Man in Universe


Through cosmic timescales, humanity has voyaged in its vessel Earth, navigating by the star-charts of knowledge. Now we enter unmapped seas, led on by curiosity’s compass. Though frail, our minds pilot mighty technologies, taming invisible forces to reshape our world. If we attune to the celestial rhythms resonant in matter’s deepest reality, we may yet fulfill our odyssey’s purpose—to be worthy stewards of the living jewel suspended in the eternal darkness.

Published in Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends, and Needs, Phase 1, Document 1.


At the outset, it is imperative that we assume man, the Earth, and the universe of which this forms a part, as our prime frame of reference. This fundamental relationship is our only relative constant. From consideration of such a comprehensive framework, we may proceed to those broad Earth/man interactions and specific patternings which constitute our present position in time. I have defined ‘universe’ as “the aggregate of all men’s consciously apprehended and communicated experiences.” This operational definition allows us to consider man and universe as a manageable finite whole, about which all we can say and know is encompassed within the accumulated experience of all men—all recorded knowledge in the arts and sciences, all the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of all men, which constitute the intricate fabric of man’s total evolutionary development on Earth. We can comprehend this whole because it is, in essence, the macrocosmic version of each individual life experience. We are all, in effect, miniature universes. Each personal life and experience is a micro-universe.

In the overview of man/universe as the sum total of all of man’s aggregated and recorded experience, each facet of this ‘experience’ is then a modification of universe. The velocity and magnitude of our possible modifications has only recently come within our ken, as we begin to glimpse, for example, the overall intricacy of some of the Earth’s ecological balances. Our recent ‘experiences’ range in scale from changing a local climate by devastation of a forest, ‘smogging’ a city, increasing the percentile of radioactive material in the atmosphere, to creating miniature artificial suns and moons.

Our view of the dynamic equilibrium of these balances has only come about in the past hundred years as we began to grasp the concept of universe as a total energy process—entirely and ceaselessly in relative motion. As defined out of our experience this process is finite, and, as energy may neither be lost or gained within the system, all energy patterning occurs in cycles of regenerative transformation. Man (as integral with universe) exhibits congruence with such patterning, and all his environment transactions (whether building, sleeping or plowing a field) form part of the total energy system. As all energy processes and events are thus in dynamic relation to all others, the fundamental pattern of these interactive relations extends through the immediately visible, or median, level of ordinary everyday life outwardly to the macroscopic level of the galaxies and inwardly to the micro and sub-microscopic levels of molecular events. We may now apprehend such vastly separated relations not merely as isolated happenings at different rates and sizes, but as related patterns occurring in various degrees of relative mobile frequency to one another.

It is apparent from this view that the nature of the whole system is such that the full range of an operating pattern may not be perceptible to us at the local level of its visible occurrence. The overall pattern is ‘synergetic’ in that the behavior of the whole may not be fully deduced from local examination of any of its sub-system components.

That the whole is not merely the sum of its parts is particularly evident to the chemist, who observes that the behavior of separated out, localized, elements never accounts for the associated behavior of the prior existent chemical complex.

This is important for us to bear in mind as we examine man’s local patterning in his use of national resources, in his production and consumption cycling, and his local systems of ecological control.

The ‘local’ preoccupations of man with his immediately visible sub-cycles of the larger universal patterns has been largely responsible for the great lags and deadlocks which have occurred in his history. He tends to ‘back up into his future’, with his vision circumscribed by his own immediate and apparently most urgent priority. The view of the larger pattern obtaining removes the local ‘insecurity’ and can demonstrate vigorously that the only way in which to deal with the local problem is in terms of the whole—i.e., in our present series of world tensions—it has become evident that ‘national’ security may only be part of man’s universal security.

Man on Earth

Man, as we know him, is a comparative late-comer in the history of the Earth and tenuous film of life which its surface has supported. In certain respects he is one of the most fragile of living creatures—yet, in the manner of his explosive appearance on the scene, and the ways in which he has profoundly altered the environment within which he developed, he is the most powerful organism to have emerged so far.

This ‘power’ to which we will often refer, (and indeed upon which this entire report is a commentary) is not visible physical power, but rather the wholly invisible power of the brain. Linnaeus, the eminent Swedish botanist, first gave the name homo sapiens to our present human strain. The wisdom (or “sapien”) referred to is not so developed in the traditional sense as we might desire, but as intellect or brain power it is awesomely demonstrable.

Yet the difference between man and other organisms seems still only a matter of degree—of relative weight of brain, perhaps, and the number of its surface convolutions—but it is a marginal difference which is sufficient to alter significantly the way in which man has so far evolved. This difference has served to provide two main characteristics which set him apart from all other creatures. One is the ability to transmit his consciously accumulated knowledge from one generation to another and across many generations, and the other to externalise his organic functions into extent fabricated from his material environment—his tools. These features, combined, have enabled man, in spite of his relatively puny physical stature, to adapt himself to his environment so that he has been able to survive severe climatic and other changes, and to spread swiftly out into every corner of the Earth.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Time Scale: Earth/Man
Figure 2
Figure 2: World Population of Mature Creatures & Plants. Relative Organic Population Figures from World Balance Sheet.

His capacity to transcend the temporal limits of his own life span by communicating his thought and feelings through many generations has given him an unique ‘continuous’ quality. Though his physical body may be entirely changed through cell renewal many times in his life and eventually be dissolved into its constituent parts1. In the sense referred to even the individual may be ‘continuous’, and the overlapping and interweaving of generations of communicating individuals make man, potentially, an organism which never sleeps, dies, or forgets.

The prime condition of man’s survival, so far, has been this combined capacity to draw upon his own, and others’ past experience to deal with the present, and to project this experience into provision for future contingencies—to anticipate and plan his future! The tools, whether words or stone axes, with which he gained direct survival advantage over other creatures, and through which he investigated his environment, evolved gradually in relation to this cumulative ordering of trial and error experience. We may now call this ‘setting in order of experience’ science, and see clearly how it promoted the development of the tool of technical advantage.

Apart from language—which one may term the first industrial tool, as it involves a plurality of men and is a prior requirement for the integrated effort of many men—early tools were local hand craft tools. They could be made and used by one man or few men and could evolve from the limited set of experiences and materials of a geographically limited group of men, e.g., a dug out canoe. The major environ tools of our day, like the airline or telephone system, can only be made and operated by the coordinated effort of a great many men. They require drawing upon the material resources of the entire world for their creation, and they comprise within themselves the integrated experience, the science, which is drawn from the whole of man’s universal history. They are comprehensive systems rather than local, and function most efficiently when organised in their largest universal patterns or networks. All of our other comprehensive tool network systems, like electrical power and communications grids, operate on the same principles. Their optimum efficiency networks may no longer be contained within national boundaries and the necessary development amortization has gradually gone outside the capacities of private enterprise, and begins to transcend any one national capacity to wholly operate and maintain2. The above gives some of the essential differences between craft and industrial tools.

When we speak generally about technical advantage we refer to the ability to convert energy into work. This channeling of natural forces into preferred use patterns is basically the organic life process—the energy conversion cycle. We absorb energy in one form and transform it for internal and external usage. Part goes towards maintaining the internal metabolics of the organism and part is available for interenvironment transactions; e.g., at the primitive level, the mobility necessary to seek out more food or energy sources, physical work to extract energy, e.g., chopping wood, planting, harvesting corn, etc. The latter may be referred to as the mechanical energy we have available from our food/energy intake which has been calculated at an average 20% efficiency, i.e., from our 100% caloric intake we can put out a measurable 20% in physical work.

But in the case of man this overall physical efficiency rating in no way reflects his basic survival measure. Brain power is incalculable, and from the earliest times man has consciously created technical advantages which extended his own energy conversion capacity. The throwing stick, lever and fulcrum, and the hoe are amongst such early extensions. But for many centuries man relied greatly on his own muscle and that of the draught animals he trained to his use. His earliest physical and technical extensions were thus relatively low energy converters and sufficed only for immediate or not too distant requirements.

The leisure, or re-investible time necessary for the further development of civilization could only be had when sufficient energy surpluses were available, which freed individuals from immediately essential work. Such surpluses came from the rise of agriculture and irrigation and the evolution of technical advantages which gave better performance for human energy invested in their creation and operation. Agriculture was more ‘efficient’ than food gathering or hunting in rendering larger surpluses to store against future need, which in turn allowed more forward planning, for larger periods of man’s activities. But the first high energy converters were the sailing ships. Turning wind energy into a preferred pattern use, these did not diminish the energy available to man as food. They could carry much more in one trip than many men or animals, and they could run 24 hrs in the day.

With the sailing ship, whose origins have been set in the Far East at dates earlier than any comparable Western vessels, man for the first time came to control large amounts of power which was independent of plant life and the numbers of people available to use it. The evolution of the great early sea empires, e.g., Crete, and their attendant high yield technologies has been obscured by local land histories and the secrecy practiced by the early maritime masters.

We have sketched out this picture of man’s early environ relations as its comments suffice for the thousands of years right up into the nineteenth Century. In referring to the time scale of man on Earth given in this introductory section, one might quote the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee, “All chronicled history is contemporary history3!”

The explosion of intellectual ferment and outpouring of ideas and inventions came very suddenly in our recent past. The fusion of Eastern and Western knowledge occurring in the Ancient World is almost simultaneous with the European Renaissance in our bird’s eye view, and both are attendant on the integrated complexity of advantage which had slowly accumulated in the preceding millennia. The histories of the great sea and land empires may be traced out in relation to the mercantile quest for deposits of the earth’s resources unevenly dispersed around the globe. Not only for the precious metals but for the equally important iron, copper and tin ores, for the dyes, spices, etc. The knowledge accumulated in all these various large scale journeys and transactions men began to be potently inventoried and tallied with the measurable behaviors of physical universe during the Renaissance.

Figure 3
Figure 3: History of man’s ecological sweep out.

Picture one may be called “The first half million years were the hardest.” Ignorant and isolated, man was unaware of other men and of the potentials of friendship, integrated resources, and mutual survival. The first picture is of a micro-bespeckled, enormous sphere, an arithmetical isolation, a physical impasse, escapable only through intellect, instrumented through science.

Picture two shows man linking up resource and survival by lines of transport and communication. Wealth is generated astronomically. Standards go up. Health and life expectancy tend to double. But in 5,000 years the velocity of integration and increased energy flow leads to an arterial cloggage and explosive high pressure. The two-dimensional picture is a neat linear equation, fulfilled—and again occurs an impasse escapable only by intellect.

Picture three shows the intellectual answer—a new volumetric and dynamic dimension: wireless, trackless, omnidirectional. It is a moving picture. Everywhere its physical facilities move with ever-increasing velocity and synchronized knowledge, allowing man to choose when and how and where he wishes to move. He specifically controls his own accelerations and decelerations.

From this time on the major changes in our present world all have some common origin in the revolution in thought which began in Europe, in the 1600s—with the systematic derivations of scientific principles from direct observation and measurement of natural processes. Both the date and the discipline mark the end of one kind of culture of long established dominance, and the beginning of a new and quite unprecedented form. Since then, virtually every notion and cherished belief about the nature of the physical universe—of society and of man’s place and function in it which had gone to make up the older culture—has been slowly eroded, modified and in some cases swept away.

At first the material changes wrought in society by new discoveries in the sciences were relatively slow, but they gained rapid momentum when such discoveries began to be fully applied to industrial technology about one hundred years ago. The world we now live in, with its particular qualities of speed, mobility, mass production and consumption, rapidity of change and communication, is the latest phase of this development. It has no historical precedent as a cultural context. Man can now see further, move faster, produce more than ever before. Technical devices like the high speed camera, radio telescope, the jet and the rocket, etc., have extended the range of our sensory experience far beyond that ever dreamt of. Besides enormously enlarging the extent of the physical world available to our direct experience in an ordinary lifetime, such new tools provide us with what is virtually an extension of our environment. Through them we extend our psychic mobility. We can telescope time, move through history, span the world through visual and aural means in a variety of unprecedented ways.

The most abrupt and fundamentally important of the transitions which lead up to our present world developed in the sciences in the late nineteenth century and became first evident in the technology of World War I. Experimental science began to extend its measurable range into the invisible sub-sensorial world of atomic, molecular and ‘radiation’ phenomena. This paced the accelerated technology, which began to deal in micro-tolerances in its new lathes and machine tools, and in the new invisible behaviors of high-strength alloying. We are still wrestling in much of our present day thinking with the difficulty of orienting towards this tremendous breakthrough into the knowledge of a world in which our major physical phenomena transactions are nonvisible and untouchable.

Figure 4
Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 5: Relationship of man to electromagnetic spectrum.

The visual pattern recognition capacity of the eye lens and correlated brain function has been progressively extended and amplified through the simple magnifying lens to the microscope and telescope, through the camera lucida and obscura to the photographic and television camera, and towards sophisticated systems which record, amplify, and relate complex visual and aural patterns of great magnitude.

This development also encompasses the ways in which man has widened his ‘sensorial’ monitoring of the electromagnetic spectrum through instrumentation. He can now ‘see’ into the infra-red, ultra-violet and Xray frequencies, ‘hear’ in the radio frequencies, and may more delicately ‘feel’ through electronic metering than with his most sensitive skin area.

Figure 6
Figure 6: Man’s increasing vertical mobility.

Better than 99 percent of modern technology occurs in the realm of physical phenomena that is sub or ultra to the range of human visibility, e.g., the dynamically operating functions of the transactions of information processing within the black boxes of visibly wired static circuitry, are entirely invisible. The invisible transactions sometimes result in visual transformation of our environment. We can see the telephone wires but not the conversations taking place therein. We can see the metal parts of airplanes or rockets gleaming in the sun, but there is nothing to tell us how relatively strong those metals are in comparison to other metals. Aluminum alloys as structural metals are commercially available which vary in strength so widely that some varieties are twice as strong, some four times as strong, and some eight times as strong as one class of aluminum. None of these varieties can be told from the other by the human senses, not even by scientists skilled in metallurgy, when unaided by instruments. The differences are invisible.

World society has throughout its millions of years on Earth made its judgments upon visible, tangible, sensorially demonstrable criteria. We may safely say that the world is keeping its eye on the unimportant visible 1% of the historical transformation while missing the significance of the 99% of overall, unseen changes. Forms are inherently visible and forms no longer can “follow functions” because the significant functions are invisible. That era of essentially visible “modernism” is over. The architecture of superficial “functionalism” is meaningless and dead. What usually we speak of as our everyday world is a stage set with visible props which are easily manipulated by ignorant people to exploit the equal ignorance of others. The unreliable, uninformative and often deliberately misinformative scenery of that stage is soon to be radically altered due to the inexorable trendings in the sub or ultra visible alterations of man’s relationship to universe.

The alterations are being made by scientists who are specialists, each preoccupied only with his special local evolutionary event. There are very few men today who are disciplined to comprehend the totally integrating significance of the 99% invisible activity which is coalescing to reshape our future. There are approximately no warnings being given to society regarding the great changes ahead. There is only the ominous general apprehension that man may be about to annihilate himself. To the few who are disciplined to deal with the invisibly integrating trends it is increasingly readable in the trends that man is about to become almost 100% successful as an occupant of Universe.4

This necessary reorientation of thought in terms of invisible but coherent universal patterns is particularly required in our ‘resources’ thinking. We have included in this section a chart of the relative abundances of the elements in universe, in man, and in the crystalline, gaseous and liquid envelopes of the Earth. In the pages which follow there is also a chronological table of the discovery, i.e., acquisition, by science of the 92 elements. Taken together these furnish an acute commentary on man’s ‘resource’ position.

The elements are our fundamental inventory of the components with which the universe is constructed. They are not things but patterns, and are complimentary to one another like the gears of a watch—the gears of the universe.

Figure 7
Figure 7: Earth surface per capita.
Figure 8
Figure 8: Relative abundance of the elements.

This inventory then is our universal stockpile of re-associable components, but it is a stockpile which does not become ‘used up’, as the event patterns of which it is composed are simply associated for a particular purpose, have a use cycle in this purpose form and are then dis-associated into other preferred pattern uses. The complete table of the elements represents the net physical wealth of all men—and it is potentially inexhaustible when related to the maximising ‘more for less’ trending of the industrial process which progressively extracts increased performance per unit of invested ‘material’, or associated element pattern. The crystalline envelope of the Earth represents our gross tonnage reserve and its largely made up of iron, aluminum and other minerals in varying proportions. The ocean envelope contains additional reserves, and recent deep sea ‘mining’ has begun to tap the huge potential of the ocean bed and its deposited modes of metallic ores.

To complete this picture of the overall inventory of realizable wealth we should note the breakthrough into ‘molecular engineering’. Materials research has gone far below the sensorially measurable surface qualities and, as ‘molecular science’, may now ‘design’ materials to particular specification.

Design science therefore, in our terms, must operate in a truly scientific manner which is integrative of all the present capacities of this great wealth inventory. In the transformative range of chemistry, physics and biology and their associated disciplines and technologies, the terms organic, inorganic and synthetic are as expendable as the time hallowed design slogans, ‘form and function’ and ’truth to materials’. Architects have long built their visible module structures with no regard for the more cohesive sub-visible module patterns in their materials. Design science must go beyond the visible standards of Stone Age architecture—to taking the stone apart and, for example, upping tensile strengths to many thousand fold gains in tensile coherence. The inventory and relative abundance of all the re-associable elements are the raw materials of a new world architectural design science.

Figure 9
Figure 9: Total time spent in various activities by primitive, agricultural, and industrial man.


  1. Physical Dissolution—‘is not ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but relative pattern abundance.’ (see chart of relative abundances of elements in universe, Earth, and man)

  2. The Tel-Star communications satellite is a recent dramatic example of such international cooperative trending.

  3. Arnold Toynbee—address to Washington University, St. Louis, MO., USA, June 1963.

  4. The actual readability of our trending pattern of man’s potential success may be seen in the combined diagrammatic breakdown in this section of man’s increasing life expectancy over the years. Industrial man’s gain in years of re-investible time is approximately equal to the total life expectancy of man in early primitive periods.

Richard Buckminster Fuller

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