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We Are Mechanicians

Zhigang Suo's picture

In early days of Applied Mechanics News, I encountered a practical problem. How do we call ourselves? I began with a phrase "people in the international community of applied mechanics". The phrase is inclusive and descriptive, but is too long, too timid and too clumsy. It is like calling entropy "the logarithm of the number of quantum states". I have also heard the phrase "mechanics people", which I don't like either. It sounds too folksy, like calling a gynecologist a women's doctor.

To gain name recognition is hard, especially for people with no names. This much we know. The issue has been discussed by many others. Here are two paragraphs from the speech by Ted Belytschko, the 2001 Timoshenko Medalist.

Ted Belytschko"Another source of our difficulties is our fuzzy self-identity. For many years, this Division has attempted to represent fields that were no longer a part of it- the fluid mechanicians have departed for the American Physical Society, but we still included fluids, and most dynamicists are in other places, but we still pretend that it is part of our Division. Perhaps even the name of our division is no longer appropriate. For one thing, the name is not appealing to younger people-most young people starting careers in research and teaching want a more attractive name, they don't want to be confused with those who fix their cars. Furthermore, most of us are not really engineers-much of our work is indistinguishable from physics or from materials science. I daresay the contributions of some members of the Applied Mechanics Division, such as Jim Rice and John Hutchinson, rank with the most important in materials science. So maybe we should look at another name-it was very beneficial for soils engineers, who changed their name to geotechnical engineering, and have much improved their image with the public.

"What should such a name be? I have asked a number of people. Some would not even give it an attempt, because they consider it sacrilegious. Lalit Anand, a former member of the Executive Committee, proposed “Solid and Mechanical Engineering and Sciences.” He suggested we would then go by the acronym SMEC. My preference is "Science and Engineering of Solids" -SES. I think it is high time we recognize that we are scientist as well as engineers, and that we get a name that accurately reflects what we do and what we have done!"

While the remarks of Ted Belytschko was mainly concerned with the Applied Mechanics Division, of American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the speech by Bernie Budiansky, the 1989 Timoshenko Medalist, contained a passionate call to arms:

Bernard Budiansky (1925 - 1999)“There are two obvious reasons for this lack of visibility, one sublime and one ridiculous. Our very success in promulgating the role of applied mechanics within such a large number and variety of fields has led to the seamless integration of substantial parts of applied mechanics into the various fields I mentioned. This, of course, is very welcome. But as a natural consequence, subsequent research in such an incorporated segment of applied mechanics tends to assume the identity of its host. The absurd reason for our lack of status is that we still don’t know what to call ourselves! Can it be that this is the crux of the problem? We are not the only group whose activity cuts broadly across traditional disciplinary boundaries, but mathematicians, engineers, physicists, biologists, and computer scientists proudly retain their identities, no matter how scattered and diverse their working environments, and, of course, their titles provoke instant recognition. But what are we? In informal conversation, “applied mechaniker” is all right, but is clearly too whimsical and slang-ey for general acceptance. Some years ago, Norman Goodier urged the adoption of the appellation “applied mechanicist” but this never really took hold, and “applied mechanician” doesn’t seem to make it either.

“So if we agree that we should burst the bonds of anonymity, perhaps we should begin by coming to grips with the question of our job description. I could live with either “applied mechanicist” or “applied mechanician”. Why not boldly start using one or the other at every opportunity, and let the better one survive! Then – let’s lobby scientific and technical societies, honorary or otherwise, that have not yet seen the light, to establish applied mechanics divisions! In universities, reverse the slide into oblivion and recommend that establishment of applied mechanics committees across standard departmental lines, maybe empowered to grant degrees as well as give courses! Preach to funding agencies about the merits of interdisciplinary sections of applied mechanics! Give interview, or write popular articles, about applied mechanics and its practitioners! Run for Congress!”

After talking to several colleagues, I began to call ourselves mechanicians in Applied Mechanics News. Now the phrase "web of mechanics and mechanicians" appears in the header of iMechanica.

In April 2006, I also started an entry called "Mechanician" in Wikipedia. This morning, I Googled "mechanician". Bingo. The number one on the list is the definition from Wikipedia. Try Google "mechanician" yourself. Like other entries in Wikipedia, the entry on mechanician is work in progress. If you don't like what you see, you can change it. Simply click the tab "edit", and you are on your way to become a Wikipedian.

Maybe I'm too stubborn, I'm not ready to change the name of my field. I'm proudly a mechanician. So is Ted. So was Bernie. So were Wright Brothers, Watt, Newton and Galileo, as well as inventors of elevators and wheels and knives. I feel something like a kinship with them all. We will just make mechanics and mechanicians household words (as defined by us), at least among educated people. Together, we can do it.

Note. This entry is an updated version of an entry posted in Applied Mechanics News on 21 March 2006.

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Pradeep Sharma's picture

I think that a useful descriptor for many (although certainly not not all) mechanicians is "theoretical or computational materials scientist". To a layperson, I have found this to be the best way to describe myself and a lot of the work that comes out of the mechanics community. When I have used the word "mechanician", it has more often than not conjured images of a garage mechanic!---nothing wrong with that; just that this image is not consistent with what we do.....

I agree with Pradeep.  I usually describe myself as a "computational scientist", even though I'm sure some equate this to "computer scientist" which is entirely different.

That being said, I've always liked the term "mechanician".  It strikes me that some of these terms are best used within academia, while others are better for the general public.  

Zhigang Suo's picture

If we are concerned about the public perception of the word mechanics, perhaps we should look at Google, the leading aggregator of the wisdom of crowd. This morning, I typed "define: mechanics" into the search window, and here are the top three results:

  • the branch of physics concerned with the motion of bodies in a frame of reference
  • mechanism: the technical aspects of doing something; "a mechanism of social control"; "mechanisms of communication"; "the mechanics of prose style"
  • Mechanics refers to:#a craft relating to machinery (from the Latin mechanicus, from the Greek mechanikos, meaning "one skilled in machines"), or #a range of disciplines in science and engineering.

If we accept Google as an aggregator of the public opinion, then we might have given too little credit to what people think about mechanics. After all, mechanics is a subject taught in high school, and possibly even mentioned in lower grades. This mass-education is perhaps reflected in Definition 1 on the Google list.

I'm so delighted that my favorite definition appears as Definition 2 on the list. This definition is a high-level description of what we do: we figure out mechanisms of technical things. How birds fly, how earth quakes, how computer chips fail, and how buildings fall. Some of us are more directly concerned with these questions, others develop tools for the trade.

I wish Google could split Definition 3 into two distinct entries: a craft relating to machinery, and a range of disciplines in Science and Engineering. Many of us belong to the latter, but I for one have high regard for the former. I believe that both Pradeep and John also do. Perhaps the issue for them is that the word mechanics means too many things to people. But from the Google list, they are all good things! Why should we be even bothered by a little vagueness?

As a compensation for being vague, we are more inclusive. After reading the comments of Pradeep and John, I modified a sentence in my original post. Now it reads,

I'm proudly a mechanician. So is Ted. So was Bernie. So were Wright Brothers, Watt, Newton and Galileo, as well as inventors of elevators and wheels and knives. I feel something like a kinship with them all.

Ravi-Chandar's picture

We know who we are; mechanicians involved in a wide range of engineering and scientific activities. And a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, but the terms "applied mechanics" and "mechanician" in the vocabulary of the common man do conjure up people fixing lawn mower, car engines or plumbing and air-conditioning. There is a sense that this hurts us as a community in raising awareness and support for our activities. The US National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics has discussed this issue in the past couple of years, searching for an alternate moniker that has good PR value while at the same time reflects what we do adequately. The suggesttions - Engineering Sciences, Mechanical Sciences, etc - were deemed either too broad, or too narrow. Maybe we can hold a contest on iMechanica.

Konstantin Volokh's picture

"Applied Mechanics" is a bad name. Who are the Pure Mechanicians, if we are the Applied ones? Nobody saw these animals. Mechanics is not Mathematics where the Pure-Applied definition makes sense. Name "Mechanics" is not much better than "Applied Mechanics" because of the pipes (see Barenblatt's Timoshenko speech), cars (my personal experience) etc. Old journals in Germany, UK, Russia, and China were called "Applied Mathematics and Mechanics". This sounds better.

There is a deeper issue concerning our community. We lost our public identity in the sense that no, or very few, Mechanics departments in the universities survived until now. Our community is spread over various engineering departments. We are going to lose our internal identity too because we focus on different applications and get more and more isolated from each other. The iMechanica initiative is an attempt to prevent from further erosion of our community. May be an additional step consolidating us would be a creation of a journal analogous to Physical Review, which helps to unite physicists. May be we need to publish, say, Mechanics Review where General Solid Mechanics, Micromechanics, Nanomechanics, Biomechanics, Geomechanics, Computational Mechanics etc will be the main chapters.

Today our research focus shifted towards materials science and mechanicians are proud of being "computational materials scientists". Tomorrow we'll get tired of explaining the stress-strain curves and we'll look for some new applications and names... We are changing so quickly that nobody has time to identify us.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Kosta: You raise excellent points. I'll have to think about them and respond later. This week will be hectic here in Boston: MRS Fall Meeting has just started, together with two other meetings I have to go to. I'm also teaching...

I'll just add a note to your comments on journals. Pradeep Sharma has initiated a lively thread of discussion on starting a journal-like function in iMechanica. The points that you have raised ought to be a major motivation for attempting such a journal. I urge more iMechanicians to visit that thread and register their ideas.

Pradeep is proposing a journal club, rather than a journal. You seem to think of a journal. Starting a journal is not a trivial matter. It involves a lot of work, and it puts iMechnaica in direct competition with existing journals, which are all run by volunteering mechanicians like you and me. We'll have to think through.

MichelleLOyen's picture

I certainly agree that much of what we do slots into the side of Materials Science, and when I am asked what I do I frequently say "mechanics of materials" or "mechanics of biological materials".  But I do not consider myself a "materials person" and find the distinction being materials generation vs. materials characterization.  It's a side note but one that interests me that there is no "Nature Mechanics" even though what we do is fundamental and useful; I'd be interested in others' experiences but we certainly had a hard time convincing the editors of Nature Materials that our recent and most exciting work had broad appeal.  

Aaron Goh's picture

I'd rather describe myself either by my degree or official job title - I'm a mechanical engineer or a materials scientist. Further probing will lead to either 'mechanics of materials' for those with a technical background and 'I make sure things are strong or weak enough to function properly' for the non-technical person.

One thing I learn at work, where hardly anything involves the mechanics discussed in this forum, is that 'mechanistic understanding' is applicable to just about everything involving a scientist and his/her work.  Hence the second definition listed by Zhigang above is probably most relevant.

The root word “cian” at the end of a word means to have a particular skill.

Latin root -ist one who practices

I consider myself to be a Biomechanist; therefore, I prefer that we call ourselves mechanists. Does anyone have a comment on mechanician vs. mechanist?

Thank you.

Deric Wisleder

Zhigang Suo's picture

In his acceptance speech upon receiving the Timoshenko Medal, the late Bernard Budiensky mentioned three names for people in our field: mechaniker, mechanist, and mechanician. Mechaniker sounds too folksy to me. I have no preference between mechanist and mechanician. They are both among mixed companies:

  • Mechanician, Mathematician, Physician, Electrician, Magician...
  • Mechanist, Physicist, Chemist, Pharmacist...

I echo Kosta: We should not change our names so quickly that nobody has time to identify us. For the time being I'll stick to the name mechanician, and use the name whenever I can and hope it will be a household name, associated with really clever people doing really cool things, i.e., people like us.

Here are a few references to mechanicians in classical literature.

Henry Tan's picture

把Mechanician 翻译成中文的话,可以称为什么呢?

Henry Tan's picture

The above post translated into English is:

How to translate “Mechanician” into Chinese?

Zhigang Suo's picture

Perhaps we can get a feel by asking a similar question, How to translate "mathematician" into Chinese? In English, mathematician means a person skilled in mathematics. This is the top result when I typed "define mathematician" into the Google search box, and also corresponds to the common usages of the word.

This meaning does not seem to correspond to a single phrase in Chinese. The translation has to depend on the context. Consider the following sentences.

  1. Gauss was the most prominent mathematician in his time.
  2. My sister was a clever mathematician when she was 6 years old. 
  3. My brother has just graduated from college. He is a mathematician.

We will  give three distinct translations in these three cases.  Perhaps we will just have to do the same for the word "mechanician". 

Zhigang Suo's picture

I have just typed "mechanician" into the search box.  Here are the top two results:

Mechanician - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A mechanician
is an engineer or a scientist working in the field of mechanics, or in
a related or sub-field: engineering or computational mechanics, ... - 27k

mechanician | iMechanica

I enjoyed my time on the Executive and Medal Committees, and the opportunity to work with outstanding mechanicians, such as Carl Herakovich, Stan Berger, ... - 73k


The first result was an entry in Wikipedia.  Several of us initiated the entry a while back.  The second result links to the channel Mechanician, of iMechanica.  The snippet of text under the second result was from Tom Hughes's acceptance speech upon receiving the Timoshenko Medal.


We may still be uncertain of our own name, but Google thinks that we have made up of our minds. 

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