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I'd Love to Change the World...

ericmock's picture

...But I Don't Know What to Do...

 ...So I Leave It Up to You

 by Ten Years After ( or on iTunes)


I have always loved this song and the message in the refrain above came to mean a lot more once I started teaching.  While I think most of us from an early age have had ambitions of changing the world, I really started thinking about it when my first child was born [1].  What could I do to make life better for him and his generation?  Obviously, being a good father is a very important start.  But could I do something bigger that would be beneficial to more people?  At the time I was just starting my first job so I figured I would 'play the game' until I got tenure.  So I wrote proposals, got some funding, published some papers, etc.  I have no illusions that any of it will have any effect on anyone 20 years from now.  However, it did get me tenure and job security.

Now, the second line in the lyric has started to weigh on me.  Figuring out what to do is probably the hardest part.  It's not that I don't have ideas.  In fact, I think I have too many and really don't know what one to pursue.  Unfortunately, none of them really involved mechanics where I have (a little bit of) credibility.  Not to be a pessimist but I can't really think of any area of mechanics that is really going to have an impact in 20 years.  The vast majority of papers (mine included) study second order effects or rediscover forgotten research.  Unfortunately, technology evolution is not chaotic and second order initial perturbations are not likely to grow into significant perturbations.  Spending time doing the theoretical research I have been doing and writing about it, is not how I'll change the world.  Unfortunately, I guess I'll continue to do so until I figure out what I _really_ should be doing.

This leads me to the last line in the lyric.  I think the greatest value of mechanics is in educating students.  I strongly believe a knowledge of the fundamentals of mechanics is extremely important for doing 'big things' (if you can figure out what to do).  Thus, I am starting to think that maybe the best way for me to change the world is to leave it up to my students who will be much more prevalent (and much more likely to change the world) than me.  I know a lot of faculty who basically stopped doing research to focus on educating students.  I always thought this was basically an excuse for just getting fed up with the research game.  However, I can certainly understand focusing on education.  Unfortunately, focusing on graduate education really requires playing the research funding game, i.e. students expect to be supported financially.  Unfortunately, at most universities (including mine) it's very hard to find good students who don't need/want funding.  Plus, if they're good and smart they'll work with more established researchers (I made the same decision).  Thus, I come back to thinking that maybe I shouldn't 'leave it up to you'.  Maybe I would have a better chance of making an impact by using my research funds to buy out of teaching and do my own work.  Unfortunately, the only way I can hope to get funding is to continue doing the inconsequential work I've been doing.  Plus, as a perfectionist control freak, I don't want to 'leave it up to you'.

Have others had this post-tenure dilemma?  Maybe it's just my pessimistic nature.


[1]  One of my labmates said that the biggest perturbation in your life will be the change from the day before to after you become a father (or mother).  This was very true for me and I think probably truer for men than women since I think the realization of parenthood is more gradual for women who have carried the baby for nine months.


Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Eric:

I think I understand what you are saying.  Similar thoughts must have crossed minds of many mechanicians at one point or another.  I know I have thought about them.

Nagging doubts of the worth of one's own work must be a perpetual theme among researchers.  By the very nature of the trade, an individual is trying to add something new and useful to a pool, which is added to by all human beings who have ever lived on the Earth.  (Thank God we don't have to compete with intelligence from another planet. so far as we know.)  That some individuals have actually added something new and useful almost sounds like a miracle.  But miracles do happen, just not as often as we would like.

Human beings have developed such a fine skill to tell the difference from one person to another.   When an individual researcher applies this skill to compare himself to other researchers, the outcome will be garanteed disappointing.  For, to be honest with himself, he will have to compare himself against researchers in other places and other times.  The chance for him to stand tall in this comparison is almost zero.

But this fact need not result in despair.  After all. years of thinking about a subject do provide benefits to other people.  We have all met researchers whose insight into a subject illuminates and inspires us.  This theme has been explored in an essay by Walter Noll, the Role of the Professor.

When I talked to my wife about this thread of discussion, she pointed to me a paragraph in a book that she is reading.  The book is titled The Success Principles , by Jack Canfield, the cocreator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.  Here is the paragraph:


Many people are familiar with the phrase "Ready, aim, fire!" The problem is that too many people spend their whole life aiming and never firing.  They are always getting ready, getting it perfect.  The quickest way to hit a target is to fire, see where the bullet landed, and then adjust your aim accordingly.  If the hit was 2 inches above the target, lower your aim a little.  Fire again.  See where it is now.  Keep firing and keep readjusting.  Soon you are hitting the bull's eye.  The same is true for anything."

A good thing about research is that we can work on many things many times.  And we can even publish them all, get feedback, and rewrite.  Who knows?  Miracles may happen that we actually add to the pool of knowledge something really new and useful.  If not, at least we will develop insights that are useful to ourselves, and possibly to our children. 

Incidentally, Eric, my students and I have really enjoyed reading your papers on dielectric elastomer actuators.  We think your papers inspiring, and would love to read new papers from you on the subject.   

ericmock's picture

I have always thought that if you get yourself into a group of people superior (in whatever way) to yourself, you will inevitably learn and better yourself. Unfortunately, this always means comparing yourself to others and inevitably leads to some insecurities and self-confidence issues.  This has seemed to work for me because I am (internally) extremely competitive.  This competitiveness is a double-edged sword.  On the good side, it keeps me trying to do better.  On the bad side, it can lead to bitterness and animosity.

Maybe my post was overly negative but I really don't feel like giving up in despair.  I just feel torn in many, many different directions.  Sometimes I think it just takes patience and continuing to try to do good things, i.e. keep chipping away.  However, chipping away at mechanics does not seem very productive to me.

Then there is the issue of parenthood.  Your time is a zero-sum game and the more time you spend 'networking', writing papers/proposals, etc. the more time you don't spend with your children.  Finding the right balance is hard and I have seen (second-hand) the animosity that can develop in children of people who are highly successful but negligent of their family.  My kids have been very high maintenance (with my son being born three months prematurely and my daughter now recovering from her tenth surgery) so maybe it's just not my time to be working the system to get big ideas off the ground.  Again, maybe I should just be patient.

However, it seems that it takes writing lots of papers and doing lots of (probably inconsequential) research to gain the respect required for people to listen to your big ideas.  There is nothing wrong with this.  There has to be some way to filter all the big ideas and professors with big ideas are everywhere (and they all think their idea is the best).  If I were the head of NSF, NIH, etc. I probably wouldn't listen to me either.

Maybe it just takes persistence which is something I don't handle well.  I have to stop giving up after one rejection.  Partly I think it's just insecurities about my own ideas.  One negative hit from outside and I tend to give up and try something else.  I think I follow the Ready, Fire, Aim approach.  It's the final step (Repeat) that I need to get better at.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Our conversation reminds me of a speech by Bill Clinton at the 2007 commencement of Harvard. He reminded us how small the difference is from one human being to another.  If you have difficulty in watching the video, here is the text of his speech.

ericmock's picture

I always love to listen to ex-presidents.  They usually have very intelligent things to say and have had a lot of time to reflect on a lot of experiences [1].  They have also mostly put their politics behind them and have moved away from spinning everything.  Basically, they have gotten out of playing the political game to promote change to actually trying to figure out what they/we can do to make change.

[1] Although I suspect many think our next ex-president, who will likely have many years to do so, may not have many intelligent things to say. 

Temesgen Markos's picture

Can't help laughing at [1]. That was funny.

Pradeep Sharma's picture

Dear Eric,

I enjoyed reading your reflections in your post although I am sorry to note the tone of despondence. Although I cannot say for sure but if I were to guess, the few researchers who can lay claim to have made a "difference" (e.g. Einstein, Bardeen) probably did not realize so until much later. They engaged in their research because it was their hobby and they enjoyed the learning and the concomitant discoveries. 

Thats the stance I have taken (and suits my personal philosophy). I am unsure of the importance of mechanics in the grand scheme of things---certainly in the way it is currently understood. Like yourself, I have few illusions about my own standing. However, I enjoy research! That is sufficient reward. I get paid well to do something I enjoy.  I learn (as we all do) and sometimes (perhaps less frequently than I would like) I get a euphoric rush of having learned something small (probably insignificant if you start contrasting with the giants of our field). In summary, from my personal viewpoint, research is best done for self-satisfaction. It may or may not make a difference. Only time can tell. This being said, I agree with one of your comments. Realistically speaking, our largest contribution is likely to be the positive impact we make on a selected few students.  

Some years ago, I left a lucrative career in the industry to join academia so that I could engage in my "hobby" fulltime. Of course, while I am happy I made this move, I am hardly doing research fulltime. The modern academic, it seems, must also be a MBA and used cars salesman! But....that is the problem of our system not an intrinsic issue with research.....

Your comments about parenthood certainly resonate.  I am reminded of an old Indian saying (which looses somewhat in the translation); Question: What is the worst form of cough; dry, whooping, racking...? Answer: your child's.

ericmock's picture


Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  I too am sorry to note the tone of despondence as I really don't feel despondent.  In fact, I am excited about all the options that are open to me.  It's just that I know I can't pursue them all and am having trouble trying to prioritize them.  I too enjoy doing research.  But I'm starting to think it's really for my own personal satisfaction.  I am certainly happy to be in this position, instead of worrying about being laid-off.  I come from a very blue-collar family [1] so I know very well how lucky I am.  I don't want to sound like I'm complaining about all the options open to me.  It's just that I'm really struggling about which door to choose.

What I have discovered is that my first love is learning, and I couldn't hope to be in a better place to that (ok, maybe Penn State isn't the _best_ place, but...).  I like to keep learning new things but I feel at some point I'd like to start using that knowledge to do something 'important'.

It's funny that coming into my academic career, I was very worried about not having enough ideas to build a research program.  I realize now that generating ideas is really not a problem for me.  It's down selecting and/or finding time to pursue them that is so difficult.

I also think that I have some strange form of ADD (attention deficit disorder) because I really have a hard time staying focused on one research area.  There are so many interesting things to learn that I always get distracted.  This goes against everything my advisor promoted for being successful [2].  He advocated focusing on an area long enough to be recognized as _the_ expert in that area.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find an area that can hold my attention for more than a few years, let alone a career.

Another verse from one of my favorite songs, Time by Pink Floyd, comes to mind:

And you run and you run

To catch up with the sun

But it's sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again

The sun is the same in a relative way

But you're older

Shorter of breath

And one day closer to death.


[1] My father was a mechanic, my mother a secretary, and neither had a college degree.

[2]  He's been the president of UMd for nearly ten years and was a vice chancellor at UCB while I was a graduate student so his formula for success certainly worked for him.

Mike Ciavarella's picture


I simpathize with your feelings.  I am in a moment like that as well. 


thanks for the useful link. 

another is:

Teng Li's picture

Eric and all,

I followed this thread of of discussion with interest. Eric's post reminded me a sentence from "The Facebook Book". The author was talking about finding a wonderful idea to build a startup and become a millionaire.  He suggests to "think about something people do 30 minutes a day that frustrates them and see if you can automate that or do something that cuts the time in half for them".

After reading that book, I looked through all the research ideas and topics I've been working so far, but couldn't find any of them falling into the category of "a wonderful idea", at least for now (obviously, I'm not a millionaire yet).  It may not be reasonable to evaluate scientific research with criteria of running business, but it doesn't hurt to keep such criteria in mind when picking up future research ideas, especially in engineering science. 

As for parenthood, there is an old Chinese saying "it takes ten years to grow trees, but a hundred years to cultivate a person".  When I told Zhigang the birth of my first child, he congratulated and replied "this is a milestone in your life".  Like all other parents, my life changed a lot.  Watching kids growing up is amazing and educating them is even rewarding.  A professor may need to learn how to advise his graduate students over his career, a parent may need to learn how to educate his children for the rest of his life, with the hope that his students or children can make more impacts to the world.

I leave you with the translation of the lyric of a famous Chinese song in 80s by Cui Jian, the Father of Chinese Rock:'s not that I don't understand, the world is just changing so fast.

ericmock's picture

It seems like this discussion is winding down, so I would like to close it out with a few final thoughts (unless prompted to continue it).

First, while I enjoyed Clinton's speech, I really think his 99.9% argument is flawed.  I hear what he's saying and totally agree.  However, we share like 60% of our genome with the fruit fly and probably that same 99.9% with chimpanzees.  And that last little bit is what make us all unique (but not better or worse than anyone).  My children are constant reminders of how different our brains can work (even with the same parents).  My son (9) is great at remembering things, reading, and spelling.  However, he struggles with math and more abstract thinking.  I.e. understanding the big picture and 'getting the gist of something'.  My daughter (6) on the other hand basically sees the big picture and the abstract very well.  She's great at combining things she knows into new ideas.  However, she always forgets the details.  I remember a few years back when my son was teaching her a lot of children's songs; he had memorized an amazing number.  She would always sing, "Row, row, row your boat gently down the _river_" which would just irritate my son because it was supposed to be 'stream' and not 'river,' and 'river' didn't even rhyme with 'dream'.  My daughter couldn't have carried less--stream and river, they're basically the same thing and either gets the point across.

Ultimately, I feel like I've been given a great opportunity in my life (i.e. not having to worry about keeping a job, feeding my family, or keeping a roof over their heads) and I would like to make the best of it.  The problem is that I'm not sure what, given my interest and skills, is the best approach.  Although it reminds me of what I told one of my students when she worried she wasn't doing a good job teaching and wanted some tips.  I basically told her I had no specific tips but the very fact that she was concerned told me that she'd figure it out.  Whether I am able to do something 'big' depends mostly on things outside of my control.  I should just be happy that I have an opportunity and desire.  Maybe things will fall into place.


Mike Ciavarella's picture


  your latest closure "maybe things will fall into place" sounds like they are not in place now.  So the question here appears of happiness.  I would suggest you some reading, from a famous Economy Professor in Warwick, who became I think consultant to the Conservative Party leader Cameron (who didn't win with Brown), but whose research is quite interesting

I have briefly looked at his research, and first of all, there is a Easterlin Paradox, froma 1974 paper which showed that economic growth is NOT related to measured happiness.  This is also like an old italian saying "money doesn't make you happy".  I think you would be interested to see how Oswald measures happiness:  quality of relationship with family, with friends, effort to go to work.  Enjoyment of work.

I suspect, from what you say, that you lost some interest in the research work.  You keep saying that teaching should be good, but you are not convinced.  Loosing interest in research was a big loss for you, like a loss of a family member!

You have to recover from this loss.

One big philosopher, Bertrand Russell, also wrote about happiness in a book, and I remember reading that he said to keep various interests, so that when one is possibly lost, you don't loose everything.  It is like wise investements of your money.

My own conclusion: if you want happiness, you should not look for it.   In other words, you cannot plan in advance to be happy or to be rich.  Google people were not planning to be billionaires, simply did what they thought  was interesting.  Success came along the way.

Andrew Oswald measured highest happiness in Scandinavian Countries, and in Colombia, not in US --- in US people want to apparently spend more time with their family!   So stay with your family more, as a simple suggestion.


Now, a personal closure.  When I started the chaos in imechanica about my paper being rejected in Int J Fat on what I think is one of my best ideas of the last years (and I am not at my first paper), it was brutally rejected with humiliating statements, I started to think that reviewing is flawed and sometimes unethical.  Then, I found out about Elsevier some appalling information, as I am a pacifist, the Lancet editorial of 2005 about arms business fairs.  Only now it seems Reed Elsevier has completely withdrawn from the business (not just thanks to me of course!).  

However, in the process of "raising the scandal", I did upset quite a few people, both in the scientific community (I guess for example when I said that Editors are not always the best of their board, and I circulated h-indexes of people), and in Elsevier.  You should NOT think that was easy for me.  David Hills, one of the two Editors of IJSS, is a friend, was my mentor at my PhD times spent in Oxford in marvellous years (1996-1998) which I still think like some of the best in my own life.   Having possibly upset David or created him some trouble, is something I do not like.

But, apart from sometimes impulsive, I never said anything like an insult.  Zhigang told me also in imechanica that some people including one or two senior people even gentle and open-minded, complained about my posts.  My need to write about the Ethics issues, on which I still beleive and are serious, did raised delicate issues.   Especially this h-index, is a very powerful and dangerous measure.  Some people, especially those who appear to have a low h, do not like it!  It doesn't count for them that I wrote about Perelman limit case who has very low if not zero h-index, as he refuses the classical measures, and indeed also the Field Medal.

I wanted to raise the point that peer review is a serious business, and you cannot ask a Field Medallist to be reviewed by a 1st year student, to say. Or by a competitor. Or by someone who write strong statements without evidence, like it happened to me.  Why there are 2 different standards in reviews and in papers?

I can tell you why:  papers there are too many, and Editor want to limit them.  Reviewers there are not enough, and Editors cannot treat them badly!!!   So this is a vicious circuit.

So, in terms of happiness, I did risk a lot.  Some friends, some collegues, maybe upset.   I would like to apologyze with them, separating this from the main message I was carrying, on which I still beleive and is a serious one.  But how can I do it?

Perhaps Zhigang should have explained that imechanica is more powerful than Email, and so more risky, since it is like everyone can "publish" to the open public.

However, we need to remind these people that 

1) if they are senior, they certainly have status of moderator, and could remove the material they judged offensive

2) they could have responded to me, whereas they didn't.  This is probably because someone who, for example, is upset for my publishing a low h-index, is unlikely to argue about it, as otherwise people  would notice even more.

3) therefore, I doubt people like Ritchie or Belishtsko were upset, since I measured very high h-index, equivalent to a IntJFat or IJSS journal, respectively!

4) I suspect David Hills and Stelios Kyriakadis were upset, as I attacked them as Editors

So, in return to my suggestions for you NOT to think too much about happiness and relax about it, can you suggest me some ways to apologize with friends and collegues about the delicate and the serious issues I raised?






michele ciavarella

Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Mike:  I appreciate your wish to apologize to people whom you might have offended in your previous posts.  I have not read all your past posts myself, as I have told you.  We all have constraints, and only have limited time to follow up on other people's ideas (and posts).  As I responded to one of your emails, quite a few people had written to me to complain about your posts, in particular about your way of mentioning fellow mechanicians in disrespect.

In reading this new comment of yours, I noticed that you posted some of your guesses.  Like all guesses, they may or may not be correct.  For example, here are a few things that you guessed wrong:

  • You said, "if they are senior, they certainly have status of moderator, and could remove the material they judged offensive".  Now, very few senior mechanicians are moderators.  Please see the list of moderators.  Also, iMechanica has a standing practice to refrain from deleting posts.
  • You said, "they could have responded to me, whereas they didn't.  This is probably
    because someone who, for example, is upset for my publishing a low
    h-index, is unlikely to argue about it, as otherwise people  would
    notice even more."  Well, people may have many reasons to choose not to respond to you.  For the record, people who wrote to me to complain about your posts were NOT those you named in your past posts.

There is nothing really wrong about posting your guesses, except in these cases your guesses are wrong, and may upset the very people to whom you wish to apologize. 

Once again I appreciate your effort to reconcile.  Hope we can move on.  

ericmock's picture


First, let me say that I am quite happy and it's not unhappiness or having things out of place that has made me ponder this.  I ponder this because I want (not need) to do more.  The "Maybe things will fall into place." comment meant that maybe it will happen that something I do will have a broader impact, not that things need to fall into place to make me happy.


Mike Ciavarella's picture



   although your comment is quite harsh to me, I accept it.  After all, I am still relatively young, and I have to learn a lot.


   I hope I sound "open-minded" if I propose to learn from the "Ciavarella's case" in a positive way.  In other words, since I mantain the core of my message was serious and I am happy on how things are developing, I was sorry for what I considered some details and other people have found offensive.


   Hence, in later versions of imechanica, which after all you are developing despite not being funded, with a free service to the community of imechanicians that first or later should build a statue in your honor, and not just a few prizes, may I suggest to consider (I hope this doesn't sound like opening polemics again) to learn from experience motivated largely by good intention, but which had some naivety in the
impulsive writing?

A) enlarge the number of moderators, like watchers in the wikipedia style.   I would also like to say that the list of moderators does include senior people whom I respect a lot.  But it would gain advantage of enlarging even more, as we said earlier in my original "PROPOSALS to IMECHANICA" and many other posts, than senior people are still reluctant to join this system.

B) I would suggest to revise the "refrain" politics, which makes a move towards "collaborative work" See this link:

"Inappropriate changes are usually removed quickly, and repeat offenders
can be blocked from editing. If you add new material to Wikipedia,
please provide references. Facts that are unreferenced are routinely
removed from the encyclopedia."

I see there has been some discussion about this issue in the past on the page

So after all the imechanica community is not too distant from my general ideas.  I hope to further the discussion.


Finally and I close, notice that the Wikipedia lines sounds also the solution for the reviewing unprofessional situation now, by simply changing to

"If you ..... review a paper ....  please provide references. Facts that are unreferenced are routinely removed from the ... reviewing process."

If the publishers adopt this, it would be a huge success!   However, I know the problem:  there are many people willing to write papers, and increasingly fewer doing reviews.  So the Editors have to stick to this, and accept sometimes a young reviewer writing short and unreferenced statements to an esthablished mechanicians.


But I suppose this is a transient problem.  It will reach a break point. And then return to normality with another system.   I think the h-index is a good move in this direction, since it makes people wonder why to publish N-paper, instead of writing h-papers !

So as you see it is all coming nicely to a solution....   Thanks again.  Tell me if you want me to build the statue to you in Rome!


First, I'd like to say to Eric that you are not alone.  I think we all go through crests and valleys in our self-confidence.  I think one of the best ways to get out of a valley is simply to work on something that interests you and don't worry if it will change the world or not.  Not that you or I are Richard Feynman, but he worked on the wobbling of spinning plates to get himself out of a funk.  Then he went on to do some other mildly interesting research.

 Second, and this is the ill-advised part of this post, I thought I would respond to Mike.  Mike: I think that many users of iMechanica find your style to be rather confrontational.  Additionally, it seems that you simply cannot let go of this bad review that you have had.  I can perhaps understand why you would post about this issue initially.  In fact, I think you have many valid points about problems with the peer review system and publishers.  However, your post above is, in my opinion, disruptive and irrelevant to this specific blog.  Eric brought up a personal issue that is relevant to many academics, but somehow you found it necessary to contort a response to once again focus on your crusade.  Do you not see that this is inappropriate?

My fear is that this post will only spark you to attack me and my h-index.  My hope is that you will perhaps consider these opinions, which I think are held by several other iMechanicians.

Sincerely, Chad 

Mike Ciavarella's picture


   Why I should attack you:  It seems you have understood 100% of my message, and I have already apologized for my "confrontationa" style.  If it helps, I can remove my post on the Int J Fat rejected paper.   Or at least resend it in a clean form. 

ps.    On Feynman, I am reading his report on the Space Shuttle disaster, a lot of mechanics of seals, and of joints. I have no intention to check h-factor, but what are your interests?



Mike Ciavarella's picture

Please perhaps restart from

Engineering Happiness


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