“During a meeting with mathematicians in Budapest four years ago, I was asked ‘what simulation software do you use?’,” relates Prof. (emeritus) Michael Burt. “I told them, ‘this is my software’ and pointed to my head and fingers.”
Prof. Burt defines himself as an analogue, not digital, type of person. When he needs a computer he turns to his wife, Tamara. “In opposition to mathematicians, and even in contrast to many geometricians, I have been endowed with good spatial vision. I see the geometric shape in my imagination and immediately draw it, on paper, very precisely.
“As in other knowledge areas, in the field of geometry we are also brainwashed. We grew up with Euclidean geometry, and it is very hard for us to grasp any other geometric concept. Today, however, it is clear that Euclidean geometry does not explain the world completely and comprehensively.” And indeed, in his Masters’ thesis Burt, taking exception to Euclidean geometry, executed the first mapping of its kind in the world of a polyhedral (usually three-dimensional polygons, with planar faces and sides). His thesis was so revolutionary and advanced that the examiners – among who were the three professors, the late Avia Hashimshony (Faculty dean), David Yitzhaki (dean of the Faculty of Civil Engineering) and Ari Zabotinsky, dean of the Faculty of Mathematics) – asked that the thesis be recognized as a doctoral dissertation. Thus “Micha” became Dr. Michael Burt.
His Life’s Battles
Prof. Burt was born in the Ukraine in 1937. His father and his stepfather were killed in World War II. His mother married a third time – this time a Polish refuge and ardent Zionist, with whom the family moved to Poland and as a result came on aliya to Israel afterward. “My mother had to be strong to survive,” said Prof. Burt in an interview with him held recently.
Prof. Burt does not talk a lot about his life in the army, but an article this year in the army magazine “Bamahane” told about the two distinguished service awards that he received – one for his part in taking out a Jordanian military position during the Six Day War and the second for stopping the Egyptians, almost single-handedly, during the attack on the “Hamutal” position (after being injured while extracting wounded soldiers). In the entire history of the state of Israel only six people have been awarded two distinguished service awards. Prof. Burt is one of these – and the only one who received the awards for his activities as a reserve soldier.
The Periodic Table
“I am very pedantic about formulas,” warns Prof. Burt. “In everything else I am anti-pedantry, but with formulas I cannot stand inaccuracies.” This is the reason he is not prepared to compromise about general descriptions of his work, and insists on a level of exactness that is liable to make it difficult for a normal reader to understand all the details. As a rule, Prof. Burt deals with spatial structures. In more concrete terms, this means “morphological research about spatial networks and partitioning of spaces.” He has devoted a great deal of effort to researching polyhedrons. In 1974 he published, together with colleagues from the Technion (Wachman and Kleinman), a type of “index” of infinite hyperbolic polyhedrons, and the famous geometrician Branko Grüenbaum ruled that it was the most comprehensive collection in the field. “Over the years I created a ‘periodic table of the polyhedral universe,’ which is basically similar to Mendeleev’s periodic table, and in 1996 I published it.” In 2002 the editor of the International Journal of Space Structures approached him to ask for a paper on the subject. “I laud you for being so brilliant,” wrote the editor, and presented his request. But Prof. Burt was busy and could not make time for it. After a number of years the journal’s editor changed and the new editor, Rene Motro, approached him with the same request.
Prof. Burt answered the challenge and today he is diligently working on the paper for the journal. Not that he doesn’t have any complaints: “This is sidetracking me, taking me away from the main area that has been my focus of interest for the last six years – structural sponges and spatial networks.”
Theoretical Depth and Applied Thinking
Prof. Burt’s theoretical work has various potential realizations. He developed his structural ideas and applied them, for instance, in solving the “energy towers” envisaged by Prof. Dan Zaslavsky of the Technion – a system for creating wind energy that is transformed into electrical energy. “I use the theoretical ideas a lot in architectural applications. Unfortunately, we as architects undergo brainwashing – deification of the application. When speaking about theory in the field of architecture, one generally refers to the history of the field or to the ‘theory of town planning’ and the like. This is not enough. It is important that we teach more morphology. It is very important that theoretical activity has more depth, and in any case, new applications will spring from it.”
The Maritime Option
One of these ideas was a final project for an undergraduate: an artificial island opposite the Carmel. “The sea is the future space, as Ben-Gurion said. The sea is not the border of Israel but rather its continuation, and the maritime option is a possible and needed answer for the predicted population increase in Israel. This is an option that will be realized at the end of the day – either through intelligent planning or in spite of our reluctance, by the sheer force of reality, and it is obvious that the first option is the preferable one.
“The population in Israel has been growing continually, and by the end of the century 18 million people are expected to be living here. Of these, 75% will live in the coastal region. In other words, the population on the coastal strip will be 150% and the building density will triple.
“Israel’s population has grown at the rate of a Third World Country, but requires standard Western land and resources. The result is a rapid end to useable territory and the only solution is to manipulate the space – from the micro level (the person in an apartment), through to the regional level (e.g., flight of the ‘real estate refugees’ from the center to Haifa) and up to the national level. And given that the land reserves are limited, the sea is the future.” In Prof. Burt’s estimation, the maritime option could house 3 million people.
As early as 1969 Prof. Burt, in the Biennale in Paris, presented a plan for an underwater city based on polyhedral structures. In the last few years he has planned a breakwater with a sponge structure whose effectiveness was proven in an experiment run in cooperation with the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructures. An additional concept that he has espoused is the building of a floating, mobile “Olympic city” that is a network of modular structures that could be loaned to whichever city is host the Olympics. Among the structures: a floating Olympic stadium seating 150 thousand people (in Sydney there were only 110 thousand seats).
“Just like parents don’t build their children a wedding hall when they get married, there is no reason for every country to build a new Olympic Village. It is ridiculous from an economic perspective. But there is also the social aspect: I assert that the Olympic movement creates discrimination – since most countries in the world (and most have access to the sea) cannot compete for the honor of hosting these mega-events, including the Olympics.”