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Grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century, and how they relate to mechanics


Zhigang Suo's picture

Big challenges usually make people dizzy and disoriented, feelings that then translate to indifference.  It might be a useful exercise to reduce a big challenge to small pieces, solvable problems that are meaningful to individual people.  In particular, we can discuss in iMechanica how these challenges relate to us mechanicians.  When you click on each challenge above, a short essay appears, written by a committee of experts.  The essay serves as a starting point for discussion.

I'll start with the challenge to advance personalized learning.  Of course, learning has always been personalized, so long as we talk about learning done by humans, as brains appear to be individualized.  The real challenge, then, is personalized teaching, or more generally, providing an environment to help each individual learn.  Here is what the master teacher Feynman had to say:

"I think, however, that there isn't any solution to this problem of education than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher--a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things.  It's impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned.  But in our modern times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to find some substitute for the ideal."

Feynman said these words in 1963.  The biggest changes between then and now have to do with computers and the Internet.  So far as I can tell, this grand challenge is essentially reduced to creating substitutes for the ideal by exploiting computers and the Internet. 

In a blog entry posted on Friday, Robert Cringely said that "we're moving from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic."  As usual his blog entry is both perceptive and provocative. As I read, I was nodding one moment and rolling my eyes another.  His entry has already received over 100 comments.  While many commenters have misgivings about "new ways of learning", few have dismissed the values of Google and Wikipedia to education.

The "old ways of learning", symbolized by lectures and books, have been refined ever since humans learned to tell stories around campfire.  It will be naive to think that the Internet will change all that over a decade or two.  The change will take a long time.  We will have to invent and experiment with various new ways, just as engineers always do when presented with new opportunities.  Thus this grand challenge for engineering of the century.  

The Internet has made ours a uniquely exciting time to be an engineer in the business of education.  And iMechanica is one experiment.

Now it is your turn to pick a grand challenge in the NAE list, and relate it to us mechanicians.

Pradeep Sharma's picture

Zhigang, thanks for this interesting post. This list is interesting...not too long ago a friend of mine had loaned me a book (also from the National Academy) which appears to be more directly related to the mechanics community. It is a survey by the National Research Council on future challenges in materials physics. Perhaps the two publications are related. In any event, the book I am talking about is titled: "Condensed-Matter and Materials Physics: The science of wolrd around us", National Research Council, 2010. It too lists various challenges facing materials scientists and physicists, examples are: (1) how do complex phenomena emerge from simple ingredients? (2) what is the physics of life? etc. In each category, details are provided.

In regards to the list of topics on your post I have to concur with Xiaodong that energy science and technology may become important. Perhaps bioengineering also but I am not knowledgable enough to comment on that. Since many researchers expect the next generation solutions to energy to emerge from advancements in nanotechnologies and materials science, I think the mechanicians can play a key role.

Xiaodong mentions solar energy and I think that is going to be important.  However, even if high efficiency and low cost is achieved in solar energy conversion, the issue of proper storage remains. Here I can point to a specific mechanics challenge that ties in with energy storage. Capacitors can be used for energy storage. Capacitance per unit area for a large area thin film is roughly the dielectric constant divided by the dielectric thickness. So, the specific capacitance may be increased by selecting high dielectric constant materials such as ferroelectrics and using nanoscale thin films. Consider the following: the expected capacitance of a 2.7 nm SrTiO3 thin film is 1600 fF/micron^2 (based on the classical electrostatics based formula I allued to earlier). What is the likely value in reality? 258 fF/micron^2!---see the paper by Stengel and Spaldin I mention later.  This dramatic drop in capacitance is attributed to the so-called "dead-layer" effect. There are many speculations in the literature about its origin and this problem remains (from what I can tell from recent papers, e.g. Rabe, Stengel and Spaldin) an interesting mechanics and physics challenge.  


Origin of the dielectric dead layer in nanoscale capacitors, M. Stengel and N. A. Spaldin, Nature 443, 679-682 (2006

Nanoelectronics: New life for the 'dead layer', K. Rabe, Nature Nanotechnology, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp. 171-172 (2006).

Xiaodong Li's picture

Thank you so much for posting this list. It is very timely and useful. I agree with Zhigang “it might be a useful exercise to reduce a big challenge to small pieces, solvable problems that are meaningful to individual people.”   

Challenges mean opportunities! What roles can we mechanicians play in those challenges?  Although contributions from different disciplinary fields as well as teamwork are essential, findings from individual people may also lead to significant advances. I would like to start with solar energy (number 1 in the list of the challenges). 

“But today’s commercial solar cells, most often made from silicon, typically convert sunlight into electricity with an efficiency of only 10 percent to 20 percent, although some test cells do a little better. Given their manufacturing costs, modules of today’s cells incorporated in the power grid would produce electricity at a cost roughly 3 to 6 times higher than current prices, or 18-30 cents per kilowatt hour [Solar Energy Technologies Program]. To make solar economically competitive, engineers must find ways to improve the efficiency of the cells and to lower their manufacturing costs.”   

The challenges include (but are not only limited to) the development of new materials and corresponding manufacturing processes.  As pointed out in the essay, “for enhancing efficiency involves developments in nanotechnology, the engineering of structures on sizes comparable to those of atoms and molecules, measured in nanometers (one nanometer is a billionth of a meter).”  

“Recent experiments have reported intriguing advances in the use of nanocrystals made from the elements lead and selenium.” “Lead-selenium nanocrystals enhance the chance of releasing a second electron rather than the heat, boosting the electric current output.”  This prediction shows a new and exciting field: “nano/energy technology.”    

Even more promising, “theoretically the nanocrystal approach could reach efficiencies of 60 percent or higher, though it may be smaller in practice. Engineering advances will be required to find ways of integrating such nanocrystal cells into a system that can transmit the energy into a circuit.” This presents a real challenge to us mechanicians – mechanics and reliability of nanocrystal cells as well as their interconnects. The current J-Club issue on “Impact of Chip-Package Interaction on Reliability of Copper/Low k Interconnects and Beyond” can be extended to this topic. In addition, manufacturing processes require knowledge of nano mechanics.  I would like to suggest a J-Club theme – Mechanics in Energy Materials and Systems. We need to catch up this wave and show our potential in the challenge.

Zhigang Suo's picture

The April 2008 issue of the MRS Bulletin is a special issue on Harnessing Materials for Energy.  All articles in this special issue are free online.

MichelleLOyen's picture

I am a bit underwhelmed by this particular list, for a few reasons.  The list really under-represents the value and importance of human medicine and bioengineering.  Overall, big changes in medicine are coming about due to the influence of engineers, and in particular this includes mechanicians.  The three "health" topics they picked for the list:

# Advance health informatics
# Engineer better medicines
# Reverse-engineer the brain 

are not readily mechanics topics at all.  Health informatics is a computer science question, medicines and pharmacology are more biochemistry (I'd question if this one is really engineering at all!), and neuroscience is more of an electrical/information engineering question.

So to this list, I would add the following, my own "grand challenges in engineering" that have a particular focus on biomechanics.

1.  Build replacement body parts.  There are many sets of circumstances in which replacement body parts are needed, of which the most obvious (disease, such as cancer, or damage, such as war or car crash injuries) represent both a large number of parts and fairly complicated functional replacements. In some cases, the missing parts have direct mechanical functions.  In other cases, there may be functions that are not primarily mechanical, but the inclusion of "correct" mechanical responses is required for the body to accept the replacement.  To date, tissue engineering has not yet seen its full promise, and mechanical aspects in tissue engineering are under-studied compared with other aspects.  We are still a long way from being able to build functional, multi-tissue constructs for severe injuries, missing limbs, etc.

2. Diagnostics.  Much of the potential advancement in disease diagnosis is associated with the fact that the mechanical properties of diseased tissues are often different than normal tissues.  Since I work on indentation and contact mechanics questions, I often joke that doctors do far more indentation tests than the entire nanoindentation and nanomechanics community, they just do them with a very sensitive pressure transducer called their fingertips.  Recent advances in medical imaging have also had a mechanical focus, with ultrasound and MRI elastography taking advantage of the mechanical property differences in diseased tissues to make new imaging modes.

3. Biomimetics.  This is less a healthcare question and more of a general engineering question.  As was discussed in the recent j-Club on the topic , Julian Vincent's group has done some fantastic analysis on how nature solves problems versus how engineers tend to solve problems.  We as engineers almost universally fall short in complexity and overuse raw energy.  As such, biomimetics has the potential to directly influence many other fields by "learning from nature" how better to use the energy that we have, and how to develop alternative schemes from those in traditional (industrial revolution-based) engineering. 

4. Cell mechanotransduction.  This is another topic recently discussed in the j-Club and involves our continued lack of basic understanding about how cells actually function.  Without better understanding of cells, we don't understand life in general! 

Roozbeh Sanaei's picture


Most of My Posts in IMechanica is Related to How we can find direction of ongoing science! Teach people (like me) how to choose their research topics! Such lists are GREAT! this help us not to forget the mission of science. 

but this 3 topic are too general

  1. Engineer better medicines
  2. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery
  3. Advance health informatics

This is just like to say making human life better! I hope NAE makes this missions more clear.

IMechanica is a great Forum. does any body know such Forum in Biochemistry?!


Roozbeh Sanaei.

Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering Lab.

National university of Singapore


Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Roozbeh:  The NAE Grand Challenges are more than just a list.  Each entry is described by an essay, along with references for further reading.  Also, each entry has now become a forum of discussion, with a large number of comments from the international community. 

Zhigang Suo's picture

The US National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (USNC/TAM) has just had its annual meeting on Friday and Saturday.  Prior to the meeting, Ravi-Chandar suggested that the Committee should discuss the NAE Grand Challenges.  It turned out that many on the committee were aware of the NAE list, and the Grand Challenges did enter our discussion prominently at several points. 

Many members of the Committee felt that it is important to relate mechanics to societal challenges.  Even though some of the Grand Challenges look unrelated to mechanics, and the NAE list may not please everyone, it is still significant to examine our discipline from the perspective of our customers:  the society.  And the NAE list can serve as a starting point.

It will not be credible for us to claim that mechanics will solve energy crisis.  But no discipline can make that claim.  It is entirely within our reach, however, to make a convincing case that mechanics will play a significant role in advancing energy technologies.  Indeed, mechanics will play a significant role even if we do not try to make a case now. 

Then why bother to make such a case?  Here are some obvious reasons.  The Grand Challenges will help us place our daily work in context, inspire us to be more creative, and help us recruit young people to the discipline.  And of course, many of us need to write proposals for funding.  

Several of us on the Committee have been tasked to think how to effect a discussion of the Grand Challenges in the broad community of mechanics.  Some initial suggestions include

  • Use iMechanica to gauge interest of the community, and to collect resources compiled by related disciplines.  The thread of discussion on Grand Challenges will be kept on the front page for some time.
  • At some later point, write a short document to distill the discussion, and make a case for mechanics.
  • Organize panel discussions at national conferences.

By now we have known something about Pasteur's quadrant, and should not fall back to yet another one dimensional thinking that only the societal needs can motivate good research.  So let us not rehash the old debate about applied vs. pure research. 

Let us know your thoughts on the Grand Challenges, and how you connect them to mechanics.

Grand engineering challenges of the 21st century have been identified by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) (see those at The U.S. National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (USNC/TAM), at its meeting of April 25-26, made it a priority to link those to the field of mechanics, both solid and fluid mechanics.

Whether the challenge is to make solar energy economical, develop carbon sequestration methods, provide access to clean water, engineer better medicines or enhance virtual reality (to name just a few), there is no doubt that mechanics is in a position to play a crucial role.

What we need is a version of Hilbert's problems in (preferably theoretical) mechanics. My opinion is that these problems need to be well defined because I find the NAE list quite vague.



Zhigang Suo's picture

Perhaps defining significant solvable problems is itself the most challenging, and rewarding, part of innovation.  A child (and a philosopher) may ask deep questions, but such questions usually do not turn into solvable problems within reasonable time.   To me, the NAE list reminds us some of the significant societal needs.  It is up to us to turn them into solvable problems.

MichelleLOyen's picture

Zhigang,  I couldn't agree more.  The greatest and most disturbing element of the NAE list to me (with my clear bio-focus) is the lack of challenges that address clear and current problems with obvious engineering needs for solutions.  I guess that's what they mean by "grand"! 

In medicine and healthcare there are many "now" problems that require real solutions--diagnosis, treatment, prevention--and these are separate from the greater desire to obtain better understanding of living systems more generally (a la "reverse engineering the brain").  I have some difficulty seeing how and engineering approach to "advancing health informatics" is actually addressing any of the greatest needs right now--issues such as patient privacy and the sensitive nature of medical information have restricted the use of existing computing resources--the engineering aspect is not necessarily the rate-limiting step in this particular field.  I would say we find this to be true quite frequently, that the technical level of engineering used to address real medical problems is below the technical level associated with the engineering state-of-the-art at any point.  That does not mean that it does not require "good engineering" to address these problems, in fact, if anything the opposite is true--but it might be a question more of successful application of current technology than development of new technology.

Mike Ciavarella's picture

Zhigang and Michelle

   I cannot avoid a few remarks. The NAE challenges don't seem to raise interest, if it wasn't for you two trying to pull the discussion on your side, with Michelle who clearly would redesign completely the Challenges and, like me, thinks she could have done it better!!) but others not very interested, while Zhigang tries hard to be positive and suggest we need solvable problems.

   I disagree with both!    Challenges for next centuries are the cry for vision!  When Leonardo planned his "grand horse" it was an impossible project.  If you limit yourself to what you consider feasible, you will never achieve if not an incremental paper --- like of course 99% of scientists do, and it is only 1% of scientists who do the 99% of innovations.

    But I am following closely the discussion to see how to shape my own European Challenges program.  I have started to mounted the site, and the personal one is ready

I remind you my previous contributions:  

Why Raul Castro can teach NAE how to appeal to the US people, and why the Engineering Challeges doesn't seem to raise interest!    

American Paradox,
I am trying to setup a Engineering Challenges project which may be with more "sex-appeal"


First, thanks to all of you who welcomed me back to this forum.  My day was brightened considerably by your messages.

After seeing Michele's latest message I went to his site and was met by the picture of Benoit Mandelbrot.  I remember stealing off during the Turin ICF 11 conference to visit the  Museum of Egyptiology in Turin.  I wasn't the only one who had taken the day off - Mandelbrot was also there looking listlessly at the huge scrolls.  I didn't have the courage to disturb the man and have a photo clicked with him :)

A few months in India have helped me reorient my view of what the grand challenges of the future are.  One one hand there are the challenges for the mind involved in  research for the sake of better understanding.  On the other hand there are challenges facing humanity and the planet.  I feel that, as mechanicians, we should keep these big challenges in mind when we try to seek problems to solve.

In my opinion, the main challenges for mankind are:

1) Food :  How can we produce, preserve, and distribute food most efficiently and with the minimum of waste?  The production part may involve things such as tilling (e.g., how to design a blade that can till the land with the least energy wastage).  Preservation may involve the development of refridgeration systems that use heat pipes and there are many mechanics challenges in efficient drilling.  Distribution involves transportation and the development of the most energy efficient infrastructure possible.  These technologies may either require revolutions or steady evolution.  However, the mode does not matter as long as we have a solution/s.

2) Water : How can we provide and distribute clean water efficiently?  Once again, I can see a number of great mechanics challenges here - from the nanoscale to the macro scale.

3) Shelter : How can we provide cheap and energy efficient shelters to people? Once again, the solution will need a mechanics, thermodynamics, and a host of other skills.

4) Energy:  Bits of this have been addressed by the NAE report.

5) Health:  Once we have the first three, a signifant range of health issues will have been dealt with.  Some of the rest have been addressed by NAE and previous commentators.

6) Education:  Given the previous 5 items, education becomes easier to provide.   Among many things that may be done, the issue that I see needs urgent action from engineers and scientists is the creation of a scientific mindset among populations around the world.  Surely, that's a grand challenge?

I feel that we, as mechanicians, should keep in the back of our minds some of these grand challenges and direct our research towards contributing to solve these problems.

Surely we are imaginative enough to come up with ways to help humanity, in our own special mechanician ways?

-- Biswajit 

I see these as political problems and not mechanics problems.




Indeed, all problems can be viewed from a political lens.  For example, the current push toward nantechnology is to a large extent driven by political considerations, e.g., the continuance of US hegemony in high technology.  Mike's original post also decried a perceived potential loss of western hegemony in the sciences.  That's definitely a poltical statement.  Also, a large number of research engineers (and mechanicians) contribute to enhancing the military capabilities of their countries.  Since the ultimate goal of these types of research is political hegemony via military power,  these types of activity may also be classified as political.

However, my point is that many aspects of seemingly political problems actually involve significant technical challenges.   To get research funding to be able to solve these problems definitely requires political acumen.   I hope that's what you mean when you say that these problems are political.

-- Biswajit 

Mike Ciavarella's picture

I liked the message from Biswajit Banerjee because I can see it was free from the usual approach scientists do.


1) here are my ideas

2) let's read the calls for proposals around

3) let's see how I can fit my ideas in 1) to the proposals in 2)

Sometimes, it is the best scientists which do that, and of course this means not much discussion and thinking behind the entire process, about the real need for humanity.  I suspect this is the limit of Michelle's approach.  She had decided her own priority, could not see any in the Grand Challenges and was disappointed.

Biswajit at least made quite an effort, as his proposals do not seem to have anything in common with the topics he has in his web page.  Congratulations! 

So ideally, in a good Project we should NOT let a panel decide the topic, we need more (still top scientists) people to decide the topics, for as good as it may be (and the very good one means that they are not likely to work hard on this, so behind the huge level of quality there in the panel, I doubt there is much work and interaction, as witnessed by the fact that 14 themes are too many).


One way around that is that I can decide only 4 or 5 macroareas and then let people write possible themes.  This is NOT in contrast to the work of NAE, so Michelle, Zhigang and  Biswajit are welcome to contribute.

Zhigang, since my WEB Site will take about 3 weeks to be completed, why not start this discussion in imechanica?  If you agree, tomorow I will post one such message.


Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Mike:  As they say, all roads lead to Rome (your home town?).  A researcher can choose (or random walk) whatever road that pleases her.  Start a grand chanllenge and work top down to see what specific problems that she can solve.  Or start with her skills and work bottom up to see which grand challenge she can make a difference.  Or start in the middle somewhere, end no where in particular, and wish that her work is so beautiful that someone will find a good use of it.  She might switch her approach at different stages of her career, if not switch every other day.  But why not?  Of course, she also wish to get funded, get students to join her group, rasie a child, get promoted...  Such is life.

I digressed.  This thread of discussion is about connecting Grand Engineering Chanllenges of the Humanity and Solvable Problems in Mechanics.  So many challenges.  So many solvable problems.  So little time (and money).  The roads connecting them will surely be multiple, scenic and adventurous.   I have been working in my head on posting specific ideas, and would love to see what you have to say.  I have a trip coming up, still unprepared for it...   Such is life. 

Mike Ciavarella's picture


I know exactly what our problem is:  we are not in the times of Leonardo who (i) was a genius (ii) didn't waste time for publishing (iii) could handle every area of science and technology virtually alone.

Here, we want to solve huge problems for humanity, yet we want to do this using only specialized knowledge we have in mechanics, as otherwise we feel that either we are not good, or that we would disperse our energies.

As you may realize, I am in a state of confusion after writing my 100th paper, since I found that was not rewarding after all. I have written now a review for Railways industrialists as a polemic note about the previous 200 years of research, saying that the different companies and research centres have worked like in the Tower of Babel, and the punishement for building the Tower not in the spirit of God was that they would speak forever different languages.

During this sabbatical, I have first written 4 papers, and sent 2 to JMPS.  The 2 editors haven't responded yet, while I have almost forgot what I did.

So all this is going to change.  We are in the decline of the scientific system as we think of it, for 2 reasons

1) it is too old

2) it is saturated, and we don't use time efficiently like Leonardo who did not publish

Soon, papers will dye, journals will dye, and I have the feeling that I will not write classical papers any more.

I was impressed by an article in the magazine (what a coincidence) about Google, and how crazily ambitious these people are. Far from what it appears in the NAE report, Larry Page has real vision, he is the Leonardo of these days.

He is going to change the world, not only in informatics, the software, the publishing, but even energy!  Since he is a major user of energy, he is investing largely in renewable energy, he is building huge plants, has a lot of secret plans, he knows exactly what to do.  When he met Bill Gates in 2002, he wasn't impressed.  When he went in the stock market, he created an algorithm on his own to decide the value, and managed to convince venture capitalists to follow his bizzarre strategy, which involved many venture capitalists.

So he is maybe also touching mechanics, but to a small extent. He doesn't pose himself constraints.  I have seen a video of him lecturing in Berkeley.  You should listen to him.  No presentation at all, no support, no powerpoint.  Just words!!   Very original. Simple, brutally simple and effective.  Like his blank page which has changed the world. 

He starts from WIKIPEDIA!  This guy is a genius.  I cannot imagine how he can be stopped, his motto is "you have to be irrealistic in fixing your goals".  And that was Leonardo 500 years ago.

We cannot work on our old business for long (except that we have a salary because there are even more old-fashion rules which give us tenure, and a salary).  

Imechanica is a first step towards doing mechanics in a wikipedia fashion, but it is not working much also because the idea has not convinced the old people.  But when we do that, and papers are dead, google will have invented his own system to do collaborative work I am sure. 

So, we have difficulties in prediction of the future as we are not visionary as Leonardo or GOOGLE people

We have been making "pars destruens" - when the part "construens"?

For now, I have stopped writing papers, as I have the lack not to have students, and no responsibilities to run a group.

And I feel free (although dizzy) since I have embarked into this new idea to speculate and discuss strategies.

If you follow, we can make progress.  But most likely, mechanics will only be a part, so we cannot discuss much unless other people join in.  This is what my portal aims at doing, but it is too ambitious. I hope to have help. 


First, the youtube link that you've provided does not work (:

Though Leonardo was a true Renaissance man, it can be argued that much of what he did ha no immediate impact on the progress of science or the industrial revolution.  The reason, I feel, was that he dabbled in too many things and failed to publish. 

In Indic traditions every person has a countable set of duties to be performed during the course of their life.  I believe that it is the duty of scientists to publish their discoveries for the benefit of a wider audience.  However, I like the Darwin model rather than the Euler model of publishing :)  I wish people would try to reach the limits their ideas/capabilities on a topic before publishing - but that's wishful thinking in our publish-or-perish culture.  After all, as Zhigang suggests, we do have to feed ourselves and our families.

The grand challenges that face us today cannot be tackled by people skilled in a narrow speciality.  On the other hand, there is so much to learn that no single individual can ever hope to provide a solution either.  So multidisplinary approaches are the only way to go - however trite that might sound.  Therefore I will add another grand challenge to the list. How can we make people versed in diverse specialities come together to solve the other grand challenge problems?

The web can be a great enabler in bringing people together.  Perhaps we need a Facebook for scientists, a SecondLife for people like you who have decided to stop publishing, and a Grand Challenge Wiki to bring together diverse ideas. 

-- Biswajit 


Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Mike:  Your post reminded me of an old and unfunded proposal to NSF to create iMechanica.  Many of us have been smitten by the raw simplicity and brilliance of Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia.   I'll write more when I find time.  Still unprepared for the trip.  But for the time being, please take a look at the old proposal, and you will find that you are not alone in many of your sentiments.  I believe that we will find a way to channel our creative energy and use our skill of mechanics. 

Mike Ciavarella's picture

It reminds me that also Larry Paige could not sell his algorithm when he was just a student.

 This is entirely the problem of Research --- writing proposals which are assessed by burocrats is intrinsically stupid, and this is what has caused the collapse of research. It is burocracts who get the money, and incremental people.  You are closer to be a "dropout" millionaire from Harvard, than an incremental Professor.

This is why Leonardo, Einstein, the big contributors, NEVER made major advancemenst out of proposals, and NOT EVEN from academic positions.  We should let research be run more freely.  The guy who apparently cracked the 5th Fermat theorem is a Russian who lives with his mum and refused the Field Medal! 


We should think about this when having to design the NAE challenges.  I am sure Larry Paige had NO real role there, it is only NAE who put his name.  He is VERY secretive about his technology, like atomic bomb at the Manhattan project times and cold war.  Imagine if there is anything of any sex/appeal in the NAE workplan.  Better NOT to read it or we get confused.  Better to read the old LEONARDO manuscripts 550 years old.

MichelleLOyen's picture

I'm going to ignore the derogatory statment and reiterate why I did not like the grand challenges, particularly those that had a bio-bent.  

Research runs from basic science to applied.  Some of us have, as a primary goal, research into human health and disease, which tends to be more applied if it is to be directed to the clinic in the next 5-10 years.  And this research is fundamentally economically-limited.  If we spend ALL of our scarce research resources, not to mention our scarce healthcare resources, on "Grand Challenges" then we potentially miss opportunities in the list of Biswajit's.  The things of basic life, sometimes which are addressed by groups such as "Engineers without borders"   

Some of us also believe that there are substantial engineering (and mechanics) opportunities in this field of healthcare that have not yet been exploited, such that human health is not benefiting from the research that already exists to solve problems that we (engineers) find to be commonplace or old news.  We don't necessarily need grand challenges beyond "apply the engineering knowledge we already have to problems of medicine and health" in order to make a qualitative impact on the world. 


Gopinath Venkatesan's picture

Very interesting posts and messages. My opinion is that science is moving forward as fast as in the days of Leonardo. How does one feel about reaching the space to find other places to live, and/or going nano? As you add to the heap of stuffs (be it anything), as the pile is getting bigger and bigger, any individual contribution is becoming more and more unnoticed.


Graduate Student

University of Oklahoma 

I feel that we need a list of ten outstandingly important problems in applied mechanics/mathematics that can be tackled
by a postdoc or a ph.d. student without the necessity of external funding.


The short duration of a PhD requires that the problems given to a student be solvable in sa reasonably short period of time.  I feel that it's is unreasonable to hand outstanding problems (that is, significant unsolved problems) to a PhD student or a postdoc unless they have worked on parts of the problem before.  Also, without external funding (is a fellowship part of that?) how do you propose that a postdoc or a PhD student should feed themselves?  I suppose you mean that no expensive experimental or computational work should be involved thus rendering external funding irrelevant.  So we are left with theoretical problems that can be solved analytically.

Anyway, here are two that I would like an answer to:

1) A large amount of energy is needed to turn the soil over every year before a crop can be planted.  The basic method has remained the same over thousands of years.  Can we use mechanics to find a way of tilling the soil with the least amount of energy use?  Do we know for sure that the methods that are in use today are optimal?

2) Almost every object that is used in modern societies contains some material that has been extracted from the earth.  A huge amount of energy is used in crushing rocks to a fine enough size that surface chemistry may then be used to extract a particular metal.  Assuming that we would like to use energy more efficiently, is there a way our knowledge of mechanics can be used to minimize the energy used in crushing rocks?  A huge number of people have worked on this problem - yet an optimal solution seems as far away as ever.

-- Biswajit 

This is the second time in this thread you've brought up tractor blades. I think this is one great interpretation of these challenges for mechanicians. I would note that greater efficiency here does not only save energy in a green sense, but also could enable farmers in developing nations to increase production.

Elsevier has three journals that seem like they might have material on this topic—Journal of Terramechanics, Soil and Tillage Research, and Computers and Electronics in Agriculture. There seemed to be many interesting articles (especially in Journal of Terramechanics) addressing blade performance issues. From skimming a few abstracts, I do not get the impression very sophisticated computational models are being used.

Zhigang Suo's picture

One of the Grand Challenges, advance health informatics, seems to be unrelated to mechanics, but is related to every mechanician.  Google has just rolled out a new product:  Google Health.  Each user can maintain his own Google Health account, just as he maintains his own email account.  I went to my Google Health account, and added a condition I had, and a medicine I took.  Google pointed me to references about the condition.  I can let my doctor access my account.  Presumably she will be able to add to my record.  If I start with a new doctor, I should not need to fill new forms.

If you have a gmail account, you can go directly to Google Health.

MichelleLOyen's picture

This is very interesting indeed.  I worked with a medical doctor on research at the time when the "HIPAA privacy rule " was being enacted and the privacy issues associated with health information are extremely important and complicated--it very much changed our research practices.  I am not familiar with Google Health but will be interested to see how this service lines up with the HIPAA regs. 

The idea of a user-centric, portable portal for health information is a great one, however.  It has long been the case that the one place where such information is controlled by the patient and not by the doctor or the health insurance company is during pregnancy, and this is at least in part because the person has such a strong interest in their medical care that they become very proactive.  I see this development of Google Health therefore as a potentially very promising thing, so long as privacy is maintained.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Michelle:  Glad to hear that you know something about health informatics.  Daniel Suo once worked in a local hospital to help with information system.  He told me how inefficient the system was. 

About privacy I have had similar reaction.  Here is what Google puts out about the privacy policy.  I don't know enough to really comment on it.

In any case, this new service seems to be an excellent idea.  It attempts to resolve somthing mundane but important by using the Internet.  I wish we had ideas like this for some aspect of mechanics. 

Mike Ciavarella's picture

The secure cyberspace one, which somebody calls WEB3.0

We are putting so much personal data on the web, particularly scientists because we are under pressure and usually you see long CV of scientists who put also names of wife and children just to make it longer!

Now Google has our health condition, who knows if they will sell this to pharmaceutical companies:  they are very clever, perhaps more than Elsevier.  You like Google Health:  I, instead, start to worry... 

I would be curious to know which parts Larry Page wrote of the Challenges!   Probably not secure cyberspace... unless they plan to go into that business too.  It is an old strategy, first you create a problem, then you are called to solve it.

As usual, Zhigang and Michelle, you surprise me for how naif you seem to be, if I may say with no offense. 


Mike Ciavarella's picture

Mankind has made a great breakthrough in exploring the planet, the space and the waters in the last couple of centuries.  People would surely use certain amount of reasonable ideas given here in order to write my dissertation abstract at someday. Feeling high to find one more clever
person. That was a case of a talent to see such a degree of thinkings.

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