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The egomaniac who had a positive impact

The architecture of Buckminster Fuller was unlikely inspiration for Donald Ingber

September/October 2015

Donald Ingber, 59, is the American bioengineer behind “organs on chips”, award-winning microchips that mimic the functions of human organs. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was an American inventor, designer and architect, best known for his geodesic domes

I didn’t know much about Fuller until I was an undergraduate, culturing cells in a cancer-research lab at Yale Medical School. I took a sculpture class because it was called “three-dimensional design”, and I felt that my own classes were teaching me that in nature everything is three-dimensional design: the double helix of DNA is what allows it to encode information; molecules that make your muscles contract are put together like intertwined helices…So I took this course and the first thing they had us do was go buy wood dowels and fishing line. The teacher said, “I want you to build three-dimensional structures by connecting the sticks and strings – but the sticks can’t touch one another, and they have to be stable when I come back.” And he left for three hours.

Most of us were scratching our heads, but I guess one or two people must have been aware of Fuller’s tensegrity – or tensional integrity – architecture. They connected the ends of the sticks and when they put the last string in, it pulled the whole thing open and it held its own shape. The teacher had a round tensegrity sculpture built with elastic strings, and when he flattened and released it, it leapt up off the desktop. It was just like the cells I was culturing, which spread flat on a dish, but rounded and bounced off when we passed them from dish to dish. It was 1975 and the first papers were coming out saying cells had an internal skeleton made of molecular filaments that generated tension. I went back to the lab where we were using a drug that caused the cells’ shape to change. I said to the postdoc I worked with, “Oh, the tensegrity changed.” He said, “What’s that?” and I said, “It’s like Buckminster Fuller architecture,” and he said, “Where’d you learn that?” and I said, “This art class.” He said, “Well – never say that again.”

But the more I read about Fuller, the more it was like he was explaining things that I saw in science but nobody else talked about – the idea of triangulation and force-balances, and nature building differently to man. He was an egomaniac, but he was always outside the box, questioning authority and pursuing visions. His ability to pursue alternative approaches that could have a positive impact on the world – that, I think, is inspiring. 

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