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2007 Karl Terzaghi Award

Amit Pandey's picture

C. S. Desai Is Recipient of the 2007 Karl Terzaghi Award

The recipient of the 2007 Karl Terzaghi Award, to be presented at GeoDenver, is Regent's Professor Chandrakant S. Desai. Besides countless achievements, Prof. Desai was the founding General Editor of the International Journal for Numerical and Analytical Methods in Geomechanics from 1977-2000. Prof. Desai is President of the International Association for Computer Methods and Advances in Geomechanics (IACMAG). Congratulations for a well-deserved honor!.

About  Karl Terzaghi. 

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Well deserved award / recognition! I can say that even if am not a civil engineer and don't know him personally. For that matter, I am not even conversant with his research. The reason: his book on FEM, co-authored with Prof. Abel.

As far as FEM goes, in India, up to mid/late 1980's, only a handful books were available. (i) With all due respects, Zienkiewicz' book was, to make a bold but honest statement, a haphazardly ordered summary of research topics. Its presentation may appear brilliant to those who already know FEM--but the book acted as a positive deterrent to those who were looking to study FEM in the self-study mode. (ii) Again, with all due respects, JN Reddy's book was not suitable. This book took mathematics as its touch-stone--not physical phenomena. JN Reddy was perhaps attempting to bring the weighted residual-differential equation approach into regular teaching (as against the variational-stiffness approach). Yet, his book was still in its first edition, and the flights of mathematics were not sufficiently supplemented with physical or conceptual explanations. As a result, the book was far too often uneven for self-study. (iii) Heubner's and TJR Hughes' books were simply not available back then--even if you were willing to shell out one or two months' of your entire monthly earning (research stipend). (I suspect an affordable edition of Hughes' book is still not available.) 

Against this background, two books provided major relief. The first was Desai and Abel; the second was Chandrupatla and Belegundu.

Desai's book had a slight civil engineering bias. (Not much, but it was noticeable.) But in terms of the lucidity of writing and the simplicity of explanation, his book made learning FEM ten times, perhaps hundred times easier. I do not exaggerate in adulation, but speak from experience. As a matter of fact, I am not even sure if quantitative superlatives are at all applicable here, because the difference the book made was qualitative--from aversion to active interest.

I distinctly remember my trying to negotiate through other books, without getting even a start in understanding, as a student on the IIT Madras campus in 1986. I had invested considerable time--several week-ends--but still couldn't get much past the understanding that in FEM, first, you split up the domain, and somewhere near the end of the solution procedure, you add solutions that in some sense involve piece-wise interpolation. And, the idea that there is some kind of a potential associated with it. That's all I could get from the other books. Quite a mess of concepts it was!

Then, about a couple of years later, in 1988 or so, I picked up Desai and Abel's book out of curiosity--even though my job didn't need it. I was able to run through the first six chapters of their book as if things now made sense. The reason was not my own maturation. The reason was that Desai and Abel were able to present the big picture in so simple a manner that one had to wonder why the other authors missed it.

High quality research in some narrow area can be valuable, but that is just one thing. If a researcher is not able to explain his work in terms understandable to even a graduate let alone the lay public, chances are high that the researcher himself lacks sufficient conceptual integrations. Regardless of how highly he may be held in esteem by his professional colleagues. (Research trends too have fads.)

Here, Feynman's example *is* worth emulating. It appears that he had made it a moral imperative for himself that any physics research he does ought to be understandable even to a high-school student. I think this is a worthy standard not for altruist reasons, but for the simple fact that if you keep *that* as even an imaginary goal, you will act to have your own integrations in place. In applied sciences and engineering, we could at least hope that we could explain our research to a third/final year undergraduate student! Desai and Abel had managed to do that, in my case, for FEM--where others had clearly *failed*.

Of course, many excellent books have since then appeared. Today, the Indian market is flooded with at least 15 books, all available off the shelf. May be more. Yet, in my mind (and I am sure in the minds of so many other engineers who were trying to learn FEM in late 1980s) the name of Chandrakant S. Desai will always remain associated with that golden-yellow book which simplified FEM. There is a kind of warmth and gratitude which goes with that.

Congratulations, again, to Prof. Desai for this award.

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