In 1936, the equation wasn’t yet common knowledge and it was still decades before you could look things up on a search engine. If you forgot something or had a gap in your understanding, sometimes you still needed to “phone a friend.” The best and most efficient design for information retrieval still required you to know people who knew things. Isamu Noguchi wired his friend Buckminster Fuller, an admirer of Einstein, to ask if he knew it.
Fuller’s reply to Noguchi—a five-sentence, 264-word Western Union telegram—is a model of how to be wildly rambling and tightly precise at the same time. The designer-engineer and not-yet-visionary messes with the physicist’s equation to answer the artist’s question. In his own way, Fuller redesigns, clarifies, compresses and complicates Einstein in response to Noguchi.
We take the bare bones of this episode to be a kind of methodological exemplar for the problem of how to answer questions like are we human? or how to be human? and variations thereof. What else can you do when you have to respond to a question with an answer that was till just now at the tip of your tongue?
Fuller’s response is the kind of answer that we suspect that the Vikram would have had to offer twenty-five times to his mentor and tormentor, the goblin Betaal (whose name means “out of time,” pun intended): one for each time Betaal posed a riddle, the solution for which would free Vikram from the task of having to carry the outside-of-time being as he sojourned in the world’s charnel house.
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