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1988 Timoshenko Medal Acceptance Speech by George K. Batchelor

Sources of Inspiration

Text of Timoshenko Medal acceptance speech delivered at the Applied Mechanics Dinner of the 1988 Winter Annual Meeting of ASME in Chicago, Illinois.

I should like, first and foremost, to express my deep appreciation to the Applied Mechanics Division of ASME for the honor they have done me in awarding the Timoshenko Medal for 1988. Any scientist or engineer waged in research in mechanics, even one with the minimum of vanity, would be delighted and thrilled to have his work recognized by an award with such high prestige. In past years the Timoshenko medal has gone to some of the outstanding scientists of this century. As we have heard from Professor Leibovich, the inaugural award 31 years ago was to Stephen Timoshenko himself, and in the following year there was a bumper crop of three medalists: Arpad Nadai, distinguished for his work in plasticity, and those two giants of fluid and solid mechanics, Theodore von Karman and Geoffrey Taylor. The last-named of these medalists was my mentor and teacher, and the little I know about the doing of research in fluid mechanics was learned from him. I also had the privilege of editing the four volumes of Taylor's collected scientific papers, and this left me with a profound admiration and respect for his insight, originality and capacity for scientific discovery. My feelings about von Karman are similar, although I did not know him as well. I intend no disrespect for ASME when I say that the standard of the Timoshenko medalists has undoubtedly slipped a little over the past 31 years. My friend Bill Sears has done a brilliant job of covering up that decline, and I thank him warmly for his kind remarks while not believing all of them.

There are two aspects of the award of the Timoshenko Medal for which a person in my position feels especially grateful. The first is that, in keeping with the internationalism of science, the Medal is awarded without regard for nationality. This country has many distinguished contributors to applied mechanics but, with the generosity that is characteristic of American people, a quarter of the medalists have been foreign. The second reason for gratitude is that the award is said specifically to be without regard for the profession of candidates. The Applied Mechanics Division takes the very enlightened view that there are many ways of contributing to applied mechanics, and that even those who, like me, think about idealized problems free from the troublesome complexities of the real world of engineering are eligible. I would not know whether to call myself an applied mathematician or a physicist, but an engineer I could not claim to be, even though it was my boyhood ambition to design bridges. It is consequently a privilege for me to be admitted to the applied mechanics fraternity.

I promised to say a few words tonight about sources of inspiration, a topic which concerns us all in some degree and which has interested me for many years. Let me make it clear immediately that I am not using the word "inspiration" in the exalted sense that goes with genius. I am referring to the more humble revelations and flashes of insight that most research workers experience from time to time. Our perception of what constitutes a good idea is usually determined by our own capacity. There is a statement by Proust in his novel Remembrance of Things Past which puts this more bluntly and which might have been written for scientists: "Clear ideas, for each of us, are those which tie at the same level of confusion as our own." So when I say inspiration, I mean those of our good ideas that are a little better than normal and that affect the course of our research. Modest though these occasional good ideas may be, they give us a great deal of satisfaction when they stand up to sober scrutiny. They make research the marvelous game that it is, and confirm us in the view that it is what we should be doing. The question for consideration is, what conditions seem to favor the genesis of good ideas and what are their mental origins?

This question is seldom raised among scientists, which is strange, bearing in mind the enormous importance of inspiration for each of us personally and for the advancement of science generally. It is also strange that sociologists go to no end of trouble to enquirer into our personal habits and our opinions on matters of no great moment, whereas they have never, to my knowledge, surveyed scientists to ask how they get the ideas that are transforming society. Planning such a survey may be difficult, since the getting of enlightenment is often protracted and confused, but the potential value of knowing what successful scientists have found conducive to inspiration is so great that I think sociologists should take up the task as soon as possible. Pending the outcome of such an enquiry, I propose to offer some personal views and speculations on the conditions that assist clear thought.

It is natural to consider first what outstanding scientists have said on the question, but there is a problem here in that the gifted few get inspiration so easily that they do not know why the rest of us find it excruciatingly difficult. The distinguished atomic physicist Ernest Rutherford said, in one of his more immodest moments, that he could do physics at the North Pole. I believe his point was that he did not think he was in any way dependent on his working environment, although there must have been an unstated proviso that he had access to a workshop in which he could make his apparatus. G. I. Taylor, who incidentally was a close friend of Rutherford, used to do all his calculating and writing sitting on a sofa in the drawing room of his home, and came to his room in the Cavendish Laboratory mainly for experimental work. Like Rutherford, he could have done physics at the North Pole, although unlike Rutherford he would never have said so. Well, isolation may not have mattered to Rutherford and Taylor, but for most of us it has a devastating influence. There are few who can sustain a long research enquiry without contact with others. We need to be close to colleagues, not necessarily ones who know in detail what we are doing, although that helps, but preferably people who appreciate the general purpose of our work. We need their understanding and occasional encouragement and the stimulation that comes from the presence of people engaged in similar work. So, unlike Rutherford and Taylor, I would specify the working environment represented by a university department or government or industrial laboratory as the first of several factors that normally have a major influence on the generation of new ideas.

That leads to the question, what makes an institution a good place to work in? The more specific question whether institutions X, Y, and Z are good places to work in is the subject of endless lunch-time and coffee-break conversations among academics, and we have a profusion of anecdotal evidence on which to arrive at an answer. We think we know that X is good, that Y is not, and that Z is changing, and since there is often a fair measure of agreement among colleagues the opinions are presumably not entirely subjective. It should therefore be possible to describe objectively the features of an institution that are favorable for independent and original thinking by its members, although I do not know of anyone having tried to do this. Most people, particularly those looking for jobs, tend to rank institutions in terms of the number and quality of the current staff in their own specialty. This simply reflects the common view that the more good colleagues we have with kindred interests, the better we shall get on with our own research. It is no doubt true, at any rate for younger people, but it does not tell us anything about the institution itself.

For more useful answers to our enquiry we need to think about the value of the various things that an institution provides, namely, supporting facilities, working conditions and practices, and the less tangible attribute summed up by the word 'atmosphere'. It is obvious that good experimental work is impossible without a workshop and the help of skilled machinists and electronic and photographic technicians, and most people nowadays would say that computing facilities are likewise essential. It should also be obvious, although not all administrators would agree, that writing and thinking work is greatly assisted by the existence of a library of specialist books and journals under the same roof and reachable within the corridors of the institution. Administrators may also dispute the desirability of a comfortably furnished coffee-break room, but I believe they would be mistaken to do so. The intellectual stimulation that comes from colleagues engaged in generally similar research cannot be planned, and it is important that there should be daily opportunities for spontaneous exchanges of information, opinions and ideas. The Department in which 1work at Cambridge encourages this informal communication by providing coffee tables with laminated tops on which people may write or draw, and I believe this simple device has endeared the Department to several generations of young scholars.

A feature of an institution which provides a measure of its intellectual health and vitality is the holding of regular lectures and seminars at which people with related interests gather to hear, and comment on, informal presentations of current research. In my view, the occasions on which people meet and listen to accounts of work by a colleague can be high points in the life of an institution. The symbiotic relationship between a person who wishes to tell others about the good work he has recently done and an alert and critical audience of people interested to argue about the latest developments brings out the best in both parties. This is the time when sparks fly and there is a real sense of the boundaries of knowledge being extended. I believe a good seminar, at which intrinsically interesting work is clearly presented, can also be a source of inspiration in itself. There is a heightened awareness on such occasions, and, in my experience, one may 'see' things for the first time as a consequence of something said by the speaker. A good deal of research, at any rate of the theoretical kind, consists of realizing what later often seems to be almost obvious, and a research seminar can be a fertile medium for such realizations. I would say the same about a lecture given at a conference, especially a meeting of leading specialists interested in the same broad topic. The fact that a scientist at an international conference is temporarily away from his normal distracting responsibilities also helps to make meetings directly productive as a source of inspiration.

The insights and ideas that may come to one while listening to a seminar talk or a conference lecture tend to arise in our minds unexpectedly and by chance. There are other occasions in our working lives when we are trying hard to understand something and are consciously seeking inspiration. This search for enlightenment on a specific problem can be both exhilarating and agonizing, a paradoxical mixture of pleasure and pain which perhaps is peculiar to scientific research. We may have in our heads certain facts derived from observation or experience or previous calculation, but they are not all compatible with prevailing theories; something is wrong about the picture in our head-is there an error in the supposed facts or is our understanding of the picture inadequate? We go over all the data again and again and check all the logical steps in the argument, and unless some new idea or interpretation comes to mind the torment continues.

People have their own ideas about what to do in this kind of situation. I have a friend who says he finds a leisurely hot bath helpful, especially if taken first thing in the morning; and you will remember that Archimedes got a marvelous new idea out of his bath. Some like to go and talk over the problem with a colleague, not so much in the expectation that he will be able to clear it up but more because the light may dawn it he asks probing questions. Personally I prefer solitude, and I usually like to commit all the essential points of the problem to memory and then to spend the half hour or so before falling asleep at night going over the whole problem. For a young and intense person this may be a pretty good recipe for not to sleep at all, but older people can be more relaxed about it. Not all the bright ideas that come to one at night still look good in the cold light of day, but some do. A bath and a bed have in common bodily comfort and freedom from distractions, and I am sure these conditions are favorable for inspiration. If success is achieved under some such conditions, it will of course have been due primarily to the depth and clarity of the picture of the whole problem that was first formulated in our mind. The good ideas that we claim as our own can come only from within our heads, and all that external conditions can do is to make it easier for the ideas to be conceived.

What can we say about the relevance of the atmosphere of an institution to the generation of good ideas? Very little I suspect, because subjective reactions play a dominating role here, and it is difficult to determine what people are reacting to. If people feel at home in an institution and are better able to do good research there, what should that be attributed to? One can only speculate on the basis of personal experience. I know that for many people a general respect for standards in an institution is important and that, if they are confident the making of promotions and new appointments is on the basis of quality of research, not only in judging relative merits but also in deciding whether any promotion or new appointment shall be made, the institution feels right for them. Others will have different notions about what determines the atmosphere of an institution, but I think it likely that they mostly involve confidence of some kind in colleagues, in the institutional leadership, and in the ad- ministration. One factor which I believe does not have much influence on the perceived atmosphere of an institution is newness of the building that it occupies; in fact the "atmosphere" of an institution may well become more attractive with age of the occupied building. The intellectual tradition of an institution is more important than its material shell.

I have not yet said anything about reading as a source of inspiration and the value of reading as a means of communication with the best scientific minds. But I have spoken quite long enough already for an audience that has just enjoyed an excellent dinner, and the relevance of reading can reasonably be left as a class exercise. What I have tried to do tonight is to raise some questions and issues which are seldom talked or written about, despite their importance for our personal lives and for the advancement of science and engineering. Scientific inspiration does not occur wholly at random, although neither can it be planned. External conditions undoubtedly can encourage inspiration, but we are not certain what those conditions are. The character of the institution in which we work probably has a major influence, and we appear to depend on colleagues for stimulation and moral support. The diversity of human behaviour makes most of my statements only partially true at best, but one thing we can assert with confidence is that inspiration comes more readily to a mind in which the ground has been well prepared You have to work at it-unless, that is, you happen to be a Rutherford or a G. I. Taylor or a von Karman.

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Alex Liberzon's picture

Already added some parts to my blog. very good lecture by a great scientist, who unfortunately passed away some 7 years ago.


Panta Rhei - everything flows

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