Tensegrity

by Timothy Wilken, MD

1

Push & Pull
Tensegrityis the pattern that results when push and pull have a win-win relationship
with each other. The pull is continuousand the push is discontinuous. The continuous
pull
is balancedby the discontinuous pushproducing an integrity of tension –
compression
.

Push and pull seem so common and ordinary in our experience of life that we humans
think little of these forces. Most of us assume they are simple opposites. In and out. Back
and forth. Force directed in one direction or its opposite.

------------------------->
<-------------------------

Fullerexplained that these fundamental phenomena were not opposites, but compliments
that could always be found together. He further explained that pushis divergentwhile
pull is convergent.

1Illustration by Christopher Rywalt

Tensegrity

TrustMark 2001 by Timothy Wilken

1

Imagine pushing a yellow ping pong ball on a smooth table with the point of a sharp
pencil. The ball would always roll away from the direction of the push, first rolling one
way then the other. Push is divergent.Now imagine the difference, if you attach a string
to the ping pong ball with tape, and pull it toward you. No matter how other forces might
influence the ball to roll away from you, the string would always bring it to you more and
more directly. Pull is convergent.

PUSH

DIVERGES

CONVERGES

PULL

Another example from common experience occurs when we are pulling a trailer with our
car. When I am driving uphill, I am pulling against gravity. The trailer converges nicely
behind my car. If the trailer begins to sway, I can dampen it by increasing pull– simply
increasing my acceleration. Now if I am driving downhill, the trailer may begin to push.
This produces a strong side to side force – divergence. My trailer will begin to sway from
side to side. Push is divergent. When the trailer begins to push us, experts advise us to
accelerate our car in order to re-establish pull. Pull is convergent. The trailer will
straighten out and we can congratulate ourselves for being good drivers. These then are
the two always co-existing fundamentals of Universe– Push and Pull – Compression and
Tension – Repulsion and Attraction.

Tensegrity

TrustMark 2001 by Timothy Wilken

2

Tensegrity Theory Explained
A more common example of atensegrityis a child's balloon. When we examine an inflated
balloon as a system, we find that the rubber skin of the balloon
continuously pullswhile
the individual molecules of air are
discontinuously pushingagainst the inside of the
balloon keeping it inflated. All external forces striking the external surface are
immediately and continuously distributed over the entire system. This makes the balloon
very strong. We all know how hard it is to break a good balloon with a blunt blow.

Molecules of air
discontinuously pushing
against the continuously
pulling rubber skin of the
balloon.

Tensegrity — a balance of
continuous pull and
discontinuous push.

The automobile tire is one of the strongest most durable inventions in the history of
humankind. And few of us are aware that it is a tensegrity. It is the power of tensegrity in
each tire that protects us from failure and blowout despite high speeds and long miles.

A tensegritythen is any balanced system composed of two elements – a continuous pull
balanced by discontinuous push. When these two forces are in balance a stabilized
system results that is maximallystrong. The larger the system the stronger the system.

Most of humanity knows of Fuller's discovery of the Geodesic Dome, but few realize that
geodesic domes are themselves tensegrities:

"The great structural systems of Universe are accomplished by islanded
compression and omnicontinuous tension. Tensegrity is a contraction of tensional

Tensegrity

TrustMark 2001 by Timothy Wilken

3

integrity structuring. All geodesic domes are tensegrity structures, whether the
tension-islanded compression differentiations are visible to the observer or
not.
Tensegrity geodesic spheres do what they do because they have the
properties of hydraulically or pneumatically inflated structures."2

We are all familiar with the geodesic dome at Disney World in Florida. The larger the
tensegrity the stronger it is. Theoretically there is no limitation to the size of a tensegrity.
Cities could be covered with geodesic domes

Planets could be contained within them. The only limiting factors are the amount of
materials and the degree of our technologies. As Harvard physician and scientist Donald
Ingber
explains:

"The tension-bearing members in these structures – whether Fuller's domes or
Snelson's sculptures – map out the shortest paths between adjacent members (and
are therefore, by definition, arranged geodesically) Tensional forces naturally
transmit themselves over the shortest distance between two points, so the
members of a tensegrity structure are precisely positioned to best withstand
stress. For this reason, tensegrity structures offer a maximum amount of strength

2R. Buckminster Fuller, SYNERGETICS—Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, Volumes I & II,
New York, Macmillan Publishing Co, 1975, 1979

Tensegrity

TrustMark 2001 by Timothy Wilken

4

for a given amount of building material."3

Biological Tensegrities
My own search for tensegrities began in 1980. As a trained physician, my attention first
turned to the human body.

I recognized two tensegritiesinstantly which are systems of the human body. The muscle-
skeletal system
is atensegrityof muscle and bone, the muscle provides continuous pull,
the bonesdiscontinuous push.The forces between the bones and muscles are held in
constant balance. This forms the basis for all of our physical mobility.

The central nervous system also functions as a tensegrity. The sensory-motor systemis a
tensegrity of sensory neurons and motor neurons. The sensory neurons always sensing
information – continuously pullingand the motor neurons only occasionally involved in
some motor action – discontinuously pushing.

3Donald E. Ingber, The Architecture of Life, Scientific American Magazine, January 1998

Tensegrity

TrustMark 2001 by Timothy Wilken

5

Finding Other Tensegrities
However, my focus was above the cellular level. I wanted to understand how individual
organisms related to each other and again I expected that the concept of tensegrity would
help us understand.

I was quite familiar with Alfred Korzybski's operational definitions of Plants, Animals
and Humans as Energy-binders, Space-binders, and Time-binders. (Read Korzybski's

discussion in Manhood of Humanity _Chapter 3, Classes of Life.)

So I then as I examined the three classes of life, I began looking for tensegrities.

Plants –the energy-binders have their primary relationship with the sun. Their leaves are
continuous pullingas they collect solar energy from the sky, but with the rotation of the
earth and changes in the weather the sun only discontinuously pushesits radiation on to
the leaves.

Animals – the space-binders are usually fighting or fleeing. They are generally limited to
two roles either as prey or as predator. The prey animals are continuous pulling
predators to them. While the predators are only occasionally hungry. They
discontinuously pushout seeking the occasional kill. Prey and predator must be in
balance to stabilize the ecosystem. The larger the ecosystem the more stable it is.

•Prey-Predatoris the space-binder tensegrity.

An associate of mine, Ms.Leann Roberts, recognized that even our human sexual roles as
Female and Male operate as a tensegrity. The femalewas continuouslymaking herself
attractiveto pull on her male, but the malewas only occasionally interested and
discontinually pushingtowards her for attention.

Humans – or time-binders have the power of understanding. We develop understanding
through education. The two roles of humans can then be seen to be Student and Teacher. I
am continuously learning – continuously pullingin new information, but I am only
occasionally teaching – discontinuously pushingout information to someone else.

Tensegrity

TrustMark 2001 by Timothy Wilken

6

•Student-Teacherthen is the time-binding tensegrity.

If we examine the three classes of life from the viewpoint of their relationships with each
other, we can see that:

Plants as the independent class of life have no relationship with each other. They mostly
ignoreeach other and form no tensegrity.

Animals as the dependentclass of life have a negative relationship with each other. They
form an adversary tensegritywhere the prey is continuously at risk of being hurtand the
predator is discontinuously hurting other.

Humans as theinterdependent class of life can have positive relationships with each other.
We can form a synergic tensegritywhere we are continuously being helpedand
discontinuouslyhelpingother.

Tensegrity