Revision of We Are Mechanicians from Mon, 2006-11-27 08:49

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Zhigang Suo's picture

In early days of Applied Mechanics News, I encountered a practical problem. How do we call ourselves? I began with a phrase "people in the international community of applied mechanics". The phrase is inclusive and descriptive, but is too long, too timid and too clumsy. It is like calling entropy "the logarithm of the number of quantum states". I have also heard the phrase "mechanics people", which I don't like either. It sounds too folksy, like calling a gynecologist a women's doctor.

To gain name recognition is hard, especially for people with no names. This much we know. The issue has been discussed by many others. Here are two paragraphs from the speech by Ted Belytschko, the 2001 Timoshenko Medalist.

Ted Belytschko"Another source of our difficulties is our fuzzy self-identity. For many years, this Division has attempted to represent fields that were no longer a part of it- the fluid mechanicians have departed for the American Physical Society, but we still included fluids, and most dynamicists are in other places, but we still pretend that it is part of our Division. Perhaps even the name of our division is no longer appropriate. For one thing, the name is not appealing to younger people-most young people starting careers in research and teaching want a more attractive name, they don't want to be confused with those who fix their cars. Furthermore, most of us are not really engineers-much of our work is indistinguishable from physics or from materials science. I daresay the contributions of some members of the Applied Mechanics Division, such as Jim Rice and John Hutchinson, rank with the most important in materials science. So maybe we should look at another name-it was very beneficial for soils engineers, who changed their name to geotechnical engineering, and have much improved their image with the public.

"What should such a name be? I have asked a number of people. Some would not even give it an attempt, because they consider it sacrilegious. Lalit Anand, a former member of the Executive Committee, proposed “Solid and Mechanical Engineering and Sciences.” He suggested we would then go by the acronym SMEC. My preference is "Science and Engineering of Solids" -SES. I think it is high time we recognize that we are scientist as well as engineers, and that we get a name that accurately reflects what we do and what we have done!"

While the remarks of Ted Belytschko was mainly concerned with the Applied Mechanics Division, of American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the speech by Bernie Budiansky, the 1989 Timoshenko Medalist, contained a passionate call to arms:

Bernard Budiansky (1925 - 1999)“There are two obvious reasons for this lack of visibility, one sublime and one ridiculous. Our very success in promulgating the role of applied mechanics within such a large number and variety of fields has led to the seamless integration of substantial parts of applied mechanics into the various fields I mentioned. This, of course, is very welcome. But as a natural consequence, subsequent research in such an incorporated segment of applied mechanics tends to assume the identity of its host. The absurd reason for our lack of status is that we still don’t know what to call ourselves! Can it be that this is the crux of the problem? We are not the only group whose activity cuts broadly across traditional disciplinary boundaries, but mathematicians, engineers, physicists, biologists, and computer scientists proudly retain their identities, no matter how scattered and diverse their working environments, and, of course, their titles provoke instant recognition. But what are we? In informal conversation, “applied mechaniker” is all right, but is clearly too whimsical and slang-ey for general acceptance. Some years ago, Norman Goodier urged the adoption of the appellation “applied mechanicist” but this never really took hold, and “applied mechanician” doesn’t seem to make it either.
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“So if we agree that we should burst the bonds of anonymity, perhaps we should begin by coming to grips with the question of our job description. I could live with either “applied mechanicist” or “applied mechanician”. Why not boldly start using one or the other at every opportunity, and let the better one survive! Then – let’s lobby scientific and technical societies, honorary or otherwise, that have not yet seen the light, to establish applied mechanics divisions! In universities, reverse the slide into oblivion and recommend that establishment of applied mechanics committees across standard departmental lines, maybe empowered to grant degrees as well as give courses! Preach to funding agencies about the merits of interdisciplinary sections of applied mechanics! Give interview, or write popular articles, about applied mechanics and its practitioners! Run for Congress!”

After talking to several colleagues, I began to call ourselves mechanicians in Applied Mechanics News. Now the phrase "web of mechanics and mechanicians" appears in the header of iMechanica.

In April 2006, I also started an entry called "Mechanician" in Wikipedia. This morning, I Googled "mechanician". Bingo. The number one on the list is the definition from Wikipedia. Try Google "mechanician" yourself.  Like other entries in Wikipedia, the entry on mechanician is work in progress. If you don't like what you see, you can change it. Simply click the tab "edit", and you are on your way to become a Wikipedian.

Maybe I'm too stubborn, I'm not ready to change the name of my field. I'm proudly a mechanician. So is Ted. So was Bernie. So were Wright Brothers, Watt, Newton and Galileo, as well as inventors of elevators and wheels and knives. I feel something like a kinship with them all.  We will just make mechanics and mechanicians household words (as defined by us), at least among educated people. Together, we can do it.

Note. This entry is an updated version of an entry posted in Applied Mechanics News on 21 March 2006.