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Biotensegrity: The geometry of Anatomy

October 2, 2009


This is something I’m very interested in, its the study of tensional integrity (Buckminster Fuller) in biology. From an aesthetics point of view it would probably fit in the field of  dynamics – but I’m coming from the standpoint of evolutionary kinematic constraints. Essentially that the notion of our evolutionary movement can only conceivably  end up in our current form. Our wrists, shoulders, hips, spine etc can only work they way they work, because its the only way they can.

Now I’m not including ideas such as being double jointed etc, but from a general standpoint I find the ideas found in biotensegrity a sort of bridging of the mathematical  models we create in rigging and real world biology. We both end up with the same results – e.g. the spine in a tensegrity model and a mathematical one have the same limits, rotation spaces and constraints.

It is said that mathematics is a poor man’s representation of nature – but the fact that it can represent it with enough detail as being real its pretty exciting to me. Tensegrity i find is a beautiful connection between nature and maths.


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  1. October 3, 2009

    That’s a beautiful little piece, Charles.

    The word “biotensegrity” was coined by Dr. Stephen Levin ( The field includes tensegrity on a cellular level (pioneered by Ingber) and on a musculoskeletal level (pioneered by Levin). Tom Flemons, author of the piece you reference on, collaborates with Levin on his model-making.

    The implications of a moving tensegrity are very different from the stationary sculptures of Snelson. Levin notes that the non-hookean (nonlinear) stress/strain response of tensegrity is critical for nature because it’s far more efficient. Virtually all of today’s robots use a “levers and hinges” model for their movement; such designs will be eternally constrained in their mechanical efficiency. Roboticists are starting to mimic nature’s loosely-coupled structures; robots will eventually be able to “go with the flow”.

    The question I’ve seen nobody ask: when did nature first learn to use tensegrity for the gross structure of its creatures? As you note, the myriad advantages of tensegrity make it the clear choice for life. But these floating structures are a huge evolutionary leap from a stack of cells. My guess is that the Cambrian explosion is rooted in that exact leap, but I have no qualification to do anything but wildly speculate about that.

    One other piece of the puzzle is fascial tissue, the third fractal/pervasive network in our body. Thomas Myers has thought about this extensively; his paper “Spatial Medicine” should be quite inspiring. The Rolfers know fascial tissue better than anyone; it’s no surprise that Myers studied under Ida Rolf. His book “Anatomy Trains” is a fantastic text: a tensegrity-oriented mapping of the long lines of tension in our musculoskeletal network.

    I found your post through Achim Luhn (@xozzox on twitter).

  2. October 3, 2009

    Thanks Phil, That was a great reply

    I’ve only just started looking into tensegrity and its remarkable how it just seems to fit the models we build pretty correctly – they idea that nature evolved to use non-linear tension is amazing. And the fact that this tension model produces the same mathematical results, the same limits that mathematical models produce is incredible.

    I’ts as if these are the ground rules of nature, in every part from the cellular level all the way up to muscles, bones and tissue level.

    I will take a look a look at the paper you mentioned and the book.

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