User login


You are here

Scholarship in mechanics

Roberto Ballarini's picture

A few days ago I had a good discussion with a dear colleague on the topic of the current state of scholarship in mechanics and the education of the new generation of mechanicians. During the past few decades most mechanics researchers have limited their activities to the writing of papers and research proposals. This because the “reward system” places little value to the authoring of monographs and textbooks. In fact the number of quality books produced during this period pales in comparison to those written by the giants of mechanics, including Timoshenko, Truesdall, etc. I posit that this is a sorry state of affairs, and that there is a need for this void to be filled. Much of the dissemination of knowledge these days is done through social media and other online venues. There is some value to communication using social media, and also to the posting of classroom notes to an online repository. But one can make an argument that this approach will not suffice if mechanics is to continue its tradition as a pillar of engineering science. I encourage the young generation to think about dedicating some of their time to the writing of books and monographs on modern topics of mechanics. Books that are well written, to the highest extent possible self-contained, and rigorous, will be a great resource for students and researchers who want to learn about these topics and quickly advance to making their own contributions. The time required on the learning curve with the help of books will certainly be shorter than the time needed to learn by finding good papers in the sea of the published literature. Writing good books takes time and commitment, and also a deep understanding of the subject. During my discussion I was reminded of the masterpieces written by my dear friend Piero Villaggio, who dedicated years of his life to write my favorite elasticity book Qualitative Methods in Elasticity and the monumental Die Werke von Johann Bernoulli I: Mechanics. It took Piero four years to write the latter, which involved reading many of Bernoulli's manuscripts, to "get into the mind" of Bernoulli and explain his thought process; and also to correct some of Bernoullli's errors. Piero was fortunate to have started his career when productivity was not measured by grantsmanship, citation metrics and awards. This allowed him to focus on pure intellectual activities, and to inspire everyone in his orbit, including me. I encourage the younger generation to think about spending more of their time on this kind of scholarship. It will make them better researchers, teachers, and mentors.


Zhigang Suo's picture

To write papers or to write books, that is the question. Gibbs wrote his book-length paper to define thermodyanmics as a branch of physical chemistry. This act was tough to follow even in his day. Timoshenko wrote books that are still read today. Also a tough act to follow, but one would think that some people could. It is puzzeling that why many superb reserchers do not write books today. Has this always been the case that only a tiny fractions of reserchers write books? Or are we moving from books to papers and shorter papers? I have not looked at the numbers myself. Even if the trend is real, I am uncertain of its cause. Let's see if other people have comments.

Roberto Ballarini's picture

Zhigang: it may be useful to quantify this. But I would expect (or as I sometimes say, be willing to bet a quarter), that a larger fraction of the top researchers wrote books many decades ago than today. Think about who you believe is at the top of the field, in terms of their excellent research, deep understanding of mechanics, etc.. And then see how many of them have written a book or a monograph. I have personally asked a few of these individuals why they don't write books, and they were honest in their replies by stating that they are too busy to do so. Of course I respect their decision, but at the same time it is a shame. As pointed out, we are still reading the classic texts from as far back as 100 years ago. Would it not be great for learners if, say, Timoshenko's of Love's classics in elasticity are augmented by a book or books on modern topics and applications of elasticity, to which you have greatly contributed (hint hint). 

The motivation for writing books I would guess is pretty personal.  For me, my first book was written for two reasons (1) the book I was following (Popov) had gotten to wordy and dense with extraneous material (further the publisher ruined the book by forcing Egor to revise it when he was nearly 88, which introduced many typos), and (2) all the other books were similar and nearing +$200 for a strength of materials book.  Thus I wrote my own to be slimmer and less expensive.  Plus I needed a book for juniors and based on calculus not algebra -- of which there were few.

My next book was a translation project (German to English); so there it was to help out some good friends in Germany that wanted to bring their book (undergraduate dynamics) to English speakers.  So this was really just for the fun of it.

My most recent book, Continuum Mechanics of Solids with Lallit Anand and the companion problems book , were written to fill a void in comprehensive modern introductory text books for graduate students.  If I look around my desk right now at the books that really matter to me, most fall into this latter category -- books written to fill a void at the time they were written.  Put another way, people wanted to fill a void that they saw, whether for their own needs or those of the wider profession.

These days it seems that there is less drive to do that from our top colleagues -- perhaps because the rewards system.  But I think having a well adopted book is its own special type of award -- the appreciation of students and the feeling that comes from knowing that you have really helped someone else achieve one of their goals -- being a teacher in addition to being a researcher.  I even make educational YouTube videos on mechanics, which will never gain me any traditional rewards, but it is nice to know that many students world wide appreciate them.  Hidden however is a type of monetary reward, but not from book sales! (Never write a book to make royalties, as you will find your hourly wage to be something quite laughable in a sadistic kind of way.)  In the traditional promotion system like we have at Berkeley, the campus wide promotions/salary advancements committee seats many professors from the liberal arts where books are the major stepping stones to promotion.  So indirectly, when you are advanced far enough in your career, there is a monetary reward.  But for engineers this is only later in a career (past tenure and full professor) since your promotion at the department and college level will hinge 90% on your research.


Roberto Ballarini's picture


Dibakar Datta's picture

 Nowadays, in many places, the h-index is used to measure researchers' productivity and impact. Many people even split one paper into multiple small papers to increase citation and h-index. 

 Here are some important discussions on the negative impact of h-index :

    Why the h-index is a bogus measure of academic impact

    h-index and how academic publishing has changed: Feynman and Einstein just aren't that impressive anymore

 Four great reasons to stop caring so much about the h-index

 Is it time to bury the h-index?

 Why the h-index is little use?


swcranford's picture

This is one of those things that comes with experience, which I guess is one of the reasons that many books are written by faculty in the latter-half of their careers. But the process of writing a book – not the compilation of ideas – but the process of building a cohesive story is what is lacking in a piecewise collection of papers. Also, too many grad students take a piecewise appraoch to their dissertations... but that is another story. Mastery of a subject comes through in such works, such as those by Timoshenko - not too many my age (and I'm getting older) are picking up these rare tomes, but they were critical resources for me when I used to teach.

This is also the difference between a good review article and a great one – they may have all the same information, but a great review pulls it together in a more synergistic (and hopefully appealing) manner. A text gives you the room to flesh out ideas, motivate them and meander around them.

Papers are like a date – could be fun, could be very attractive, might even arrange a second date, but you’re not committed. A book is like a marriage – a commitment to an idea, good and bad, and so much more rewarding.

Now, if you have a book in mind (i.e., marriage), you might even improve your individual papers (i.e., dates), because you know what you are looking for – you see the bigger picture.

The same thought process doesn’t have to be applied to research either – there are many creative ways to deliver course material, for example, which have resulted in very unique texts that are much more valuable, inspiring and motivational than a collection of the lectures and problem sets. 

In terms of academic social media, that is like Tindr – a quick glance to move on to the date. :) 

Zhigang Suo's picture

This iMechanica thread links to a Twitter thread:

Subscribe to Comments for "Scholarship in mechanics"

Recent comments

More comments


Subscribe to Syndicate