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The Quest for the Cosmic Donut 

One man's search for toroidal meaning

Wednesday, May 5 1999
Photo by Anne FishbeinA growing number of researchers and theorists from different fields appear to be converging on the image of the doughnut -- or "torus" -- as an archetype for fundamental processes at all different scales of Life. Don't believe it? Try a quick search on the Internet. Toss in keywords like torus, attractor, chaos, astrophysics, topology and you'll stumble on a number of sites -- names like the Meru Foundation (www.Meru.org), Dan Winter (www.danwinter.com), Arthur Young (www.arthuryoung.com), Roger Penrose (www.worldofescher.com/misc/penrose.html) and others. Plus stuff on Tokamaks, superconductors, toroidal magnetics . . . not to mention an awful lot of doughnut stores across the land.

In eight years of following the absurd, mysterious (and occasionally mystic) trail of the doughnut, I've gathered a large and snowballing collection of data and theory. All of which has led me to believe that there's something going on here of some significance -- and maybe a lot.

For me, it started back in 1991 when my best friend, Dan Joy, was talking in his sleep. Most of what he said was incomprehensible babble, but for two words, "tribal doughnut." Luckily his lover of the time was there to hear it. It was a great source of amusement for us, wondering just what a tribal doughnut might be. To extend the joke, we even took to naming ourselves after different flavors of doughnut (hence my nom de plume, Cinnamon Twist).

As I had already been looking for some cool conceptual rubric to publish a new zine under, I decided to adopt this admirably surrealist phrase as my own -- a perfect umbrella for a wacky mishmash of chaos theory, psychedelic spirituality and collage art.

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Then one day, in the process of assembling the first issue of Tribal Donut, somebody opened a book on magic we had floating around in the living room. The author suggested at length that the universe is doughnut-shaped. Fond as we were of cosmological speculation, this got our attention.

We were starting to suspect that something was up with this doughnut thing. And lo and behold, bookstore browsing one day in the Haight, I stumble upon a complete illustrated history of doughnuts, Sally Levitt Steinberg's The Donut Book, remaindered. As I scanned it on the way home, I found a whole chapter on what I now call "the theory of the doughnut," or just plain old "doughnutology." Steinberg quotes an article from The New York Times Science section:

"If space curves back on itself, doughnut-like, as Einstein contended, what occupies the space in the doughnut's hole and in the area beyond the outside rim?"

Shortly thereafter, a Zippy the Pinhead cartoon appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. It showed a doughnut floating in space. The universe according to Zippy was not only doughnut-shaped, it was also filled -- with lemon cream!

The batter began to thicken.

Next we find a reproduction of the cover of an old Rudy Rucker sci-fi novel, Spacetime Donuts, a story in which the characters invent a vessel that enlarges itself to the size of the universe, then reduces -- along the surface of a curved space-time doughnut, natch -- to the size of an atom.

Also reproduced is a page from a book by Arthur Young, inventor of the Bell Helicopter, called The Reflexive Universe. Young describes how he drew upon the torus as the inspiration for his theory that the evolution of life and consciousness, and process in general, can be divided into seven distinct stages, based on the seven colors required to define the topological contours of a torus (a sphere requires only four). Young comments, "The torus shape, which is also that of a vortex, occurs widely in natural phenomena: It is the shape of a magnetic field, of a tornado, and of eddies in water. And especially interesting is the fact that it is the only manner in which self-sustained motion can exist in a given medium."

Furthermore, Steinberg quotes another theorist: "The self, in a toroidal universe, can be both separate and connected with the rest of the universe. And the problem is the same for many selves which would constitute more holes; a hole for each but all connected."

Not least among the mind-boggling tidbits in Steinberg's brilliant but now out-of-print tome was a poster by a '60s conceptual artist and poet, Richard Kiersten, Mystical and Metaphysical Qualities of an Average but Unknown Donut. A few of his poster lines:

 

O donut hole

gateway to Satori

Meditation smoothing

the flow intuitively

knows Cosmic Donut

After long meditation

the words of donut

remembered on waking

 

Lastly, we learn that, according to Steinberg's research, the oldest known appearance of the man-made doughnut form is in China, a circular object called the Pi, sometimes made out of jade and decorated with dragons: "a symbol of eternal life and other ultimate concerns."

Suddenly, doughnuts were everywhere.

SOMEWHERE IN THE SAME SPACE-TIME COORDINATES, we had a 17-year-old punkette named -- believe it or not -- Universe crashing at our place by the Golden Gate panhandle. Like any proper 17-year-old gutterpunk with leopard-spot hair, our dear Universe couch-surfed and parasitized her way with us for a while, then disappeared owing some money. One day, however, she turned up with a set of three paperbacks by Ralph Abraham, one of the pioneers of chaos theory, in exchange for her past-due couch-rental fees. The books were filled with computer graphics of chaotic attractors in various shapes and sizes, many of them toroidal.

That was it. To find the mythic doughnut form reappear here -- that pushed this curiosity over the threshold into major intellectual obsession.

Around about then, still '91 some time, I had my first direct, experiential encounter with, shall we call it, the "doughnut vortex." Some friends in the Lower Haight had a cool party. I did a tab, and after listening to somebody talk enthusiastically for hours about something called "house music" that all the squatters in London were then listening to, I climbed with the hosts up a ladder onto the roof of the building. The city was sparkling in its magical majesty, as anybody who knows San Francisco understands. When the others went back down, I stayed up there alone and found myself moving back and forth in place, arms swinging from side to side. As the light of dawn oozed across the sky and the checkerboard roof surfaces of the city, I felt and saw myself at the center of an immense, barely visible swirling cyclone of energy. Flocks of birds flew back and forth across the sleeping city in great circular patterns, as if acknowledging through their own movements this energetic funnel that seemed to carry within it portals to every possibility, just out of reach. As my body moved, or was moved, within the flow of this etheric vortex, I felt simultaneously connected to the stars and my own internal cells.

At that precise moment I understood, without words, with my being, for the first time, the idea of the doughnut-vortex as an invisible geometric multidimensional organizing matrix, a circle squared, that flows and spirals in upon itself through its center to nothingness and back out again, reproducing itself in myriad forms at different sizes, from subatomic to galactic, as the fabric of Life.

I suppose we all need at least one religious-conversion experience in life, and that was mine. Facilitated by the right moment, the right place, a little pseudo­tai chi and a few micrograms of mind-altering molecules.

Not too long ago, I met with an L.A. local named Steven Rado, whose "aethro-kinematics" site I'd stumbled across in one Internet search (www.aethro-kinematics.com). He handed me a self-published tome of his alternative version of modern physics, whose cover features a doughnut radiating against an interstellar backdrop. Rado advocates the "etheric doughnut vortex" as the basic building block of the cosmos. I expected a theory like that out of someone like Rado. But when I wrote the first draft of this article, I predicted out loud that we wouldn't be seeing anything in Scientific American anytime soon. Only two weeks later, I was proved wrong -- in the April 1999 issue, the article "Is Space Finite?" by Jean-Pierre Luminet and colleagues, proposes that the universe is, in fact, shaped like a doughnut.

The quest is on.

  • One man's search for toroidal meaning

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