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Wikipedia and Applied Mechanics

Zhigang Suo's picture

(Originally posted on Applied Mechanics News on 25 February 2006)

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia founded in 2001 with a radical approach: anybody can create and edit (almost) any entry. Entirely created by volunteers, Wikipedia has come close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries, according to a special report in Nature. The size of Wikipedia has long surpassed Britannica. Before weighing in on this news, perhaps you’d like to scan the 418 comments recorded in Slashdot.

A wiki is a type of website that enables many people to collaborate. I believe that Internet-centric content management systems like wiki will lead to a new discipline in mechanics, just as computer-centric technologies have led to the discipline of computational mechanics. I'll return to this point toward the end of the post.

To learn how Wikipedia worked, I found an existing entry on the Timoshenko Medal. The entry listed the names of past winners, but few were linked to biographies. I added one for Budiansky, drawing heavily on articles that I found online. You can wiki Budiansky now by simply typing in Google two words: wiki Budiansky. Incidentally, among teens, the word wiki is mostly used as a verb, meaning to look something up in Wikipedia. According to my sons, few kids in schools go to Britannica or any other traditional enclyclopedias anymore: they all wiki.

As another experiment, I added a biography of Hutchinson, which I converted from a pdf file downloaded from the AMD website. Wikipedia displayed the entry immediately, but then, after about half an hour, displayed a warning: “This article may violate copyright, and will be removed if no action is taken.” I took no action, and the entry soon disappeared.

The entry on Barenblatt has generated some activities. Click “history” at the top of the entry, and you will see all the authors and past versions.

When I wikied mechanics today, I found an entry started in August 2001 and last modified on 8 February 2006. In the list of sub-disciplines, I clicked solid mechanics, which led me to a short description and a wikibook on solid mechanics. When I remarked to my sons that the content of solid mechanics in Wikipedia is not as sophisticated as the article in Britannica written by Jim Rice, they were duely impressed that someone they knew wrote an article in Britannica. Such is the evanescent teenage culture.

Wikipedia, however, feeds on resources unavailable when Jim wrote his article. These resources will fundamentally change our approach to collecting, archiving and accessing information:

  • The hard drive is cheap. At about 50 cents per gigabyte, it’s absurd to be stingy about space.
  • The Internet bandwidth is cheap. It makes no sense for an individual or a library to own an encyclopedia.
  • Search engines are fast. Information explosion is no longer a threat to humanity. Anything is worth publishing if at least one other person may care about it.
  • Hyperlinks are much faster than turning pages.
  • Wikis enable people to collaborate online: creating, editing, and linking.

Technology is now available to start a wiki on mechanics (wikimechanics) to document in a useful way everything known about mechanics. I mean everything: from everyday experience to esoteric theories, and everything in between. It should also have an exhaustive collection of pictures and data, all properly hyperlinked. I also mean useful. How do we catalog everyday experience to make it useful for serious decisions? How about an open-source finite element code, with links to a materials database? What if Ashby's Materials Selector becomes an open-access, user-enriched, and ad-supported repository?

Many open-source wiki engines are available today; our wiki need not be part of Wikipedia.

The authors of the wiki could be from the entire international community of applied mechanics – professors, students, engineers, and amateurs. They would also be the users. Along the way, we'll figure out how to assign credits to individual authors in such a collaborative effort. This wiki would co-evolve with the subject of mechanics: they would influence each other.

Decades ago, when computers came into being, many mechanicians embraced the technology and created computational mechanics, a discipline that has fundamentally changed how mechanics is practiced. Today, as the new Internet-centric technologies emerge, mechanics is ready to reinvent itself again, into a form yet to be defined.

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