One of the special aspects of living in Montreal is the excitement of architecture that is present all around us.
Growing up in Montreal the real treat of my first metro ride is a sensation that I will never forget. The whoosh of the arriving train, the air rush as the cars sweep into the station. We are standing on granite pavers surrounded with a multitude of ceramic colors circus style as if we’re in a big concrete tent underground. Strangers around us, yet we all marveled at the new sights collectively proud that our city could become so exciting. Then there was Expo 67.
Now a part of the Montreal skyline as we gaze from any advantageous perspective, we see the outline of the curve of the old American Pavilion, the geodesic Bucky dome, named after architect Buckminister Fuller. The structure is composed of, ” continuous tension elements mixed with discontinuous compression elements. “Fuller calls his dome a tensegrity -tensional integrity structure.
Our brain too is a tensegrity structure.
At the mid-point of my sabbatical I had a strong fear that a critical aspect of our query had become: is the brain a tensegrity structure? In order for us to observe the appropriate shape changes we believed to be the real causative changes when a brain is decelerated rapidly, this basic question hit me. I got ahold of Donald Ingber’s email from Harvard. I wrote him a passionate email stating how his Scientific American article from 1996 had such an enormous impact on me, The Architecture of Life.
I asked Dr Ingber, because no where is it written that I have been able to find that a brain is a tensegrity structure. Amazingly I got my answer back from him within 10 minutes. Basically he responded, “How could it not be.” I felt blessed. I had just interacted with one of the finest brains on our planet to help confirm to me that Nature builds things in a very specific fashion, the tensegrity fashion.
There’s this crazy concept out there that cells are little balloons full of material, like marbles in a bowl all resting against each other. That’s what makes up our tissues. This concept is such a cartoon from the truth. We are having trouble to realize that there is, “a profound link existing between cell shape with cell function.” This is the tethering pull of brain scar tissue that caught the attention of Penfield. Penfield called it, brain pull. Tensegrity was only described in the early sixties from an architectural point of view. Penfield did not know about tensegrity but what he described in 1930 was tensegrity, the changing brain tissue strain that could provoke his patients to have seizures. That is the significance of Dr. Bill Feindel challenging me with the Penfield article. Feindel had indirectly said to me, “Figure out what Penfield was talking about and the truth of nature will reveal herself.”
Yesterday I was having a crap day not getting much accomplished. I have taken the step toward an early retirement starting this October 1, to really concentrate my energies on concussion research. I started at McGill on October 1, 1974, that’s 37 years ago. So all these thoughts were swirling around in my head. I am involved with my own version of tensegrity completely rebuilding new stairs in front of our house. So push and pull on granite surfaces mixes with my mind’s eye of push and pull inside my brain. Basically I’ve been frustrated since I still have, even though I am on sabbatical, the affiliation with the support staff union currently on strike for the first time in McGill’s history. McGill plays real hardball with its staff. I know, I went to conciliation court when my first son, Oriel was born, for an arbitration issue that became known as the Neuro 22. It took six years but we prevailed. McGill argued a six-foot pile of citations that had nothing to do with our plaint. We were taken advantage of as dual employees of both the Montreal Neurological Institute and as McGill employees. the arbitration question was: are we Neuro Institute staff or McGill staff? The night before I was given the opportunity to summarize my version of our plaint. I spent the whole night awake, walking around trying to come up with an analogy of our predicament that would stick in the judges’ mind. This is what I discovered.
Depending on your perspective if you were standing on Montreal watching a person float by in a canoe on the north part of the fleuve St-Laurent, you might have the impression that they are part of the Neuro’s Institute staff contingent. If you happened to look in the opposite direction on the south part of the fleuve St-Laurent, you might see a person who appears to be from the McGill staff contingent. However, like the fleuve St-Laurent, the river starts as one mass of body, diverges around the island of Montreal then comes together as the same river. So depending on your perspective you could be mistaken, but the reality is you start and end in the same river, which is your employer McGill University. Ten years after we won our cause the McGill legal counsellor quoted this recitation from her memory to me at a chance lunch meeting. She emphasized with, “When we heard your river analogy we knew we had lost the essence of our defense, the analogy was too strong for the judge not to grab it for his decision.”
You have to get an image of McGill. It’s a massive ship plowing through a daily journey toward the event horizon of light and truth. That’s the spin they would have us believe. But I’ve been cut off completely from my use of the internet, my McGill email. It’s like they treat their employees as subversive agents. So if you want to make the impression of being collegial that is not the tactic I would use. So to get around this internet cut, God Bless Nikoo and Dr Sam who backed up all my files onto a portable hard drive so that I could get access to my scratching thoughts.
Back to tensegrity.
Despite the crap day I still managed my late daily PubMed dash of inquiry. I selected the key words: tensegrity and bone, nine articles popped up with this boolean search. One of the citations basically confirms my line of thinking about the importance of tensegrity. The authors are a mix of Italians from Dentistry, Histology, Department of Otorhino-Dental-Opthalmologic and Cervicofacial Sciences, Departments of Experimental and Internal Medicine from the University of Parma, Italy. This review article is titled: Life on the wire: on tensegrity and force balance in cells published in ACTA BIO MED 2005; 76; 5-12. The authors are Carlo Galli, Stefano Guizzardi, Giovanni Passeri, Guido Maria Macaluso, and Renato Scandroglio. Forgive me if I shamelessly pull phrases from their article, its like reading from my own impressions.
The article cites Donald Ingber, “Ingber and colleagues first hypothesized that the cell structure is actually based on tensegrity architecture, that is, the cytoskeleton is formed by compression resistant components and tensional elements.”
Scientists have studied the biochemical pathways within cells extensively. However, in the primal ocean, in the primal atmosphere, going back a billion years in time or more, “living organisms have evolved in the presence of mechanical forces.”
Like I mentioned earlier, cells have been depicted as, ” ..a semi fluid membrane containing a jelly cytoplasm.” That’s very similar to what I wrote earlier, ” cells are little balloons full of material, like marbles in a bowl all resting against each other.”
“It is widely accepted that cell functions are regulated by mechanical forces, which influence cell differentiation, proliferation and gene expression.” Tensegrity is the link between “physical forces and biochemical responses.” Tensegrity allows the observer to explain a multitude of the cells properties plus the capacity, ” to predict some of their complex behaviors.”
Now compare the description of tensegrity as the balance between compression with tension to the words of Dr. Penfield’s 1930 article. “If increase of a pre-existing strain produces an attack it may well be that the pre-existing strain itself is an important factor in the etiology of spontaneous convulsions.”
Where to see architectural tensegrity in Montreal?
Climbing the back of the Olympic Tower in Montreal is a specialized train, that follows the curving sweep of the tower. Once inside the viewers platform at the top allows an observer to gaze down at the multitude of cables holding the vast Olympic stadium’s suspended roof in place. The cables afford the observer to witness the balanced stretched membrane weight. If the Olympic Stadium can be imagined to be a massive single cell, like a neuron, for example, these cables are the tension-strut elements to the exterior surface of the nucleus of the cell. We can see these cables as if compression elements interacting with tension elements. The difference being in the cell, the tensegrity shapes of the cells can sense themselves, and change their shape. That is the majestic capacity of tensegrity shape sensing, shape networking like a cell phone mesh linked system performing at the cellular level.
Montreal has the tensegrity dome of Buckminister Fuller’s as the static symbol of life performing on its own generating networks that are based on tensegrity shape sensing at the evolutionary base of life’s architectural tool box of self assembly.
Here are the authors summation of tensegrity: “Several studies seem thus to propose a hierarchical tensegrity structure for organisms at different size scales, with a sort of fractal perspective, in which a tensegrity structure is integrated within a larger and more complex structure possessing a tensegrity structure itself, creating a self maintaining and self balancing organism, in biochemical and mechanical equilibrium with the surrounding environment.”