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Are notes and textbooks a higher priority than journal clubs?

Roberto Ballarini's picture

I registered for iMechanica a few days ago, and found many postings instructive. Here is my first blog entry.

The topics being studied today by mechanicians are very difficult (what I often call "dirty problems"). In fact, often the mechanical theories (actually coupled mechanics, biology, chemistry) required to gain improved understanding are still in their infancy. Mechanicians that have entered fields such as mechanics of biological structures have gotten up to speed by paying the price (hopefully an enjoyable time on a learning curve) of reading large numbers of papers and discipline-based books. Many of these papers are cryptic and, while they may be of high scientific quality, they do not have significant pedagogical value to those entering the field (graduate students for example).

I believe that a great contribution can be made by mechanicians that have achieved a good level of understanding of these difficult topics if they took the time to publish classroom notes and textbooks that could be used to educate the next generation graduate (and undergraduate) students. We cannot possibly keep up with the journal literature, and we should not develop a system that filters the literature (Oprah's book club does this for books, and I think it is unhealthy). Zhigang has already started making such a contribution by graciously posting his classroom notes, where he presents his own (time consuming) discovery and his own internalization of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. I would love to see these types of notes (and at some point texts) on all of the modern topics, including molecular dynamics (I have not yet read a paper on this topic that presents sufficient detail of the models).

I will thoroughly enjoy your feedback.


Zhigang Suo's picture

In case you have missed what is alluded to in Roberto's post, here is the discussion on journal club.

Notes added on 30 December 2006.

Notes added on 14 December 2006.

N. Sukumar's picture

I do share Roberto's sentiments and feel that good introductions to both old and new topics in mechanics as well as other fields that integrate with mechanics is needed. Short and concise introductions that bring to fore a simpler/new understanding that is readily accessible to us would prove to be very useful.

It takes time and effort to put together notes on topics in which one is not an authority but such contributions would go a long way in making all of us better informed and cognizant of the subject and how it might be integrated with our own niche in mechanics.

From my perspective, papers in an inter-disciplinary field (be it with biology, physics, materials, or chemistry) that have scientific weight are more often than not too specialized for me to readily understand and/or take much from them. It is not difficult to appreciate such work, but going beyond requires significant background and know-how.

Given that many mechanicians have vectored into new and emerging areas over the past decade, it would be beneficial to know what they have learned and the lessons they can share with all of us. The focus should be on pursuing solutions that are relevant, tractable, and can advance the field. To this end, defining the problem when it is of an inter-disciplinary nature might be the most important step, and collaborations are imperative for progress.

For the Journal Club, my suggestion would be to pick articles that are above all well-written and attempt to educate/inform (need not necessarily be at the very top in terms of originality and impact).

Mark E. Walter's picture

I wanted to chime in about on-line notes and discussing teaching advanced (and basic topics). Several years ago at an ASME AMD-Fracture and Failure Mechanics Technical Committee meeting, Ashraf Bastawros observed that it would be good for the field and helpful for each of us if there were discussions about teaching fracture mechanics, especially at the advanced level. The energy barrier for organizing IMECE sessions for this purpose proved to be too great. When the Committee entered into the age of Web 2.0 with it's blog:, I realized that this would be a good place to discuss teaching approaches and eventually advanced topics. Our blog has a loose framework for doing this with a "syllabi discussion" link and "book discussion" link. The lack of publicity and the restricted access to commenting has left this teaching discussion in its initial exploratory stage. 

We are currently planning to move the teaching part of our blog to so that any registered user can post/comment and we are planning to start posting course notes or links to course notes.  With regards to posting notes, at our 2006 IMECE FFMTC Meeting at least 5 committee members said that they would post their notes. This is consistent with other sites (MIT's OpenCourseWare) and individuals (Zhigang's on-line Solid Mechanics notes) who are posting their notes. The big difference in what we are trying to do involves consolidating Fracture and Failure Mechanics in one place and encouraging on-going discussion.

The usefulness of this activity will be directly proportional to the number of people who participate. We would expect that significant posting and commenting would provide big benefits to  the participants and be a valuable service to the scientific and engineering communities. 

Stay tuned for the development of "Fracture and Failure Mechanics On-Line", and please let us know what you think about these ideas. 

Zhigang Suo's picture

Mark:  I've always been impressed by the depth of your thoughts and knowledge on these issues.  From your comments, it sounds like that your committee wants to do some coordinated writing, and consolidates multiple stories into a single story.  In case you are thinking of wiki, the toddler iMechanica has a baby sister:  WikiMechanica.Org.  It is hosted at Harvard University, and uses Mediawiki, an open-source software that powers Wikipedia.

Teng Li and I felt WikiMechanica might be a distraction at this stage of iMechanica.  Perhaps we can start with multiple stories using iMechanica.  Later on, when the need arises, we can explore wiki or other technologies that facilitate consolidation.   You might feel the same way for your effort.  I just mention wikiMechanica in case you are thinking of wiki.

Teng Li's picture

Dear Mark:

Very glad to know the plan of "Fracture and Failure Mechanics On-Line" initiated by the AMD-FFMTC. Also thanks for pointing out the MIT OCW, by which I'm very impressed. What Web2.0 can add on for your plan or other projects like MIT OCW is the collaborative and interactive effort through avid practioners.  Wiki may be a perfect platform to achieve this. Based on our not-very-long experiments with WikiMechanica.Org, the experience on releasing scientific content through wiki is pleasant.  The learning curve is by no means steep and long. 

Here is a wonderful example that provides problems and solutions for many collegiate math courses, recently pointed out by Daniel C. Suo.

I'd be very happy to share with you our experience on WikiMechanica.Org, if it helps.

I see the value in both putting  notes and other material  online and the journal club.  I'm not sure why we need to choose one vs. the other at this point.

 Different iMechanica users will undoubtedly value the notes instead of the journal club, and vice versa.  The beauty of the internet is that people are free to make choices based on their interests.  Post it, and they will come.  

Zhigang Suo's picture

John: Excellent points. The Internet and hard drive have made delivery and storage of knowledge so cheep that we might as well consider them free. Even if they are not totally free today, they will be sooner or later. There is no reason to choose what to post.

But there is an undercurrent in this thread of discussions started by Roberto. What has become scarce (and therefore expensive) is our own time. The leaders in the world of business have clearly understood this new economics, as Teng Li reminded us a while ago. The world of education and knowledge creation will soon follow, I believe.

The new economics provides new opportunities for mechanicians. As an example, posting teaching notes becomes a natural thing to do. iMechanica and other similar web services are free, and the notes may save time for other teachers, and may ultimately contribute to the mission of evolving all knowledge of mechanics online, a mission that will benefit everyone.

Why should a person spend time writing notes to help others? I believe the reason is the same as why she publishes papers or goes to conferences to give talks. If what she does provides value to others, she will be rewarded.

We in the world of education and knowledge creation have long been practicing the "new" economics of providing value for free. The Internet has just made this practice faster, and its motivation more obvious.

Here is a blog post that I find helpful: The Economics Of Abundance Is Not A Moral Issue.

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