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Let us seize the greatest opportunity of our time

Zhigang Suo's picture

We've been hearing rumors that print is dead, killed by the Internet. What is the reality then? For example, how are newspapers doing? Not too badly, according to the numbers cited by James Surowiecki, of The New Yorker. He also made the following remarks, however.

"The popular conviction that papers are doomed may cause owners and shareholders to prefer the cash-cow approach, accepting eventual oblivion while continuing to harvest billions of dollars in profits. Settling for a tolerable short-term future, newspapers could end up writing themselves out of the long-term one. Yet it’s also clear that this moment of supposed doom represents a sizable opportunity for newspapers, a chance to reinvigorate their product and, eventually, improve the economics of their business."

The newspaper industry is not the only one that faces crisis. So do many other established industries, as well as many academic disciplines. I'm not the first one to realize that, in Chinese, the word crisis means "danger and opportunity". When I first came to the United States for graduate study, twenty years ago, a popular topic was China's population. How would the country feed so many people? Well, we all know how by now. Instead of dwelling on the problem of feeding people, China has turned the people into consumers and manufacturers of the world. The problem of a large number has now turned into a great opportunity, and not for the Chinese alone.

Another popular topic twenty years ago was information explosion. How can we hand down knowledge to the next generation? How can a piece of information serve the public if few know it? Now Google and others have turned this problem into a hugely profitable business. What we see today in search and data mining, of course, is just the tip of an iceberg. Again, the problem of a large quantity is turning into a great opportunity, not just for a few companies, but for us all.

Let us mechanicians stop dwelling on our problems, of which there are many, but few are unique to the discipline of Mechanics. Let us think of ways to seize opportunities. Quite a few opportunities have been touched upon in earlier entries of Applied Mechanics News: Mechanics in Biology and Medicine, Integrated Structures, Simulation-Based Engineering Science, etc. You can add more to this list.

To me, the greatest opportunity presented to mechanicians of our time is the Internet. Ours is a subject with a long and complicated history. The knowledge accumulated over millennia has remarkable depth and richness. This large quantity of knowledge has made it hard for any individual to master (and to add to) the subject. However, nobody has ever questioned the value of Mechanics to a broad range of human activities today and to our posterity. In a previous entry, I argued for initiating a Wikimechanics Project to organize, on the Internet, in a useful way, everything known about mechanics, from everyday experience to esoteric theories, and everything in between.

I have since discussed the matter with a number of colleagues, who have made suggestions. As a starting exercise, we can build an online community of mechanicians by creating and editing entries on Applied Mechanics in Wikipedia.

As another exercise, we can take a subject like Strength of Materials, which is taught almost at every university, and involve mechanicians of several institutions and with different expertise to produce an iBook that incorporates texts, equations, pictures, movies and, yes, simulations like the web-based finite element simulations developed by Paul Steif and co-workers. Such an iBook will not be a clone of a paper book, but a platform for integrated and evolving learning tools. The goal of these exercises will be to help us mechanicians develop an architecture of online collaboration, an architecture that

  1. motivates many mechanicians to contribute,
  2. produces quality products, and
  3. is scalable to more complex subjects.

Of course, we should also learn from communities that have already produced collaborative software. No need to reinvent the wheel, but we need to learn to recognize a wheel when we see one, and invent new ways to use it. True, the opportunity of the Internet is not specific to Mechanics, but the opportunity is almost exclusively ours to use the Internet to organize Mechanics, bountiful and beautiful. Computer Scientists will not do it for us, although they have a lot to offer. Nor will anybody else.

The Internet will enable us mechanicians to turn a large part of human knowledge into a huge opportunity: an old, complex, and useful discipline has its own advantage. We may call this opportunity Internet-Based Mechanics (IBM; or iMech, to be in tune with time). If well done, Internet-Based Mechanics will make enormous impact on industries, education and public outreach, for many years to come, on a larger scale than the finite element method has done. It will also fundamentally alter how we conduct research in Mechanics. It forces us to be young and creative again.

Allow me to paraphrase a better known Bostonian. And so, my fellow mechanicians: ask not what the Internet can do for you - ask what you can do for the Internet. Let us seize the greatest opportunity of our time. The opportunity is for us all.

Acknowledgements. I've benefited from discussions with Paul Steif, John Hutchinson, Joost Vlassak, and Shriram Ramanathan.

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