Lazy reading, the World Cup & Buckminster Fuller

• ~900 words • 4 minute read

Earlier today I read an excerpt from Daring Fireball about the iconic soccer ball design most of us here in the U.S. probably associate with soccer (Translation: football). In the excerpt the author linked to an article on Mental Floss from 2013 about the design/shape — a spherical polyhedron, for the record — and added his own commentary:

Can’t believe that great NYT piece on the history of World Cup ball design didn’t mention that it was Fuller who designed that iconic pentagon/hexagon ball.

That seemed peculiar to me too! The Fuller being referenced here is Buckminster Fuller. It seemed like a peculiar oversight and a peculiar thing to not be a more widespread, commonly-known fact.

When I pulled up his Wikipedia page I found this factoid oddly absent. There's plenty to read about his infamous geodesic domes and generous application of his (Not a typo. Truly his. He invented it.) word  Dymaxion to... everything. All of the quirky Buckyisms and reminders that I should really read more books about and/or by this man, but nothing about designing a soccer ball.

So I reread the passage from the Mental Floss article a few times.

But the ball most commonly seen today—the one with black and white pentagons and hexagons—was first designed in the 1960s by architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose forte was designing buildings using minimal materials. Previously, leather soccer balls consisted of 18 sections stitched together: six panels of three strips apiece. The soccer ball Fuller designed stitched together 20 hexagons with 12 pentagons for a total of 32 panels. Its official shape is a spherical polyhedron, but the design was nicknamed the “buckyball.”

The more I read it and tried to parse it the more  it started to sound like a half-researched paper I'd've written in college, particularly in the closing paragraph:

Fuller’s design earned a spot in molecular immortality. In 1996, Rice University scientists Harold Kroto, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley earned a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering a spherical molecule with the formula C60 that they named Buckminsterfullerene. The molecule is made of (you guessed it) 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons.

If you read about Buckminsterfullerene you'll find that the molecule seems to be the thing that garnered the nickname buckyball due to resemblance to Bucky's geodesic domes. Soccer balls, in-turn, bear a remarkable — if not freakishly identical — resemblance to the molecular structure, but no such comparisons could've really been made between 1970 (when the ball design was introduced) and 1985 (when the molecule was discovered and named). It seems certain that no one ever called the iconic ball design — the Adidas Telstar — a "buckyball."

So Buckminster Fuller didn’t design it. And I'm not the only person who noticed this — an update was posted to that same Daring Fireball article later in the day. Confusingly, if you read the Wikipedia page about soccer balls it does say Buckminster Fuller invented the design but the source credited to this tidbit is the Mental Floss article!

In the grand scheme of things maybe it's not so big a deal, but it's troubling. The original piece just reeks of click bait and SEO junk. The title (Notice the title doesn't even completely jive with what was written. A soccer ball is not entirely composed of hexagons! But I bet 'Why is a soccer ball made of hexagons?' is a common search query in Google.)  is likely a common query that was researched before the thing was even written. Some cursory research on Wikipedia was done and the notes reassembled in a way that seems coherent enough and appropriately science-y for Mental Floss, but not in a way that holds up to scrutiny.

To be clear: I'm not intending to rake the author of the Mental Floss article over the coals for this. I'm 99% sure I've done the exact same thing here on this blog or other areas of my life. Mostly I'm intrigued with how quickly and widely a simple misunderstanding or misinterpretation can spread.

We’re all too busy to check. It's trickle-down lazy reading, assuming the wisdom of crowds will somehow fix these sort of things overtime. This one though sat for nearly a year and nobody in the comments seemed to point out that Fuller didn't actually design the thing until today, no doubt to the influx of traffic from the same article I found it through and the author's correction.

Perhaps I'm looking at this wrong and I shouldn't find it alarming. The inaccuracies did get noticed and sort of corrected... Maybe it's a natural extension of Andy Warhol's famous 15 minutes of fame quip: in the future anything you say can be true for 15 minutes.

2016 Updates:

If you're looking for a great Buckminster Fuller resource, I recommend Artsy's profile. It's a great website in general, but I'm also happy to link to and promote it because of their robust commitment to open-source software and API.

Also, looking back at how I ended this blog post — in the future anything you say can be true for 15 minutes — it feels eerily prescient today, October 17th, 2016, in the midst of the watching Donald Trump's campaign self-immolate.

2020 Updates:

I stopped in to fix a typo and reread the article. Man alive, if past me only knew what was in store.