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What do we do?

Yesterday, as I was waiting for the rain to stop before I could walk home from work, a stranger accosted me in the lobby of the building.  He asked me what I did, to which I replied "Mechanics".  He mulled over the answer for a bit and asked me to be more specific, at which point I said that we were trying to design materials that could guide waves around objects.  He said "Water waves?".  I replied "All types of waves."  Clearly, common words can mean quite different things to different people.

He mentioned that his company was trying to find out ways of generaing electricity from ocean waves and I asked him what the latest exciting things in the game were.  He mentioned something to do with composites and structures.  Clearly, some mechanics must have been involved and yet he seemed not to know what mechanics meant.

So my question to iMechanicians is, What do you say you do when people ask you about your work?

-- Biswajit


wallstedt's picture

"We predict the future".  That is to say: we predict how a bridge or building or turbine bucket or MEMS switch or airplane wing will behave before it is ever built.  That way we don't have to keep building bridges over and over again until one of them finally stays up.  We can sometimes predict things that cannot be tested - like bomb/bullet damage to the human body, tsunami effects on a coastline, or bio-weapon dispersion in a city.

While that's a nice slogan, it's not very convincing and sounds like a marketing pitch to the layperson.

And, do we really predict the future?  Day to day engineering design, including that of bridges and buildings,  rarely seems to involve mechanical analysis because of standardized codes of practice.

Also, people would rather build and test a structure that do a mechanical analysis beforehand.  The mechanical analysis usually comes after the design fails.

Mechanics seems to have been de-emphasized in undergraduate education beyond a quarter length course on beam bending.

So we're running into problems when we try to hire students - mechanics, as we sell it to students, just doesn't seem to be exciting enough; particularly the theoretical and numerical aspects of it.

-- Biswajit


Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Biswajit:  Excellent question, and we should ask ourselves once in a while.  A few years ago, around the time I was thinking of starting iMechanica, I wrote an entry called "What is Mechanics?".  The answer to this question is not unique, but thinking about it in various forms help to relate our daily work to people around us. 


The question becomes crucial for people who have to justify their pay in terms of relevance to everyday life and return on investment.

In my case, over the last 8 years or so, I've worked on homogenization of explosive, lage strain plasticity for explosions and impact, shell models for biological membranes, foam behavior, sandwich composites and theire reliability, rubber joints and their strength, concrete electric poles and predicting their life, simulation vibrations and acoustics, sensing with electroactive polymers, dry adhesion, fluid flow through medical devices and so on.  

Some of these have involved constitutive modeling and testing, others have involved simulation and theory, still others algorithm and code development.  The broad name for what I do is mechanics.  But if I focus on any one of the things that I do/have done, the layperson gets the wrong impression of superspecialization.

For example, though I know a lot about constitutive modeling and simulation on concrete in its various stressed and unstressed forms, I cannot claim to be an expert on concrete.  Nor am I a structural engineer; my knowledge of civil engineering design codes is next to nothing. I also not a chemist or materials scientist; I don't know much about the chemistry of concrete mixes and couldn't possibly engineer new mixes of concrete from scientific first principles.  And no self respecting physicist would ever claim expertise on concrete :)

Is there any simple way of making the world aware of our existence and expertise?

-- Biswajit



A few years ago, I read the following definition, possibly in Physics Today:  "Mechanics is that part of physics in which physicists are no longer interested"


If you look at Physical Review Letters or Applied Physics Letters, a significant proportion of the papers deals with mechanics. Is molecular dynamics mechanics?  SPH? etc.

My take is that "physics" deals with qualitative (order of magnitude) solutions that identify underlying causes while "mechanics" deals with solutions that are more quantitative and can be used in engineering.

-- Biswajit


Hi Biswajit (and iMechanicians),


1. What do we do? That's one deceptively simple question! Even if one takes a personal version of it: "what do I do (related to mechanics)?" the character of the question still remains more or less the same!

I think the only way to answer a question like that is via an exchange, via a to-and-fro. Without that, none would be able to adequately convey a sense of what sort of work we do. A lot depends on who poses that question, coming from what sort of background, in what context, and from what angle (or with what purpose in mind). The specifics of the answer will change accordingly.


2. In my experience, sometimes, the question might be actually easier to answer if the listener does not have *any* idea about any field of science and engineering, e.g. people with a liberal arts background.

Let me share an instance. Recently, I ran into a couple of young guys (roughly, 30-) from the liberal arts background, and they asked me if I can give a very short answer, understandable to them, about my work (i.e. my day job) and my research (on QM). I found that the first was easy to do, not the second.

For the first part, I explained to them that I help write software that helps structural engineers in analyzing and designing better buildings. They didn't understand the italicized parts, as expected. So, I first reminded them that surely they knew what an architect does? He does an artistic design, the shapes and the division of spaces, and that creative sort of stuff, right? [Yes, they said.] But then, I added, how do you know that the building would stand? [They gave a quizzical look.] How big a column should be? (Pointing to the closest column of the building we were sitting in) Why only 3 feet by 2 feet? Why not bigger, to make it "safe"? Why not smaller, to make it affordable? [Aha! They got that part.] So, I said, there are some interesting questions, some quantitative questions that have to be answered, before a safe building can be built economically. [Ok.] There are some mathematical theories about it that can be used for answering those questions. We, engineers, get taught those theories. [Hmmm.] But while applying, some calculations are way too tedious. [Again, a partly puzzlesome look.] No, these theories are theories, not just formulae that you can use in a plug and chug manner. [Attentive look.] And, there are very standardized practices about it [quizzical look], just like though you can always keep your own accounts, there are standardized accounting practices [Aha!]. In engineering, calculating the sizes and reinforcements of columns, beams, slabs, etc. is what we call "design." [Oh, I see...] The standardized design practices involve very lengthy calculations... Software makes them perform way too faster, economically, I emphasized. [And, without error, one of them added!] At that point, I knew I had conveyed to them a sense of what I do for my day job. ... A few more clarifications about software writing followed.

Yes, I know the above paragraph was a very long stuff to read, very painful, indeed. But the point is, when you do it in real life, it happens in a jiffy.

And, finding this sort of a pathway from your position and context to the listener's, is always as involved as the above example was. You have to customize your answer on the fly, so to speak. There is no other way out.


3. I also could answer them something about my QM research. But, yes, we soon (after about 15 minutes) found that they would do better to first read a couple of pop-science books on QM before we can adequately discuss the matter.

In case any of you are interested, my answer, in essence was this: (i) QM is one of the two most fundamental and most successful theories (the other being "relativity") (ii) QM has mathematical rules but no physics the way classical physics had. (iii) QM got developed in mid 1920s, and some questions regarding the kind of physics it possibly points to were raised right back then. (iv) Not only is physics is absent, even reformulation of the specific mathematical rules is possible. The original QM people did it in mid 20s, followed by Dirac (late 20s) who expanded it to include relativistic effects. Feynman reformulated it in 1948+. People say Bohm also did a reformulation in 1952+ but I disagree. So, there are 2/3 formulations. (v) Feynman pointed out that one quizzical aspect of QM is at its core (or the base), the wave particle duality. Everyone agrees that it is so. (vi) I have addressed the WPD with a new approach, and in the simplest possible case (only photons---no electrons, only scalar formulation---without spin).  (viii) I am trying to reformulate QM once again in my terms. (vii) Physics is an experimental science, no theory is accepted unless verified in experiments. My work leads to experimentally verifiable differences from both the original and Feynman's formulations (and also Bohm's non-re-formulation). (ix) I intend to cover photons with the spin in my next paper---I hope to get the time to work at it (including library help, and if possible sabbatical support).

Yes, they remained utterly interested all throughout---unlike engineers and physicists. It was a kind of surprise for me. I, by habit, had kept thinking that they must be finding it boring. They, in turn, were surprised that I could keep such an expectation!  


4. In my experience, the task of explaining the nature of your work is easier, even more enjoyable, when you do it with someone who is completely unaware of your field---in my case, engineering and physics.

I am sure that if the above sort of interaction were to begin with an engineer or a physicist, the interaction wouldn't have gone beyond halfway through. The reason is not always that they know it already. For instance, at University of Pune (and most other universities), BE Computer Science folks do not get taught any of the following: solid mechanics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer,  

... I have had people (both Comp Science and other majors) abruptly cut me off half-way by remarks such as: "But you have to make a compromise between money and ...[the statement trailed off to nothing]," "I have a friend who has done MS from [take your pick of any 10+ ranked university per any ranking scheme];" "But you were in the US, right? Why didn't you go back to do such a PhD there?" Leaving aside very few exceptions (less than 1%), such interactions always end with the guy having cut me off abruptly and leaving me there with some such a remark. And, with a knowing look. Yes, even engg. college teachers attending ISTAM conferences. They ask you about your work, then cut your answer off abruptly (within < 10 minutes) at a point where you know that the guy hasn't got even half of what you do, but since he feels he already "knows" about it, he is not going to even raise a cognitively proper quizzical look let alone a well-formulated question.  

So, all in all, I think the issue is more like: How might a researcher make his work interesting to such among other researchers who are basically not interested in that kind of a work? Here, I think the question itself carries the answer.



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In this age of 140 character tweets we probably need a nice and short description to keep the attention of the listener.

The more I think about it, the more I feel we probably need to start with a simple example from our current work and generalize if the listener shows some interest.  Mechanics today is truly interdisciplinary and therefore hard to pin down and put in a neat category.

Also, I just realized, after talking with a colleague who works on robot kinematics, that mechanics means rigid body statics and dynamics to a lot of people.

-- Biswajit

P.S.  This is in reply to both Ajit and Kiran.

1. If the attention of the listener is guarunteed to begin to wander from the 141st character onwards, does he or his query deserve *your* attention?

A short answer to *that* question *is* certainly possible. In the interest of clarity, the answer is: NO!


2. Integration is valuable. Indeed, consciousness is integrative in nature, and all knowledge sure needs to be kept integrated. Now, integration does lead to short formulations.

However, before an integration can be made, there must first exist the things (the specific items of knowledge) that are going to be integrated. If the listener apparently does not know even that much, then you objectively can't do any better than begin indicating *that* first.

If he loses interest in the process, your own shortcoming---your inability to put it briefly and succintly---isn't necessarily the only reason.

There can be several other reasons too: (i) it's only during the conversation that he discovers that he is genuinely not interested in the matter; (ii) his attention-span is short (e.g. he is stupid/idiot/moron/etc.); (iii) he never was interested in your answer, but simply posed the question to kill his time, may be because he didn't know anything better to do with his life (e.g. he knew his life has been taken care of via the Social Security program, or by being a "worker" for a political party, or by preaching some religion or so, or by being a "tenured professor," or by being a "researcher" in a government-funded pork, etc.); (iv) he carries malice, and wanted to see you waste your energy on him; etc. ... You get the idea.


3. Nope. I wouldn't compress the above paragraph in a tweet, but you are welcome to try. I doubt you would succeed doing that, but if you do, what I can guaruntee is this: logically speaking, the reader would have to go through also the long answer before it really makes sense to him. (Going through the long answer may occur before or afterwards in time.)


4. Many times, the short and pithy formulations are nothing but what Ayn Rand called bromides. Not always, but many times.

And, often times, compressions (condensations, summaries, abstracts, etc.) are not just lossy but a degree too lossy.

BTW, here is one stunning example of being "short": (a .PDF file) [^]. I am sure those who always insist on short answers would really enjoy the tremendous gain in their knowledge that the article might afford them!!


Enough (for the time being) on being nice and short.



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Shortness may not always be a virtue, but that's what many sources of funds seek.  In the venture capital market and in the movie industry, the fate of ideas is often decided during 5 minute pitches.  Even though several million dollars may be involved. 

We may not be in the position to make value judgments about the people we seek to educate/influence.  In fact, value judgments may hamper our effectiveness.  Short and focussed is better in those situations.

-- Biswajit

Here is a valuable formulation that is both short and relevant: "Judge, and be willing to be judged." (Ayn Rand)

Re. the people we seek to educate:  They can drop the course, can't they?

Re. the people we seek to influence, esp. the venture "capitalists": Even if they are willing to drop everything (in short, are willing to go down on all the fours), should one follow their example?


- - - - -


This question reminds me of the preface of Resnick Hallidays's 'Fundamentals of physics' (seventh edition). In that edition Jearl Walker had added a small section 'what is physics?' in the beginning of all chapters. In the preface he justifies the addition by recounting his encounter with a plumber who asks him the same question. When Walker replies 'I teach physics' the perplexed questioner asks 'what is physics?'. This mades him to think that plumber's job involves so much physics and yet he does not know what physics is. Jearl Walker, on his website, also describes one more similar incident (involving him and his student who asks what it(physics) has to do with our lives) which prompted him to write the famous 'The flying circus of physics'.

The plumber is doing more mechanics than physics, I suppose. 

It may all just be a game of semantics.

-- Biswajit

kiran.narayanan's picture

A question that provokes much thought! The simplest answer I could come up (explained via an analogy which I suppose most people can grasp) is as follows:

Analogous to how doctors diagnose, predict, treat and monitor issues related to the health of human beings using their knowledge of biology, chemistry and physiology (amongst several other subjects) leading to a better understanding of the pathophysiology of diseases and related mechanisms, mechanicians render a similar service to the domain of applied engineering science (comprised of a variety of physical problems) using their knowledge of physics, mathematics, computers etc, leading to a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the physical phenomena under investigation.

One can then go on to provide some simple examples of the aforementioned "physical problems". 

Hi all,

Here is an idea I submit for consideration by all iMechanicians, but esp. so by the admins.

Origin: Recently, I was browsing for some OpenGL-encapsulating C++ class libraries, e.g. OpenSceneGraph, VTK, the game development libraries, etc. The Web sites of all such libraries always carry a "Gallery" page which is designed to attract the potential users. The Gallery page shows the capabilities and advantages of that library/framework.

Idea: Why not have a Mechanics Gallery section here?

Many iMechanicians do excellent work in mechanics. Their own Web sites often carry attractive illustrations and explanations of their research and education programs. Thus, many of us could very easily contribute exhibits for the iMechanica Gallery. 

We can have a main Gallery Section page which will carry a list of of the resources being exhibited. The main page may also carry brief (say 100 words) description for each exhibit, preferably with an attractive graphic, with hyperlinks provided  for further information (Web URLs, PDF files, graphics, software, etc.).

Each exhibit item should identify the broad area of mechanics via our usual tags. Further, the item should also explicitly identify the assumed level of the target audience, e.g.: layman, undergraduate, graduate students, advanced researchers, etc.

The resource items should be rather general-purpose in nature; they should avoid the tunnel-vision syndrome. The brief description should avoid equations as far as possible, though I do agree that in certain cases using equations would be unavoidable. The idea is to keep the focus more on the main concepts being illustrated.

The exhibits may come from professionals working in industry as well as by laboratory researchers and academics.

I sugget that at least in the beginning, there could be a limit on the number of exhibit items that an individual might submit, say, at most 2 exhibits per person. The limit is expected to help the member think hard as to what item of general interest he might submit.

The visual format of the gallery may be finalized after further discussion.

Over a period of time, the Gallery could easily become a good initial place of contact between the layman and the professionals from other fields, and mechanicians.

If any of you think that this idea should be pursued further, drop a line to that effect and I will create a new thread for further ideas, suggestions and discussions in this regard.



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That's an excellent idea for Zhigang and others to consider. 

But I'm not sure that the Drupal platform is ideal for that.

-- Biswajit

Hi Biswajit,

Thanks. I will create a new thread later this evening or tomorrow. ... Too busy right now.


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hi all , I'm just reading Biswajit ,and I hope to say :

all of us must know now what mechanic means , all scientist of all science needs mechanics and needs materials, & we are the start of material science, all our research is to do well for this life & to know more about the developpement of material science...

so the first problem of this science it's the fracture, fatigue & damage, all this termes means problems for iMechanicians  ....

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