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2008 Timoshenko Medal Acceptance Speech by Sia Nemat-Nasser
Delivered at the Annual Dinner of the Applied Mechanics Division, in the Back Bay Ballroom, Sheraton Hotel, Boston, in the evening of 4 November 2008, the Election Day of the United States of America
Before I start, let me mention my wife, Eva's contribution to this lecture. She said to me to make a draft first and then she would be happy to help me to tighten it up later on. After a day and half's work, I took the result to her who quickly informed me that: it was much too long, contained too much unnecessary details, and that, it can be reduced by 3/4th without losing anything significant!
After another several hours of effort, I took the product to her who immediately requested further reduction, by at least a factor of two!
This process went on for a few cycles when, finally, she said: "if you cut it in half, then it might be OK."
She looked at it and asked me to read it out loud.
I read: "Ladies and gentlemen, and the Timoshenko Medal Committee, thank you very much."
"Now, that is a good after dinner speech", she shouted.
Then she thought for a minute and said: "You Persians are very wordy.
If you leave out the ‘very much', and just say ‘thank you' then it
would be a great after dinner speech!"
A Mechanics-Guided Journey through Engineering Science
I wish to first thank our gracious MC, Professor Dan Inman, for his generous introduction. I would also like to thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for being here tonight, after several arduous political weeks of having repeatedly heard from Joe the Established Politician, Joe the Unlicensed Plumber, and Jack the Unknown Electrician, just to mention a few, to hear from Sia, the also Unlicensed Mechanician.
I am indeed, thrilled and honored to have been chosen as the 2008 Timoshenko Medalist, and wish to thank the Timoshenko Medal Committee for, at least from my point of view, a pretty good choice!
I have admired Timoshenko and the impact of his remarkable teaching through his books, since I was an undergraduate student and, later, as a graduate student, having managed to purchase and study essentially all of them, which I still possess and often use.
As for tonight, I am amazed that you, ladies and gentlemen, have chosen to be here, listening to me, rather than being glued to the television, hopping from the Situation Room of Wolf Blitzer, to Mark Shields, David Brooks, and Jim Lehrer's more philosophical pontification, or, I hope quite unlikely, Fox News' Sean Hannity and his profoundly intellectual colleagues.
As for the presidential candidates, while I have rooted for Obama, and I have been proudly wearing an bama-Biden button, I also purchased, just before coming to Boston, a McCain banner, in case all the polls turn out to be incorrect.
In either case, truly, one should wonder why two exceptionally talented individuals would want to compete so hard for so long and with such passion, for the opportunity to inherit:
Two unwinnable wars,
A crumbled economy, and
The leadership of a turbulent, hostile, and unstable world politics and economy, instead of sipping wine and contemplating about life. And, more interestingly, it is mind-boggling why we, a bunch of intelligent people, so enthusiastically cheer them on in their misguided journey, and even put down our hard-earned money to help them succeed in their ill-chosen quest.
Putting aside the mundane issues of war and peace, potential economic bankruptcy, and the collapse of the world politics, let me now focus on the main purpose that has given me the privilege of addressing you, ladies and gentlemen.
Being honored by this prestigious medal, late in one's professional life, has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is a long professional experience with a rich supply of anecdotes to share.
The disadvantage, however is that one would know that one should not overdo it, as we have been reminded by many of the previous recipients of John Hutchinson's famous advice to his distinguished colleague, Bernie Budiansky, after having introduced him, saying, "Bernie, keep it short."
What many of you may not have heard is my own unique experience with John: when I first heard that John would be receiving the Timoshenko Medal, I wrote a congratulatory email to him, and, in passing, reminded him of his advice to Bernie, in San Francisco, in a Chinese Restaurant, to keep it short. John immediately wrote back, thanking me, and, at the same time informing me that he does not practice what he expects others to do.
Tonight, however, I should try very hard to do what John does not do, yet expects me to do.
2008 has been a significant year for me. It marks 50 years since I stepped on American soil, on June 23, 1958, as an undergraduate student, with $200 worth of American Express checks in my pocket and a great deal of hope in my heart. Remarkably, the Timoshenko Medal which was established in 1957, with Timoshenko being the first recipient, was given to three giants of our field, Arpad Nadai, Geoffrey Taylor, and Theodore von Karman, in 1958.
The journey to the US was preceded by many events that, in retrospect, make me realize how lucky I have been to have survived through them all. And this, I mean, literally. My high school years, as well as my 2 years at Teheran University, were filled with political turmoil with unpredictable consequences, as I had been present within crowds when, once the dust had settled, at least a few bodies journeyed to the morgue.
In the halls of the engineering school at Teheran University, for example, the marble columns featured repaired bullet holes, witnessing an event that just a few years earlier took the lives of 2 engineering students. Even, under those conditions, I continued to be lucky, enjoying the respect and undeserved attention of colleagues and professors, as the top student of the school of engineering.
Nevertheless, I had decided to try my luck in the United States, even though I lacked the financial means. The story that took me to Sacramento and hence, Sacramento State (then) College, and later, to Berkeley, also involved numerous unexpected events which only my good luck had produced favorable results, although my academic record also helped. In addition to well-paying part-time work in civil engineering firms in Sacramento, which I frequented every summer and during holiday vacations, there was ample financial support in the form of forgivable loans, fellowships and rather light teaching assistantships.
The intellectual life at Berkeley was, indeed, rich and exciting. I had the good fortune to know some of the most distinguished mechanicians of the time, and participate in the excitement of the new wave of more fundamentally-based structural mechanics and structural engineering.
Unquestionably, this trend emerged because of Timoshenko's influence. While I did purchase and study all the black-covered books of Timoshenko, I did also carefully study his red-covered advanced strength of materials book which I still possess and occasionally consult.
The next stroke of good luck was when I met George Herrmann who came to Berkeley to present a seminar. My advisor, Colin Brown, in passing, suggested that I should talk with Professor Herrmann who was then looking for a post-doc.
A trip to the library taught me that Northwestern University was located in Evanston, Illinois, with the largest number of churches per capita in the United feature at the time and associated with Berkeley activists, I shaved my beard before the interview, being rather amazed that George had noticed it before, and asked me why I had shaved off my beard and that it actually looked good on me. I simply said, "If you give me the position, I will grow it back". He did and I did.
The departure from Berkeley in the summer of 1964 occurred in the wake of Mario Savio's four-letter-word free-speech movement, which arguably marked a new chapter in the culture of the United States.
The intellectual life at Northwestern was vibrant and remarkably enriching. It was there that I not only had the good fortune of meeting Eva, and with her creating a new chapter in our family life, but also, I met and made life-long friends with some of the most intelligent and creative applied mechanicians of our generation, several of whom have already been honored by the Timoshenko and other ASME medals.
The impact of Sputnik had been driving graduate education and research in engineering and creating a tumultuous environment for new positions at various universities, with essentially guaranteed research funding. I was recruited by Bill Prager to join the newly established Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Sciences (AMES) at UCSD, while, at the same time being courted by several other universities.
The final decision was easy to make, once I visited La Jolla, during a cold spell in Chicago, walked by the ocean, and realized the position will give me an opportunity to be a colleague of luminaries, such as Bert Fung, John Miles, Sol Penner, and many others in the department, as well as more than half-a-dozen Nobel Laureates, on a university faculty of 275.
Even so, Governor Reagan's rather less than friendly attitude toward the University of California, the Regents' hostility toward Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, and the Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling, produced a situation that drove Bill Prager back to Brown, and me back to Northwestern, where I had the opportunity to work with my contemporary young colleagues and friends, while the growth at UCSD had been basically stopped.
It was during my 15 years at Northwestern that, I feel, my scientific growth took place, in major part because of close association and collaboration with colleagues, such as John Dundurs, Toshio Mura, Jan Achenbach, Leon Keer, Zdenek Bazant, and, later on, Ted Belytschko, not to mention more established luminaries, such as Hans and Julia Weertman, as well as Morrie Fine.
There, I had the opportunity to move into new areas, such as soil mechanics in relation to earthquake-induced liquefaction, rock failure and fracturing in relation to hot dry-rock geothermal energy, and the mechanics of frictional granules, just because it was fascinating. Timoshenko's teaching that embodied the application of rigorous mechanics principles, the necessary applied mathematics, and a great deal of intuitive physical insight, was indeed the key to most of my contributions.
I also enjoyed having some very outstanding coworkers and graduate students such as Monte Mehrabadi, Minoru Taya, Tetsuo Iwakuma, Hideyuki Horii, Makoto Obata, and Muneo Hori, as well as
a number of outstanding Japanese visitors and post-docs, thanks to Toshio Mura who provided the bridge between Northwestern and the Japanese mechanics community.
My work on liquefaction that aimed at understanding the basic phenomenon through mechanics-based mathematical modeling, supported by my own and others' laboratory experiments, has since been used extensively, not only to understand laboratory results, but also actually, to assess site potentials for liquefaction in actual field applications. Yet, at the time, it took quite a bit of doing to get the paper published in a geotechnical journal. I am pleased to see that we have come a long way, not least thanks to Timoshenko and his influence.
One fact, I learned early on, was the necessity of simple experiments to support mathematical modeling. I followed this all through out my tenure at Northwestern University, beginning with some cute yet intriguing experiments on flutter, with George Herrmann, and then model experiments to show compression-induced axial splitting, faulting, and transition from brittle to ductile failure of brittle materials such as rock and concrete.
In this case, my graduate student, Horii, and I did a number of convincing experiments on models made out of a brittle polymer, using a large vise in our group's top technician, John Schmidt's lab. Remarkably, the idea to do such model experiments came when my young colleague, John Rudnicki, commented on my work with Horii, on tensile crack growth under compression, a completely mathematical exercise, using Muskhelishvili's complex potentials and some elaborate calculations. John simply said: "It's interesting, but you will have a hard time to convince geophysicists and rock mechanicians."
The analysis that followed and a sequence of model experiments, some quantitative, resulted in 3 papers that have since served as a basis for understanding brittle fracturing under compression.
As I look around the country and even worldwide at our community, I see many applied mechanicians of my generation have successfully moved into new fields, be it earthquake prediction, macro-molecules, biomechanics, or genetics, and guided by the culture that is rooted in Timoshenko's teaching, managed to open new horizons in engineering science.
In my own case, when I returned to UCSD in 1985, the then fertile environment allowed the creation of an integrated campus-wide materials science program that brought colleagues from physics, chemistry, oceanography, and engineering under a unified umbrella.
This has been truly enriching for me and my students, as well as my materials science, chemistry, physics, and biology colleagues and their students. In the process, I was fortunate to learn and use a lot of physics, chemistry, and create and use new experimental techniques.
The work on ionic polymer-metal composites which are electro-active soft actuators and sensors, would have been impossible without collaboration with my chemistry colleague, Yitzhak Tor. Similarly, my work on modeling, design, fabrication, and characterization of healable composites with negative refractive index, could not have been possible without collaboration with my son, Syrus, who was a PhD graduate of UCSD's physics department, and with his coworkers, David Smith and others, as well as with Yitzhak.
While it was in some measure Governor Ronald Reagan's attitude toward the University of California that helped to drive me back to Northwestern in 1970, it was also his support as the President, of university research through his URI (University Research Initiative) program that allowed me to create a large experimental laboratory at UCSD, as well as to attract ten new faculty colleagues in Mechanics and Materials within the span of only three years.
Within the same span of time, a major center with the state-of-the-art and some novel facilities was created at UCSD, under the sponsorship of ARO, called the Center of Excellence for Advanced Materials (CEAM), a rather challenging name to live up to!
Here again I was very lucky in not only securing ample research funds, but also in having excellent colleagues and coworkers, such as John Starrett, who unfortunately passed away at the young age of 47 in 1990, and Jon Isaacs, who has been with me since 1987. In our laboratory we can quantify the thermo-mechanical and electromagnetic properties of a broad class of materials, as well as fabricate multifunctional self-healing and self-sensing composites.
Let me finish with two comments.
To my young colleagues and students, I say follow your passions, as I have been fortunate to follow mine and actually get paid for it.
To the Timoshenko Medal Committee I give my greatest thanks for honoring me in Boston which, in the mid 1800s, was the intellectual hotbed of antislavery and pro women's rights. It was in 1823 when Thomas Wentworth Higginson was born in the neighboring town, Cambridge, graduated from Harvard at the age of 18, and led an intellectual yet action-oriented fight for black-Americans and women's equality. In 1904 Higginson anticipated that eventually
"marriage may come to be founded, not on the color of the skin, but on the common courtesies of life, and upon genuine sympathies of heart and mind."
Although, he may have been 100 years ahead of his time, I have no doubt that he would have been proud to see two women striving for the highest offices in the land, and the son of a black African father and a white American mother graduating from Harvard and potentially attaining the presidency.
Thank you very much for listening to me and let us go to see if he has done it!