil rights movement).

On Tuesday, December 6, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) recycled an old video about fractals (a good one, starring Arthur C. Clarke) as a part of its fundraising campaign. I didn't send any money. I felt my patriotic duty was to keep advocating for a more intelligent, less recycled, public discourse.

From my point of view, Americans couldn't really understand their own history (and didn't) minus at least some passing familiarity with the contributions of this great 20th century American philosopher. Our TV-intensive culture hadn't yet devised an effective way of sharing the info, not even on Sesame Street. I used this blog, other venues, to brainstorm possible remedies, investing most of my hopes in a new kind of Reality TV, one in which the stars actually did something useful for a change.

Entering middle age (I'm 47), I was aghast at the level of intellectual squalor my peers seemed to find tolerable. But then, I'd never pretended Bucky was too hard to understand, at least not the easy parts. I didn't go to Princeton for nuthin I guess. At Princeton, we'd read Hegel for breakfast -- and maybe get Kantstipated (Walter Kaufmann's pun, funny).

Related f/u threads:
[1][2] @ math-teach, Math Forum
Postmortem (Bridges submission)