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Bring established mechanicians to iMechanica

Zhigang Suo's picture

iMechanica has gone a long way since its launch in September 2006.  The number of registered users is approaching 7,000, and the number of entries (posts and comments) has exceeded 10,000.  iMechanica is created and maintained by volunteering mechanicians, and is not funded by anybody.  The remarkable growth of iMechanica has surprised even the most optimistic among us.  Many have noted, however, that iMechanica is predominantly used by junior mechanicians.  This demographics is unremarkable for any web site, but many feel that we can benefit tremendously from the participation of established mechanicians. 

At an annual meeting of the US National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics on Friday and Saturday, I was warmly encouraged by the members of the Committee.  Many of them had been fascinated by iMechanica, and had recognized its significance to the future of mechanics.  Several members have promised to actively participate, and to make an effort to recruit new users.  It seems that the time is ripe for us to act and get established mechanicians involved. 

Many established mechanicians have stayed away from iMechanica for reasons including

  1. They don't know about iMechanica.
  2. They feel uncomfortable to post online.
  3. They don't have time.

I have discussed these reasons in a previous post.  Here I'd like to focus on why established mechanicians should become active in iMechanica.  First, let's look at examples of participation by established mechanicians.

  • Bill Nix posted the notes of his course on the mechanics of thin films.
  • John Hutchinson posted his course on the mechanics of thin films.
  • Ken Chong posted entries on opportunities at the National Science Foundation.
  • Ravi-Chandar participated in many discussions.
  • Carl Herakovich posted entries in as a member of the US National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics.
  • Dick Christensen posted a link to his web site on failure criteria, and responded to comments by other users.
  • Allan Bower posted a link to his free textbook on solid mechanics, and responded to comments by other users.
  • Alan Zehnder posted a link to his free textbook on fracture mechanics.
  • Erik Van der Giessen participated in a jClub discussion.
  • Rohan Abeyarane posted a link to the notes of his course on mathematics for continuum mechanics.
  • Nancy Sottos posted links to her Nature papers.
  • Kyung-Suk Kim posted an old essay that inspired him when he was a student. 
  • Alan Needleman posted a faculty opening.

The list goes on.  The activities of established mechanicians are as diverse as junior mechanicians. 

We wish to see more participation from established mechanicians for many reasons, such as

  1. The community of mechanics is blessed with scholars with extraordinary accomplishments.  The opinions of these scholars matter greatly to aspiring mechanicians.
  2. Mechanics is a discipline with depth and breadth.  It usually takes some maturity to make a significant contribution.
  3. Mechanics is a discipline with a long and distinguished history.  Great research topics of the  past may have gone out of fashion today, but they may provide background for new work, and they may even reappear in new forms.
  4. Most practical experiences and anecdotes in our field have gone unrecorded.

To show the value of the participation of established researchers, we can point to the Timoshenko Lectures.  These lectures have been popular among mechanicians.  Now only a small fraction of our community have the opportunity to give such lectures, and the lectures themselves have been restricted to a certain length.  It would be wonderful more mechanicians could recount their experiences.  Their stories would constitute a living history of mechanics.  Their collective experiences are the very fabrics of our discipline.

If you are a young mechanician and reading this post, think how you can help the senior colleague next door become an active iMechcanician.  Show him how to register.  Show him how to submit a post.  Tell him that his story means a lot to you and possibly means something to a great many other mechanicians.  Also tell him that an effective entry can be very short.  Everyone needs some stimulation (and encouragement) once in a while. 

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that the web of mechanicians, by mechanicians, for mechanicians, shall not perish from the Internet.


Rui Huang's picture

What an encouraging note! And what a closing sentence. Thank you, Zhigang, for being THE established mechanician who started it all and who has stimulated a great many already. 


MichelleLOyen's picture

I've had several conversations recently with people who have tried to add internet forums as a side to conferences or organizations, and who have found that the uptake was poor (in stark contrast to the success of iMechanica).  I think it relates quite closely to what is being discussed here as well.  The thing is, people have to see the value of the internet forum and see a reason for participating.  I believe some of the success in iMechanica is associated with the real services that it offers to the mechanics community: job postings, conference announcements, research discussions.  It certainly brings more of this information together in a single place than I have ever seen before, and it is one of the reasons for my enthusiasm about this site. 

It may just be that for a number of reasons, these "services" appeal more to the needs of younger mechanicians more than more established ones.  And I guess I'm of the opinion that if that's the way it is, then that's okay and trying to force growth amongst established mechanicians does not make sense.  However, a different question to ask in this context might be "what sorts of content would be likely to attract established mechanicians to this web forum?" if it is seen as important aspect of the community.  So my question for Zhigang:what exactly is it that you want in terms of the participation of established mechanicians?   I can guess what one of the answers would be, and that is potentially as journal club topic leaders, and let me assure you we're working on it!  But in what other capacities are you specifically targeting participation by established mechanicians?

Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Michelle:  As always I'm grateful to you for perceptive remarks.  You ask, "what sorts of content would be likely to attract established mechanicians to this web forum?" 

Mostly I'd love to learn from senior colleagues things that they do not publish in journal articles:  What inspired them?  Who helped them when they were young?  What science bubbles did they help to blow in their youthful days?  Did they have a lucky break?  Which papers of theirs got few citations but they are absolutely proud of?  Is the energy crisis this time any different from previous ones?  Will energy research this time be yet another science bubble?

In short, I'd love to have a conversation.  No topic is off limit.  Nobody is held accountable for opinions.  But then, the Internet communication is not exactly a conversation at a lunch or in a hallway.  And people have different ideas about what is valuable and what is proper. 

We really cannot predict what content will appeal to the established mechanicians.  Once sufficient number of senior people begin to explore this mode of communication, they may as well surprise us with their ingenuity.  Perhaps the content most appealing to them will be the one created by themselves.  Perhaps all we need to do is get them started in this mode of communication, just as they got us started in research. 

MichelleLOyen's picture

Zhigang,  what happened to the "Mechanician of the Month" idea you had about a year ago?  Wasn't that on these lines, to have interviews and information on people in the field (and hopefully direct question and answer responses by the MOM him- or herself)?

Teng Li's picture

Michelle, your comment reminds me a particular post on Zhigang's interview with New World Times .  I enjoyed a lot reading the interview, even after I've had the precious opportunity being supervised by Zhigang during my Ph.D. and interacting with him both professionally and personally over the years.  This post is also something one can share with their family and friends and get them informed of what mechanics is and what mechanicians do, in an easier and more effective way. 

Back to the theme of this discussion thread, here is a plan that might be of interest of both established and junior mechanicians to experiment:

1. Let's first solicit from iMechanica users on questions they'd like to ask estabilished mechanicians.

2. If we have a happy problem of too many questions, let's have a poll to pick up questions of highest interest.

3.  Next, formulate an offline interview questionnaire with certain numbers of highly interested questions and distribute such a questionnaire to a list of established mechanicians (say, MOM)

4.  Invite those estabilished mechanicians who respond to post their answers into their iMech blog. This way, further possible conversations can proceed.

I guess the above plan parallels the earlier discussions on MOM and what Michelle discussed here, and I welcome further comments.

MichelleLOyen's picture

Teng,  I agree, this is a very good idea and one that I cannot head-up since I am busy with the  journal club but an editor for "mechanician of the month" should be sought.  Starting with Timoshenko medalists still active in the field seems a good idea.  Even if the comments are mostly "off-line" it would add to the iMech content to do this.   I suspect we are all interested in certain questions about how people became interested in the field of mechanics and how they pursued this.  

Zhigang Suo's picture

The idea that iMechanica interviews distinguished mechanicians was injected into a thread of discussion by Kosta Volokh, back in February 2007, when the number of registered users of iMechanica had just passed 1000. 

Around the same time, our Internet native Michael Suo was urging me to highlight every month a user who has made exceptional contributions to iMechanica.  He called such a user Mechanician of the Month (MOM). I ran Kosta's idea through Michael.  Michael was unconvinced, and argued that iMechanica was a grass-root organization, and should first and foremost value its own users. 

I agreed with Michael in principle, but thought that the best recognition for a user is that her posts get read by other users.  I liked Kosta's idea becuase it would bring in senior mechanicians.  However, I felt uneasy about Kosta's suggestion that I interview people.  I would have spread myself too thin.  Besides, the one-on-one process would not take much advantage of the Internet, and would not engage many users.  The process of an interview should unfold in front of all users, and everyone can participate in the process.  

I replied Kosta with a variation of his idea, and called the distinguished mechanician the MOM, and suggested that any registered user can post questions.  The questions are to be answered by the MOM.  A moderator can add background information from time to time.

The idea of the MOM got some traction among users, judging from the subsequent comments.  But I hesitated because iMechanica had just launched jClub, and it would be too distracting to start yet another activity at the same time.  I then totally forgot the idea.

Thank you, Michelle and Teng, for bringing up the idea again.  As Xi Chen suggested, the MOM can run in parallel with the jClub. We need to identify a MOM Editor, whose responsibility is to set up MOM-moderator pairs.  Each moderator will be responsible for coordinating the detailed activities.  All users can chip in to bring MOM to iMechanica.

Maybe it is time to bring MOM home.  What do you think?

Xi Chen's picture


I like your idea very much. Like many magazines, such as the Harvard Magazine , as iMechanica grows, eventually a iMechanica Magazine may be archived monthly. Such a Magazine may feature monthly columns such as the jClub and MoM, as well as scientific and non-scientific articles and comments selected from recent posts on iMechanica. Certain reward mechanisms may be established to stimulate high quality posts and comments to be included in the Magazine.

Of course such an effort requires a lot of work from an editorial board/committee. But this may be a way of further increasing the broader impact of iMechanica and enhancing user participation. Several members of the editorial board may concentrate on jClub, and several others on MoM, selecting monthly posts, etc.


  I think the time is right for this.  jClub seems pretty well established.  This would be a way to introduce established mechanicians to iMechanica, and also introduce registered users to them.  

  Some moderation may be required, without doubt.  Otherwise the MOM could get swamped with questions.   

Pradeep Sharma's picture

The MOM idea is great.....I have always enjoyed reading the few biographies that have posted on iMechanica. I also think Xi Chen's idea of a "magazine" which combines j-club, MOM and perhaps some other future features is quite attractive. Of course, the "magazine" could be simply a shaded sticky on the iMechanica homepage rather than the more traditional document.

Teng Li's picture

In an earlier comment, I suggested video/audio podcasts of future Timoshenko Medal Acceptance Speeche via iMechanica. Such videos and/or audios should be of interest of more iMechanica users.  Then each post of Timoshenko Lectures can serve as a discussion thread, in which the Timoshenko Medalist can respond to other mechanicians' comments, other established mechanicians can share their particular experiences related to that Medalist.  

This way, the Timoshenko Lectures Series can be a nice place to get more established mechanicians involved with iMechanica.

Pradeep Sharma's picture

Zhigang, in addition to the benefits you listed, I believe that increased participation of "senior" mechanicians will further spur high quality participation and discussion by junior mechanicians. I suspect that iMechanica may be the best way to transfer communal and institutional memory. 

In any event, to paraphrase a well-known adage in science, the present (mostly junior) 6000 or iMechanica memebers will become "senior" soon and their students will "grow" used to the presence of iMechanica. So, if  we can sustain iMechanica's success for half a generation more, we should be home-free.

On a practical matter, I think j-club (which Michelle mentions also) is perhaps the most facile route to increase senior mechanician participation. You will note two such folks lined up this year (Professors Ravi-chandar and Wing-Kam Liu).  This has been hard. Perhaps with your help we can turn this around.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Pradeep:  We all owe you for founding the jClub, and it has played a significant role in the growth of iMechanica.  The process of getting the jClub started has taught us a lot about the online community.

When I look at the list of Timoshenko Lectures, I'm saddened.  Despite effots, so many lectures are missing, possibly lost forever, and their authors have long departed.  This loss is a loss of our community.

These lectures are just a very small fraction of our communal memory.  The Internet allows us to record everyone's life as it unfolds.  We can have multiple accounts of the same event.  We no longer need to reserve the precious space for a few heros.  There is a hero in everyone of us: to put food on table, to give birth to a child, to bring in a grant, to adapt in a confusing world... 

President Bush wishes No Child Left Behind.  We wish No Mechanician Left Behind.

Xiaodong Li's picture

Thanks! I very much like this idea - Mechanician of the Month. I think a lot of junior faculty and students like to see the career path of establsihed mechanicians. Through introducing education, early career and research focus, we present a nice picture of the academic life of the mechanician. This may bring our community closer.  For JClub, we pretty much center on the specific topic - close to 100% academic discussion. Mechanician of the Month gives us an opportunity to discuss the career path such as when it is good time to get a faculty position and how to build up a lab (from scratch). I think MOM gives us another platform (very much casual if you like).

For JClub and MOM, we may try to get them hand by hand or combine them together for some months when the mechanican leads the discussion for that JClub theme. As our users rise up to 7,000, it is the time to open other opportunities for users with various needs.  

Konstantin Volokh's picture

First of all I think that the survival and success of iMechanica is due to
enormous effort of Zhigang and Teng. I highly appreciate that and hope that
their enthusiasm will not decline despite the general decline of interest in
exact sciences.

Younger mechanicians are usually technique-oriented and they are eager of
more technical discussions as we already have in iMechanica. More
experienced colleagues may become more problem-oriented and would be more
interested in reading and discussing engineering (biomedical) problems of
the real world where mechanics can be of importance. To this end, I would
also try attracting people from industry to share their vision of problems
in their fields. They will probably be even more open to such collaboration
than the established mechanicians. The "grand challenges" are good but they
are too general to make specific impact on the fellow iMechanicians. The
industry leaders can be more particular.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Kosta:  Thank you very much for your kind note.  You brought up two significant activities:

  1. Identify real-world problems that mechanics can make impact
  2. Bring people from industries to iMechanica

The benefits of both activities are enormous.  Similar thoughts must have occured to many users of iMechanica.  For example, Rui Huang hosted a jClub theme on chip-package interaction, and Teng Li hosted one on flexible electronics.  Such themes have clear industrial orientation.  Furthermore, most other themes of the jClub are "problem-oriented", rather than "technique-orientated".

On bringing in people from industries, we have also made some attempt.  The channel industry was established at the very beginning of iMechanica.  In an entry written on Day One of iMechanica, I quoted Paul Steif on his call to broaden the reach of mechanics.

So, other users will resonate with you on these ideas.  The big question is now how to excecute these activites in iMechanica.  If you and others have specific ideas for implementation, please start a new thread of discussion. 

These activities are truly significant.  Let's talk through them, and then act.  

Konstantin Volokh's picture

Zhigang, Again, interviews with people from industry can be effective. They can probably tell us about their engineering experience and the problems they faced. They can also tell us about their expectations from research etc. People from industry can be asked many same questions as mechanicians. 

Yes, I noticed interesting posts about flexible electronics. I guess you know relevant people in industry who can be interviewed on the subject in iMech.

I knew the web site of Imechanica from my advisor Ji Wang last semester,I  loged it many time, I learned too much form it. sometimes I also wanted to express my opinions, maybe it was that I afraid my questions was very  easy or my opinion was  too unimportant,  so I gived up my thinking. after reading your comments,I think everyone should say their thinkings ,we should keep our web  fulling of vitality.

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