Applied Mechanics News

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Broadening the Reach of Mechanics

I agree with Zhigang Suo: the Internet offers our community an amazing opportunity. And, things will evolve whether we guide them or not. Let’s think of where we can channel our energies to bring about maximum impact and benefit. So, rather than discussing how to use the Internet to accomplish goals, I want to raise the question of what our goals should be.

Who is touched by mechanics? Here are some obvious ones: mechanics academicians, students, regular users of mechanics in engineering practice, and workers in other fields that could benefit from mechanics insights.

Better educating students in engineering, and in mechanics in particular, is certainly one area that can benefit from the Internet. But, I want to offer thoughts on the last two groups, which get even less attention than students.

Once our students graduate and become engineering practitioners, are they served in any continuing way by the research output in our field? I suspect not, but perhaps this was not always the case. A friend, who is a retired VP from an aerospace company, has told me that he would follow the technical literature early in his career in industry, after completing his PhD. Later, he found less and less that spoke to his needs, and he eventually abandoned it. If that is the norm (and I suspect it is), are we happy? Maybe that is the norm in any mature field, with scholarly contributions far ahead of (but hopefully not irrelevant forever to) practice. But there is a gap, and only we can fill it.

Here is what I have believed is at least a part of the problem. Mechanics is a field that is broad and deep; not often do we push the edges in ways that are fundamental and broadly useful. But, we try. Still, why is that the only work product we value? This partially keeps us from serving practitioners. In my own experience, problems often arise in practice that do not demand a fundamental advance in mechanics or engineering science generally. They do require skill (sometimes approaching artistry) in integrating and adapting existing ideas and approaches. Could that knowledge and experience be recorded and retrievable (aside from issues of confidentiality)? Perhaps this becomes more feasible as we move to publishing modes that go beyond journals and include larger repositories. There is also a separate, non-negligible issue that the academy would need to devise some way of recognizing and rewarding insightful contributions that advance practice.

Why should we be concerned with researchers in other fields? I’ll pick on a personal example: my colleagues and I work on the problem of fracture during cryopreservation of biological tissues . (Others can point to their own examples of fields outside of mechanics that intersect their work.) Many of our papers are published in the cryobiology literature, and are intended to serve the community of cryobiologists. While the problem we address is viewed as highly significant by cryobiologists, we have a long way to go in helping them to understand our findings. More generally, how can we help potential scientific collaborators take advantage of the lessons of mechanics and be more effective collaborators with mechanicians? Of course, we should learn about their domain. But we must also make our ways of thinking more transparent to them.

In sum, I think we need both discussions: how our field can leverage the Internet and what goals should be served. One goal might be to make the insights of mechanics more widely appreciated. To do that, we must learn to better communicate what we do.

1 Comments:

  • Paul: My own experience in interacting with the microelectronic industry resonates with your observations. Not only can they benefit from us by continuing their mechanics education, but also their experience and their engineering problems provide great stimulation for us and our students. However, such interactions between industrial engineers and academics are largely isolated. The experience and insight gained seldom propagate beyond a few directly involved. The Internet will be a great repository to share such experience, provided we have an easy architecture for people to contribute to such a repository, and for others to benefit from it.

    By Blogger Zhigang Suo, at 4/10/2006 7:04 AM  

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