Retired physicist lives in eccentric abodes

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2003

Like a potter at his wheel, James Donally cups his hands as if holding something fragile. He's not shaping a vase, but explaining the logic in the contour of his abode an egg-shaped geodesic dome wrapped around a tree trunk on his three-acre compound east of Homer.

"It's a polynomial rotated like so. The mathematics is this normal vector for the surface. The struts go from one hub to another and intersect that, which tells me the angles and the lengths, of course," he says.

Uh, of course.

"There are 45 different lengths and 90 different angles," he continues, undeterred by the listener's quizzical look. "In a normal dome, there are three lengths to the struts."

He cut the lengths and angles himself with a table saw. Domes are "forgiving," he says. A degree or two doesn't make that much difference; you just deal with a bit of slop in the framework until you tighten all the bolts at the hubs.

In a conversation with Donally, it doesn't take long to realize he sees the world in physical relationships and in numbers and that he loves manipulating equations to see where they lead. Take a decades-long fascination with geodesic domes acquired in the early 1970s, factor in a career as a physicist and math instructor, mostly at the University of Alaska Anchorage, integrate more than 10 years of retirement, and you have at least a start on a formula for describing Donally's simple and rather eccentric lifestyle.

He began building geodesic domes for fun. At first, they were conventional. He found the necessary formulas for figuring out diameters, angles and strut lengths in "Dome Book." There are five conventional domes, three unconventional ones with a fourth one planned scattered across Don-ally's property. Together they make up the various rooms of a house, but they are separated by tens of yards.

One conventional dome is open-sided that he uses as a workshop. Here he has a table on which sits a small propane stove used to heat his tea and cook food. Plastic tubing delivers water. Electrical boxes bring juice to lights and other electrical devices.

Another is "zafued," squashed down from spherical like a zafu, a pillow used in Tibetan meditation ceremonies, he said. He uses it to cage the pheasants he raises.

Donally strolls over to another conventional dome, this one covered against the rain in layers of plastic sheeting.


Donally relaxes in a dome.

Photo by Hal Spence

"This is where I have all my junk," he said. "I just toss it in there blagh!"

"Blagh" is Donally's word word for unorganized.

"The tools are over there, and they're all blagh! Actually, that makes them less likely to be stolen. Somebody looks at that and says, 'That's just a bunch of blagh!'"

Standard domes aren't what fascinate Donally, however. His passion is for egg-shaped geodesics modeled after the egg of the killdeer, a kind of American plover, a shorebird that took to the Iowa cornfields, he said.

"It's a very successful bird. A lovely bird," he said.

First, it was the math of domes in general that attracted him, and then, the way a dome's shape could be altered by changing a few numbers.

Donally climbs the narrow stairs about six feet up to the triangular front door of one of the three unconventional structures. For a man of average stature, negotiating the stairs and doors in and out of the dome is relatively easy; it's more difficult for a larger person.

This dome, which is combination sun room and sitting room, is anchored to a central column, a "recycled" tree trunk buried four feet in the earth. It is almost entirely covered in clear plastic his conning tower, he calls it affording him a view of the surrounding landscape. It is very warm in the sunlight, he says, but on this cloudy day, it is cool.

Why egg shaped?

"Because I could," he answers matter of factly. Starting from a sphere, he altered the equations and wrote them into a computer program that spit out all the attendant angles and cuts to distort it into the egg shape.


Donally descends from one of his more elaborate domes.

Photo by Hal Spence

"The question was, 'Was it right?'" he says.

It was and it worked. The results resemble the huge knots that sometimes grow around the trunks of old trees.

The second egg, wrapped around another tree, serves as his computer room. It is more complete, with walls and clear plastic windows that do not open. On the lower floor are a chair and a television.

"I'll sit here and watch a video, or do tai chi or something," he says. "There's enough room. It's a kind of a den."

Negotiating the narrow ladder to the upper loft is a challenge. Here is a table, a deck lounger, a folding chair, a lamp and a space heater and little room for much else. This is where Donally spends time reading and writing.

He lives a thrifty life more by accident than design. It's a kind of spinoff of the way he has chosen to build on his land. Domes are naturally economic, he says.

"I liked the idea of building my own house, rather than having someone else do it."

He lives on a pension, built from the seven years he spent teaching mathematics at Anchorage Community Coll-ege, and 10 more with the University of Alaska Anch-orage, as well as a stint with the Alaska Department of Trans-portation before his teaching career.

A short walk across his compound brings Donally to the third of his egg-shaped structures. This one is around a live tree.

"I call this my womb," he said.


Donally makes tea in the kitchen area he has set up.

Photo by Hal Spence

It is tighter than the last one, a bit claustrophobic, yet cozy. Inside is a desk with a laptop. A snapshot of his daughter, Lisa, and granddaughter, Lucy, hangs nearby. His bunk is suspended from the curving wall by hinges and chains. On the blanket is a copy of Melvin Belli's "My Life on Trial."

Donally likes courtroom drama, John Grisham's in particular. And mysteries. He just finished "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote. He also reads popular scientific literature, like Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" and that of David Lindley, an astronomer, theoretical physicist and writer. He enjoys columnists Molly Ivans, Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd, of whom he commented, "She's so mean to "boy George," referring to the president.

He likes that presidential candidate retired Gen. Wesley Clark seems able to stay on message. He likes Howard Dean, too, but says the former Vermont governor has been "playing with nitroglycerine" in public comments lately.

He enjoys gospel music, as well as jazz and oldies.

"In the winter when it is dark and lonely, I don't spend a lot of time here," he said. "I'm in town (Homer) a whole lot. In the summer, I'm in here, but I'm also puttering around a lot."

Donally is an ocassional snowbird; this winter he'll spend time in Arizona.

That Donally, or anyone for that matter, might choose a lifestyle of relative simplicity, building things to live in with his hands is not so unusual in Alaska. The path that led him here is, perhaps, not the typical back-to-nature adventure, however.

He was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., but soon after moved to California when his parents divorced.

"I was a lonely little kid," he says. "In first or second grade, I became fascinated with atoms and molecules from pictures in magazines."

He remembers a handyman named Jim who one day pointed out to young James that it was H2O that filled the pool. Donally quickly learned there was a formula for everything.


Though Donally leads a simplified life, he does enjoy some modern conveniences.

Photo by Hal Spence

"I guess I was what you'd call a natural reductionist. If there was a simple explanation, I was for it. I could be a (religious) fundamentalist very easily, but I'm not. For one thing, my intellectual pride won't permit it."

He wasn't a child prodigy, just fast, he says. Introduced to algebra at 12, he was reading calculus at 14. Girls would call him "brain," which he didn't mind, but he wasn't a nerd. That is, he wasn't picked on.

"If anybody tried to bully me, I always managed to get it into a wrestling match. I wasn't good with my fists, but in wrestling, I could hold my own."

When he entered high school he found other "brains," and they tended to stick together.

During high school he read a book about Isaac Newton's laws of motion. It was right up his alley.

"The thing that got me was the irrefutable logic. If object A is touching object B for a length of time C, then object B must be touching object A for an equal length of time. So momentum given to one must be equal and opposite the momentum given the other. I was seduced by that kind of thinking," he says.

He craved formulas, especially ones with "lots of stuff on 'em," he says. "I figured anyone who knew them knew a lot of stuff. I was just at that age."

He graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956. He'd won a Future Engineers of America award which helped land him a job plating metals for the electronics in bombers.

"Everything was cold war," he says. "Everything depended on the Russians and not knowing what they were up to. The economy was so pumped up because of that."

His on-the-job mentor was a man named Pete.

"He taught me the most wonderful cuss words. I won't repeat them. I use them around here. They're so satisfying. Filthy words aggressive 'K' sounds and lots of hisses."

He attended a year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to appease his father who still lived there. But that left him far from his girlfriend attending Reed College in Portland, Ore. He would spend three years at Reed.

"It was filled with nerds. It was good. If you were neurotic, it was better. If you were brilliant, it was great," he says.

After Reed, he earned a master's degree in physics at the University of Washington, and in 1974 a doctorate from Oregon State University.

By that time, he was sick of physics. His doctoral thesis on the effects of temperature on semiconductor compounds challenged some accepted models of crystalline behavior and earned him kudos from colleagues. But he needed a break.

Even before his thesis had been approved and his doctorate had come through, Donally was in Alaska, working in a cannery in Kodiak for $3.50 an hour pushing crab, sweeping floors and guiding a hand-operated hydraulic forklift.

"It was just wonderful. It was 18 hours a day and overtime. I could actually save some money," he says.

An acquaintance later told him about a job with the highway department. He took it and spent a lot of time testing soils. It required math and he was good at that. The job was seasonal, however, which allowed him to visit his children in Oregon he was separated by this time. It also allowed him to take winter adventures. One year, while on a skateboarding odyssey in San Diego, he simply didn't come back to his highway job when called.

When he returned to Alaska, he tested the academic waters once again, like a murderer returning to the scene of the crime, he says. He met the head of the physics department at Anchorage Community College and soon took a part-time job teaching freshman physics, algebra and third-semester calculus.

"I also taught partial differential equations," he says. "Differential equations are a snap, but partials are hard. But it's the language of science."

By 1994, after seven years at ACC and 10 more at UAA, he was applying for tenure. He also was eligible for retirement. He took retirement at 55 years of age. He says he was glad he had, because he'd been far more vigorous at 55 than he is at 65.

He doesn't miss the classroom. He was "getting tired" of the students who seemed less interested in learning than in "buying a degree."

"Maybe it was the '90s," he says. "I'm sure my own character flaws contributed to it."

Now, he loves to spend time talking about astronomy and particle physics. He meets semi-regularly with friends to talk over lunch. The Big Bang is a favorite topic.

"That's the time everything was so compact and there was so much energy available that Mother Nature hadn't figured out how she was going to distribute the cookies amongst her children," he says. "Who was going to be an electron, who a proton? All these particles essentially acted the same. And then a thing happened called symmetry breaking. Like chicks, as they grow older, some become male and some female. The symmetry is broken."

The conversation over tea soon spins off into theoretical esoteria wave-particle duality, Erwin Schrodinger's wave equation (suffice it to say it was the groundwork for much of quantum mechanics), virtual particles that last for an extraordinarily short time (are they real, or just a convenience?) and dimensions beyond the four of space-time that nature "curled up" into incredibly small volumes at the time of the Big Bang, but which may well govern critical processes at the subatomic level.

What does it mean for a dimension to be curled up? There's the rub, Donally says. Nobody knows.

Whether curled up dimensions actually exist is really immaterial, Donally says. They are like biblical stories that inspire good behaviors. Not coveting a neighbor's wife encourages social order. Extra dimensions in the math encourage theorists to find useful, even exquisite conclusions about the universe.

That's all well and good, he says. But at this point in his life, Donally likes his reality tangible.

It's really less about curling up dimensions around infinitesimal cores than about curling egg-shaped abodes around tree trunks.

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