Precession and the Dolphin

| October 20, 2012
Figure 21. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path.

Buckminster Fuller demonstrates a precessional effect. Critical Path, 1981.

Precession, simply put, is a force that is generated as a side effect of another force, orthogonal to it.

A stone dropped in water creates ripples. A tensegrity structure, squashed or pulled, will bow out or squeeze in at the free sides. A spun bike wheel, suspended from only one side of the axle, will nevertheless remain eerily vertical.

Buckminster Fuller used precession as a guiding principle for his own work, and yet notes its elusiveness, in Critical Path:

It is a safe guess that not more than one human in 10 million is conceptually familiar with and sensorially comprehending of the principle of “precession.”

As I was getting ready to talk about precession as a way of thinking about Education, for a conference on Bucky and Black Mountain College, I was struggling on both fronts. What is it, and how do we feel it? Or not.

Most examples involve gyroscopes and spinning planets. But as adept at turning as we uprights are, whirling dervishes are nevertheless the exception to the rule. Our gyrations tend to be more of the “twist and shout” variety. So what does a sensory comprehension of precession look like for—to talk a bit like Bucky—vertebral frontal teleceptor orienting locomotors? It turns out that my Ah-ha moment came not by land but by sea.

But what are we seeing? For me, it was an insight into what a dynamic facility with precession might look like. Attending to the “side effect,” the dolphins engage with it indirectly through an interplay with the through-line generated (itself precessionally) by their own breath/locomotion. They are able to pick up the effect, setting it in motion, responding to it at, we could say, at vertebral speed. The ring may be maintained by much faster, smaller vortices, but the movements that maintain and engage with these effects are muscular/skeletal in pace. Twist and shout (blow). This is also thus a far cry from the oddly stilling effect of working with models of planetary movement, or the ways in which these toroidal rings tend to be generated by humans—for example, the mushroom cloud of an atomic blast generating a fixed and un-danceable axis. Or witness the stiff head and neck of someone blowing a smoke ring, effectively precluding locomotive movement. We are, after all, not dolphins. So seeing how precession can be played with by us bipeds still needs some working out. But maybe, in the process, we can also pick up a few tricks from the dolphin.