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On the need for popular science articles by mechanicians

Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Recently, the Royal Society Science book prize shortlist was announced; though the shortlisted books cover psychology, evolution, biodiversity, medicine and neurobiology, none in the area of materials or mechanics made it to the list. Or, pick any Best American Science writing volume--there are hardly any articles about materials or mechanics that make it to these anthologies.

So, like me, do you also think that there is a dearth of popular science articles which discuss areas of our interest and expertise? Are our youngsters deprived of some of the formative experiences because of the lack of popular books, articles and essays in areas of our interest and expertise? (Note, for example, that the 1995 Nobel Prize winner Prof. Martin L Perl, among other things, lists Popular Science and Mechanix illustrated as one of his formative influences). When is the last time you read a good popular science article (or, wrote one yourself) in your area of expertise?

Here is a chance to change all that; just write a blog post and submit it to Open Lab 2007; or, if you have read some nice popular materials/mechanics article(s), you can submit them too! Here is the submission form for your convenience:

Nominate Posts For:
Openlab 2007


Ji Wang's picture

More than once, I have heard stories that people in Mechanics and Engineering have trouble to explain to people about their profession.  This is particularly true to Mechanicians.  I remember in the ICTAM 2004 I attended a session by a professor from Virginia on the comparision between the education of Science, Technology (primarily IT), and Engineering.  His conclusion is that the Engineering people do not do a good job on communication and educating people.  This might be true if we take the popular interests and student population these fields as indicators.  There is no question that engineering (mechanical, civil, chemical, etc) is important, but have we tried enough to convince people about this?

A friend of mine told me his personal story:  One time, he was in a panel of a group young scientists receiving career award.  After the ceremoney, a TV reporter came up and invited the receipients to give a brief introduction about their field.  This was easy for people in some hot fields like bio, but it was hard to him and a colleague in Mechanics.  They could not find right words to tell TV viewers about what they are doing.  Eventually they gave up, although there are two mechaniciains: one on solids and one on fluid.

 This gives up a reminder that we have to do a lot of homework on educating people about what we are doing.  It is important because we need good students, funding, and future.  If we cannot convince people what we are doing is important, interesting, and necessary, we may have trouble to keep this site alive:-), let alone our positions.  One chilling factor we are experiencing in China is that we have trouble to find good students to come to Mechanics for graduate studies.

Mechanics is essential to many things which make the world as it is today.  We just need to explain this to people in plain language.  As one of the field which may not be familiar to people in terms of visibility, we need extra efforts on this.

Perhaps some of us can write some pieces targeting undergarduate students and genral audience in magazines like Scientific American to start with.

Henry Tan's picture

nice points.

I believe that our J-Club discussions should pioneer this by targeting the discussions on the level of undergraduate students. Let people feel the subject is easy, not hard.

Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Dear Prof. Tan:

That is a nice suggestion; though a bit more of effort is required to make the article readable for non-specialists, I believe the effort is worthwhile. Finally, in addition to your "easy, not hard", I would like to add that people should feel that our subject is exciting and not boring--even if it is hard at times. 


Zhigang Suo's picture

The mission of the jClub is to facilitate discussion at the frontier of mechanics and its applications. In this statement there might be some strain between the two words: discuss and frontier.

I believe a Discussion Leader should be absoluely free to choose her Theme and the level of difficulty in discussion. She should not feel obligated to make a Theme popular, or set the level of discussion low. An extremely popular Theme almost by definition cannot be really at the fronter. Of course, an extremely esoteric Theme that cannot engage anyone to discuss also defeats the mission.

Ideally a Theme should be novel enough to engage a few experts to discuss, and interesting enough to entice a few novices to ask questions. The rest of us can be spectators and hopefully learn something also. By novices here I mean mostly people who know little about the Theme under discussion, but have nonetheless been in mechanics for some time.

Right now, few iMechanicians are undergraduate students. While engaging undergraduate students should well be one of the goals of iMechanica, perhaps jClub is not the right forum.

I strongly believe that jClub should focus on its own mission to facilitate discussion at the frontiers of mechanics and applications, without worrying about any other goals iMechanica might be able to accomplish.

This said, how to engage undergraduates is a topic well worth an extensive discussion by itself. Henry: Would you like to take a lead to initiate a discussion in this direction?

Henry Tan's picture

I posted a new blog entry, overlaps in our knowledge structures, in

Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Dear Prof. Wang:

Thank you very much for sharing your opinions, viewpoint and suggestions. I couldn't agree with you more on the need for popular articles.  Let me also take this opportunity to introduce an Indian journal of science education called Resonance, the editors of which will be very happy to receive popular science articles. Of course, I look forward to that day when NYTimes wil publish such popular articles probably once a week or two.

Zhigang Suo's picture

A while back I posted an entry entitled "What is Mechanics?"  I had in mind the book What is Mathematics by Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins, something inspiring, yet true to the subject.  Mechanics also has a long and distinguished history.  Beautiful results and great applications abound.  Perhaps Timoshenko's History of Strength of Materials is a good book for a student in mechanics.  I have not found a book suitable for people outside mechanics. 

Henry Tan's picture

What is physics: searching the elegant universe.

Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Dear Prof. Suo:

I also have not come across a good popular mechanics book (wouldn't a book along the lines of Gamow's Tompkins be lovely?). On the materials front, one I enjoyed recently (which is not so recent) is Prof. Robert Cahn's The Coming of materials science--but, that again is meant for scientists and not general public.

Personally, what I have in mind are posts explaining, for example, the fluid mechanics behind the leaping shampoo video that you posted recently. Things like that are sure to catch the attention of general public; and, along the way if some fluid mechaincs is snuck in, all the better. They are also the ideal material for introducing the subject to youngsters.

I hope we will get to see more and more of such lucidly written expositions from the mechanicians here at iMechanica. And, if we have a critical number of them, collecting them, editing them, and having them published in print form at Lulu, for example is not a difficult task at all.

MichelleLOyen's picture

I have on several occasions given to science-oriented lay-people the book, "Why Buildings Stand Up" by Mario Salvadori.  It considers mechanics fundamentals in good detail (at least for a popular science book) but it is all done through the context of architecture and architectural engineering, which is something that people have good instincts and gut feelings about.  There is also then a sequel "Why Buildings Fall Down" by Salvadori and Levi.  I cannot recommend better popular science-mechanics books than these.  

Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Dear Prof. Oyen:

Thank you very much for your pointers; I will check these two books out. In fact, it might be a good idea to collect the list of all articles and books in popular mechanics at some place, so that it can serve as a nice repository and reference.

Like Prof. Suo noted in his comment, mathematicians could be the role models for us; I find that the quantity of popular writing in mathematics is huge, and journals like the Mathematical Intelligencer help foster such writing. I hope, someday, iMechanica will be such a forum for fostering popular writing in mechanics.

Personally, I found the book of Truesdell, An idiot's fugitives essays in science: methods, criticism, training, circumstances a good read for somebody with a bit of training in continuum mechanics, though the book is a bit off-beat, and the author comes out highly maverick--not surprisingly, Wiki calls Truesdell a mathematician, which, I believe he would have liked--here is a biographical note by J M Ball and R D James on Truesdell (pdf).

Arun K. Subramaniyan's picture

I enjoyed reading these two books by J.E. Gordon on structures and materials.

1. Structures or Why things don't fall down

2. The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall through the Floor

They explain elementary concepts beautifully. They are very much in the same lines as Why Buildings Stand Up.


Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Dear Arun,

Thanks for the pointers; I think I have seen the references to these two books in Prof. Cahn's book, The coming of materials science--but, I haven't read either.

It is only half true.

For vector mechanical phenomena, there *are* a plethora of books and innumerable articles. For example, recall all the literature you have read on the lunar missions, car and bike mechanics, most anything on "how things work" (from gyroscopes and toys to flight dynamics of helicopters and aeroplanes), etc. A lot of it *is* mechanics.

The real paucity of popular books / articles lies in the area of *tensor* mechanics--whether of solids or fluids.

Again, the real problem is on the theoretical side, and not on the applications side. For example, there is not a single article or book to explain to the layman the difference between pressure and stress. Yet, there *is* a large body of articles on, say, failures of bridges (recently, more from the "chaos" angle), of space-shuttle (Feynman), of ships (Titanic), and recently, the collapse of WTC.

Even otherwise, there have always been popular articles on the Roman arch (how its design translates shear loading into compressive stresses and doesn't need cement to hold the arch-elements together), on buckyball structures (how its design translates tensile loading into compressive stresses), on aerodynamics (articles which, oftentimes, introduce misleading ideas about why the lift of the aeroplane comes about), etc.

That said, here is a popular science-like book having a slant towards explaining the *theory* of solid mechanics:

J. E. Gordon, "The New Science of Strong Materials, or Why You Don't Fall through the Floor," Princeton University Press.

This book still doesn't explain tensors. And it still isn't meant for, say, fine arts graduates. But otherwise, it's a nice little book to informally introduce so many ideas central to solid and fracture mechanics. Highly recommended as an informal / supplementary reading to engineering undergraduates.

Also, here is my own recent post on a book called "Mysterious Motions." This book covers a range of recently discovered phenomena from classical mechanics. Worth a reading. Again, meant for science and engineering graduates.

If an undergraduate has difficulty with mathematics, but still wants to learn at least some solid mechanics ideas, then Schodek's book "Structures" (written for architects, not engineers) has a fairly simplified explanation. (I guess Schodek is a member here at iMechanica.) See page 265 of the IV edition of this book for a diagram depicting the "flow" of principal stresses. I liked that diagram because my experience with most textbooks on solid mechanics is that their presentation of analysis is such that it summarily kills the "intuition" a student has. It is the teaching which leaves him in a confused state--he would have been better without "help" from analysis. Schodek's book nicely depicts the right quantity--*principal* stresses--so that the depiction of stresses *is* in line with the "intuitive" expectation. Nice job. Of course, it's a book and not an article.

It will be great if someone could directly explain in a separate article what the concept of stress really means, why stresses concentrate near geometric irregularities, and then, why stresses concentrate in a manner that scalar potential fields don't.

Any iMechanica member willing to take up the task?

Finally, I wonder if the reason for the absence of such books or articles is that it is so much *easier* to write equations after equations, and thereby so easily appear abstruse, competent and overall impressive. Also, I guess, this way, it is easier to copy-paste and generate yet another paper--100th, 200th, 300th, 400th.... I call it cashing in on the mathematics-phobia! LOL!!

I have already published enough of material in a non-complex manner, and completely free of cost. So, count me out as far as writing a popular article on stress analysis goes. Let someone else take the turn now! Preferably, people who have published 200+ papers each, and thereby have already gotten tenure and all. Let *them* now begin to explain--in a really honest manner--and only then, the rest will follow the trend. It's OK if some of them come out less than satisfactory. (In a way, this is only to be expected!) But don't let them get off the hook, to take cover once again behind mathematics, and to ask the rest to "shut up and calculate"--because this policy allows them to hide their incompetence in such a respectful manner. That's the idea! To expose--the established people *and* the subject matter, both!!

(Did I talk too much?)

What's wrong with mathematics? One can take cover behind words, never mathematics. Agreed, sometimes it can be obscurantist. But, then to each his own. If you want to call a tensor an object to be addressed in indices, fine. If you want to call it a section of a vector bundle over a manifold, fine. Depends on what one is doing and what audience one writes for.


PS: Some of your comments and insinuations are best kept off this board.



"Amit Ranade",

I do not know if this is a ghost name that someone of some other name uses or if it is the actual name. I will try to assume that it is the actual name. (When I started writing it, the track of this "member" did not express any particulars about himself.)

At the very least, "Amit Ranade", you should have identified yourself (including your recent photo and address, or the name of your superiors and / or affiliation--if you possess any, or, your physical address and occupation if you are an independent researcher). That way, others could place you and your comments right. Especially, if you are going to begin dispensing advise to strangers within minutes of your joining this "board" i.e. forum. Comes easy to you, does it, "Amit Ranade"--being pompous and throwing your weight around?

Now, of course, I am aware that name and affiliation are not absolute requirements to post at iMechanica. But if it is an Indian (and not a citizen of an outright suppressive regime) who writes and if it is me who he elicits response from, then that's the requirement I would like to set.

Nevertheless, this being a relatively new forum, I might still address the contents of a post by someone who actually has not bothered to distinguish himself from the famous "dog behind the Internet" that Bill Gates once famously alluded to. I mean, the sort who so easily dispenses out advices.

Thus coming to your intellectual position, addressing what you write, my response here strictly being a matter of a charitable gesture on my part. (Note this well, "Amit Ranade"--it's out of charity that I speak with you--and that too for this one time alone.)

You write that "One can take cover behind words, never mathematics." I disagree.

IMHO it is possible to take cover behind both words and equations.

But the predominant view today, esp. among physical scientists, is that it is impossible to take cover behind equations. According to this view, verbal expression can be vague enough that one can hide behind it, but not so with equations. Now, no matter how much garbage gets put out in verbal terms, this whole view is a misconception and I would like to correct it.

For the most fundamental, i.e. *epistemological* identification in this regard, refer to Ayn Rand's book on epistemology, wherein she identifies the mathematical nature of concepts--i.e. of words. The two are intimately related.

For a more specialized reading of some of the related points, relevant to today's practice in science and culture, I refer you to David Harriman's article: "Where have you gone, Isaac Newton?" (Do a search on the Internet. I can't care to do it for someone who can't even introduce himself to me.) Also, though I can't quote off-hand, there are some cassettes by Dr. Harry Binswanger on the related topics--how abstract mathematics has detached itself from any consideration of reality. Listen to them, if you will.

I would like to add that no matter how many respectable names share that view about words and equations, fact remains that such a view is just a confession about how carelessly the speaker himself uses words.

Finally, coming to my own comment: Note your own narrow and incorrect interpretation of what I have written.

"Amit Ranade," I do not "insinuate." I attack the practice of using symbols and equations to take a cover and thereby appear abstruse so that positive impression is generated. In other words, I intellectually attack people who spin floating abstractions--whether using words or equations. That is what I am against. I mean to attack *that* mentality. And I do. (Note, this is unlike today's trends whereby you are supposed to be non-judgmental all the time. Even while dealing the likes of you, "Amit Ranade").

But get this right, "Amit Ranade," that I do not thereby attack quantitatively identified relationships as such--whether these are expressed in the form of words or in the form of equations. On the contrary, I do think that quantitative relationships are vital to physical sciences.

In fact, all my papers are full of statements identifying *quantitative* relations--and many of them are *new* quantitative relations. But there hardly are any equations in them. Most important (and this could be the reason that really irks you), I do not elevate symbolically expressed equations above the verbally expressed description--or their referents in reality.

What follows immediately below is a point that is too mature to address you. However, I include it because others will be reading this post too. The point is that economy of expression cannot be raised as a relevant issue here. Sometimes, verbal expression *is* comparable or even more economical. If someone wants, get in touch with me (by private email) for examples from science. (That someone doesn't include you, "Amit Ranade"!)

I believe that it is the context and purpose which together determine which form (verbal or symbolic equations) is the most appropriate one--and if it is going to be a mix, which form should be emphasized to a greater extent--in a given exposition. Yes, you did get some of this right "Amit Ranade," but get it fully right: It is the objective context and the objectively validated purpose, and *not* someone's *whim* (because it *his own* whim!) which decides what form is correct. Notice, my statement pertains to the form (words and equations) not a particular model (vector bundle or whatever other way of characterizing tensors.)

As to my reseach. Yes, I *will* one day translate these descriptions into equations, once I have invented the appropriate notation. (If anyone knows of any existing notation that will do justice to the description, sure point out that to me. By the very act of publishing my papers, I made an open invitation, I suppose! Once again, "Amit Ranade," keep yourself out.)

One final point, "Amit Ranade": Lord Kelvin had enough of respect for physics that his famous quote cannot be taken to support your twisted position. Given his actual work, that remark of his ought to be taken as being in harmony with what I say here. Get this part too, right.

Finally, since your "name" is Indian. Go through the collected papers of the only Nobel laureate working in India that India has ever produced--Sir Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman. You will find paragraphs after paragraphs in papers after papers of his that are full of words--with hardly an equation. Why, even if you go through the works of the 19th century geniuses, you will find the same. The situation is not Michael Faraday versus the rest, as often gets portrayed today. "The rest", so very often, used words then. It's only the 20th century nihilism which worships floating mathematical symbols above their conceptual or physical connections or meanings.

To close: I hope *not* to see here too many posts of the sort you have made--especially by you "personally", and in regards to *my* posts. In other words, "Amit Ranade", do stay away from my posts, will you? Along with all your vector bundles over (differentiable or otherwise) manifolds, and all the rest of the misinterpretive garbage you seem to carry, out of not properly understanding either epistemology or science or mathematics--and hence, my own writing either. Just keep away--and let your "friends" know too. Got it?

Tch... Not discovering or inventing a single creditable thing and then feeling free to pontificate around for free, assuming Indian names.... Why? Because it's Internet, that's why!

Temesgen Markos's picture

Hi Ajit,

I read Schodek's book (structures) after completing a bachelor degree in civil engineering, but still I found it very useful. With the current generation of engineers (including me) using so much computational tools and loosing the physical insights, such a book is very necessary. Actually after reading this book I started hunting for structures books written for arichitects and gained a lot out of them. 



"I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like to be taught."  Winston Churchill

I came across it as late as in March 2003, almost 20 years after my graduation, and wished such a book were available to me when I was a student. ... Today, they may perhaps overstress computational tools. Earlier, they had a tendency to overstress analysis (i.e. closed form solutions). So, if they do not adequately address the physical and conceptual kind of explanations today, they didn't do so earlier either! 

... On a personal note, the first time I became fully convinced about the necessity to show principal stresses/strains in bending was as late as in 1996. But my own thinking then remained limited to the one isolated instance of the bending problem alone. I remember thinking that similar qualitative/physical explanations would go a long way in other topics of solid mechanics too. But since I was working primarily in software development for business systems then, I kind of just forgot even that one isolated example--I didn't have time to think about how to present solid mechanics better.

... So, it was such a pleasure for me when I idly happened to browse Schodek's book, and saw him systematically cover *all* the topics with the physical kind of reasoning that I was looking for. Absolutely illuminating! I almost pounced on that book right then and there, and since then, I have been recommending it to everyone, even mechanical engineers, at least as a side reading.

Henry Tan's picture

When we say force exists instantly, this is in the domain of mechanics;

When we say the existence of force needs time, this belongs to the domain of physics.

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