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Speech of Acceptance of the 2014 Timoshenko Medal by Robert M. McMeeking

Applied Mechanics Division Banquet, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Quebec, Canada, November 18th, 2014.

Now I can say whatever I like in my Timoshenko Lecture and it won’t matter – because you will only remember Ken Liechti playing the bagpipes and, perhaps, the kilts.  Thank you Ken.

I wish to thank those who are responsible for awarding me the Timoshenko Medal.  That includes those who nominated me and who wrote the letters of support.  Thank you – as John Willis said in his Timoshenko Lecture – for exaggerating my case.  I’d also like to thank the Timoshenko Medal Committee.  I am very grateful to you for seeing fit to honor me with this award, certainly the summit of honors in applied mechanics – the one that young researchers in our field dream of receiving one day.  To actually receive it is the crowning point of my career.  

I appear to be the first Scot to be awarded the Timoshenko Medal, and thus I am probably the first person to accept it wearing a kilt.  In fact I am probably the first to give this speech in what some call a skirt – though I trust that will become commonplace in the future.

In our field we are happy to give a plenary lecture in front of a thousand conference attendees, or to give a controversial talk on applied mechanics in a wolves’ lair inhabited by your fiercest critics.  But when we are confronted with having to give an after dinner speech to several hundred friends, you quake in your boots.  So the first thing you do is to go to iMechanica and read a sampling of speeches by previous recipients.

After this you realize that you cannot possibly give a speech as erudite, wise and informative as those that went before.  In addition, you come to the conclusion that everything that can be said about applied mechanics has been said before in Timoshenko Lectures, and all the amusing anecdotes are someone else’s such as Jock Eshelby’s, who told this one in his 1977 speech.  He arrived at the ASME conference to receive the medal, but at the registration table he found a brochure stating that it was to be awarded to Ras Lee.  At that point he decided that ASME had come to their senses and found a recipient for the medal who actually deserved it, so he decided to go home.  Jock was on his way back to the airport before he realized that the brochure was from the year before!  Now, with the medal in hand, I can set aside my fears that what Jock thought had happened to him hasn’t happened to me!

Like many researchers in this room, I learned strength of materials from the classic books by Timoshenko, and, of course, in advanced classes we studied elasticity from Timoshenko and Goodier, and plates and shells from Timoshenko and Woinowsky-Krieger.  However, I never met Timoshenko.  My closest connection to Timoshenko is that I was a post-doc with E.H. Lee, who was Timoshenko’s PhD student in the 1930s at Stanford.  Now I wish I could recall all the stories Ras told me about his advisor, but what I do remember is that in the Durand Building at Stanford there was a Timoshenko Room filled with his books and memorabilia, I think including his own Timoshenko Medal.  The room was used occasionally for group meetings, for discussions with visitors, and committee meetings – all presided over by a bronze bust of Timoshenko on the credenza.  I often sat alone in the room for many a pleasant hour reading his work and his autobiography.

The tradition in Scotland when I was a student was to attend the local university, and in my case it was Glasgow University.  I was very fortunate that at it was a time when Glasgow was at one of its peaks in regard to mechanics.  I studied mathematics under Ian Sneddon, and took classes in mechanics and materials from John Orr, David Brown and Alec Mackenzie and John Hancock of Hancock-Mackenzie fame.  All of these fine engineers mentored me and guided my development.  And, of course, I had Ken Liechti as a colleague and friend.

While at Glasgow, I did a piece of work that probably has had more impact than anything else I did subsequently.  In the summer of 1971 I worked for Colin Dodds, a lecturer who was interested in vehicle suspension dynamics.  He needed road data to program into an MTS machine that he used to impose dynamic loading on car suspensions, so he sent the only people lower on the academic ladder, me and another fellow, out to survey the A726 road from East Kilbride to Strathaven. We were tasked with identifying every bump, cant, slope and slant along a five mile stretch of the road.  No high visibility vests or cones in the road for us!  Colin subsequently moved to MTS in Minneapolis and used our data for the system they use in the design and testing of vehicle suspensions.  So now you know that when you are driving in your Chevrolet or Dodge, and you get carsick from the design of the suspension, that it is a minor road in Scotland and my data that are making you unwell.

In my final year at Glasgow I went to see Ian Sneddon for advice on graduate school and he said I should go to Brown.  He told me “There’s a gie canny worker there ca’d James Rice da’ing grand things in nonlinear fracture mechanics.  I dinnae understan’ it masel but it’s braw stuff.”[1]  Professor Sneddon had a strong Glasgow accent.   

So I went to Brown.

Brown at that time was also at one of its peaks – in the case of Brown solid mechanics there are endless arguments regarding when the best period was – to most of us it is simply always superior.  In the ‘70s Brown had a score of workers in mechanics whose names you would recognize---and that was just the faculty, never mind the graduate students. I was part of a fantastic cohort of graduate students whose names you would recognize as well.  I counted myself lucky to be in their company.  To all the faculty and students at Brown I say a profound thank you.

And of course, Jim Rice was inspirational as a PhD supervisor.  He turned my vague understanding of fracture mechanics, and other subjects, into a firm grasp of detail and context, though it wasn’t easy for him.  He taught me to be effective at research, by his example of connecting applied mechanics to wide ranging, important problems in all sorts of fields.  

It was an exciting time in fracture mechanics, with efforts underway to develop the nonlinear methods for components and specimens with extensive yielding.  Through my involvement I met and interacted with many fascinating researchers – among them George Irwin, Frank McClintock, Paul Paris, Jim Begley and John Landes.  I mentioned to my Advisor that I thought it was a very interesting time to be in fracture mechanics – Jim quickly deflated my enthusiasm by his reply that the subject was not what it used to be and that the really exciting time for it was in the sixties.  

My next stop was Stanford.  I mentioned before that I was a post-doc with Ras Lee, where I worked on applying large deformation finite element methods to plasticity problems such as metal forming.  My title was actually Acting Assistant Professor.  I had to tell people that I did not teach dramatic arts.  Stanford was also a dream come true for a young researcher in applied mechanics – at that time it was staffed by many famous researchers.  When I expressed my gratitude to those Stanford colleagues for being able to take part in the exciting work going on there---the reply was the same as Jim’s – you should have been here 10 years ago.

I got to drop the “acting” and become a real Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Back home my parents were disappointed for me, as they thought I had wanted to be a professor, not someone’s assistant.  U of I was a fantastic place to start my faculty career.  Dan Drucker was Dean of Engineering and Dick Shield was Head of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics.  Dan taught me a lot and liked nothing better than to talk solid mechanics – I suppose it was a diversion from being Dean.  I also got on famously with Dick Shield – mainly because he was born near Newcastle in England, and he thought of Scotland as merely a bit of Northumberland that had got away.  When I arrived, the Department was also full of colorful faculty members, including Herb Corten, George Costello, Jo-Dean Morrow, Marv Stippes, and George Sinclair among others.  Again, it was such a stimulating place to work that I couldn’t miss.  

Champaign-Urbana also brought me into contact with Fred Leckie, a fellow Scot who became a lifelong friend and mentor, and who did a tremendous amount of important work on high temperature solid mechanics.  Fred was a fantastic example to me through his enthusiasm and interest in anything that came along in solid mechanics and materials.  He was also amusing company with a fund of anecdotes, such as the time he was involved in engineering work in the 1940s to repair bomb damage to Tower Bridge in London.  He was sent up with his boss to inspect the damage and had to go out on a narrow girder to see what repairs were needed.  He had no safety harness or netting to catch him if he fell into the Thames, so when Fred crawled out on the girder, he did so very slowly.  He got out a certain distance looking fixedly at the girder, and not ahead or at the river below, only to have come into view a pair of black dress shoes topped by spats.  Fred’s boss had gone across the bridge and up the other tower and had walked out on the girder to where Fred was to ask Fred what he was playing at!  The most frightening experience I’ve faced in my work was deciding whether or not to duck under a table when UCSB was rocked by a 4.0 earthquake!

At more or less the same time as I joined it, the TAM Department at Illinois recruited former Brown students John Rudnicki, Kyung-Suk Kim and other young faculty members.  And Larry Bergman too.  We had an enjoyable and productive time, because Dan Drucker and Dick Shield had organized things so that the younger faculty could thrive and focus on research.  I managed to acquire several fantastic graduate students there, including Panos Charalambides, Nick Aravas and Petros Sofronis.

That Illinois was tremendously stimulating is illustrated by two out of many examples.  The first is that Howard Birnbaum got me interested in hydrogen embrittlement.  Regarding the second, one day someone, I forget who, from ceramic engineering asked me why electrical breakdown in ceramics and other materials happens at much lower voltages than conduction band electron avalanching would predict.  I became extremely interested and thought it must be associated with flaws in the microstructure.  I worked out various problems that involved cracks and electric fields in dielectric materials; one thing led to another and I got into modeling ferroelectrics, which then later got me into the field of lithium-ion batteries.  Thirty-five years later I never have figured out exactly why the breakdown strength of insulators is as low as it is!

In 1980, I attended an NSF solid mechanics workshop in Cincinnati on materials science and met someone who was to have a profound influence on my life.  There was this fascinating Welshman, Tony Evans, who was terribly excited about toughening mechanisms in ceramics, and had a particularly interesting one on dilatant crack tip phase transformations.  I told Tony I thought that I could work out the mechanics involved, and when I got back to Illinois, I did so, with the result that over the years with Tony thereafter I became interested in many diverse problems in materials science.

By this time, 1984 – 1985, the materials revolution in solid mechanics was already well developed, but some of us thought that more could be done and that dedicating a program to interdisciplinary work at the intersection of mechanics and materials science would be a good idea.  Robert Mehrabian, Dean of Engineering at UC Santa Barbara, offered us a superb opportunity to design a new department from scratch.  Having grown substantially in the previous few years under Mehrabian’s watch, UCSB had the vision and resources to take a new approach.  The result was that, led by Tony Evans, we were able to assemble a group of like-minded individuals who thought that interdisciplinary work, with a large dose of solid mechanics, was the right way to go for the subject of materials science, at least in the relevant areas of structural and functional materials.  We pulled together Manfred Ruehle, Fred Lange and myself to join Bob Odette, Gene Lucas, Carlos Levy and Xanthippi Markenscoff who were already at UCSB.  Later David Clarke and Fred Leckie joined us, and Frank Zok and Zhigang Suo came in as junior faculty members.  More recently Tresa Pollock has joined the fray and on the mechanics side Glenn Beltz and Matt Begley.  Of course, we have lost some over the years – Manfred was grabbed by Max Planck, Xanthippi moved to UCSD, Zhigang was tempted into the hands of Princeton and then later Harvard, and David too ended up there.  Of course Tony drifted away to those locations too … but then he drifted back – fortunately for us.

Tony’s tragic early death deprived us of an inspiring figure who was also a tremendous mentor, a fantastic collaborator and a dear friend.  He, like others in the UCSB group, was a tremendous source of ideas and interesting and important problems – we in mechanics have made hay on the opportunities that our materials colleagues have brought to us.  I like to think that I on the mechanics side contributed something to their ability to make progress on problems in materials science of importance to them.  

The team that tackled the effort to do interdisciplinary work on structural and functional materials was by no means confined to UCSB.  Over the years we had the pleasure of interacting with and hosting many superb collaborators.  Largely funded by DARPA and then later by ONR, we had long run of programs involving John Hutchinson, Jim Rice, John Hirth, Mike Ashby, Haydn Wadley, Norman Fleck, Vikram Deshpande, and many others from universities, national labs and companies.

I have also had many tremendous students at UCSB, including Chad Landes, Matt Begley, Chris Lynch, Mike Crowell, Annie Ruimi and Amit Pathak.  My post-docs in that time have been superb too, such as Gang Bao, George Jefferson, Sergio Lucato and Patrick McGarry.

I have mentioned lots of names during this speech, but that has a purpose.  It is to enable me to thank them all for having contributed to making it possible for me to achieve what I have.  While my students and post-docs have been most important to my success, I’ve also benefitted immeasurably from my interaction over the years with all the other researchers whom I’ve mentioned.

Now I should draw a couple of conclusions of a philosophical nature from my ramblings, though these will hardly be profound or original.  One relates to people, and the fact that I have interacted and collaborated with a large number of them.  This demonstrates that doing applied mechanics is a great way to get to know fascinating people who are also very nice.  But on a more serious note, my experience shows that a good strategy for success in applied mechanics is to get to know and interact with a lot of good people in a diversity of fields.  If you do that, the ideas and opportunities for doing good, interesting work in applied mechanics will develop from the interactions that result.

In contrast, I have a mixed message on the question of the status of applied mechanics that many of my predecessors in this speech have wrestled with.  In my judgment the first order of business is that applied mechanics must continue to contribute in an important way for it to remain relevant---as it has strongly shown itself to be over and over again.  This often means forming a partnership with other disciplines, so that work of significant impact can be achieved, whether it is in materials science, geophysics or biomedicine and bioengineering to cite a few recent examples where mechanics has played a strong role.  As others have pointed out in their Timoshenko lectures, a consequence of partnership is that the all the credit for the success can be grabbed by the partner discipline, while the contributions from applied mechanics are obscured and not apparent.  Though I think the risk well worth taking, because the opportunities accruing out of partnership with other disciplines are too great to ignore, we must keep reminding everyone, including politicians, university administrators and funding agencies, that applied mechanics is still having great successes and contributing in a big way.

Then there is the question of the closure of applied mechanics departments.  I think it cuts both ways.  Collaborative, inter-disciplinary research can be invigorated by the intimacy that arises when applied mechanics is merged into a larger unit.  On the other hand, robustness and strength come from diversity, and the loss of departments has undermined this.  Different groups doing different things in different ways in different locations has its benefits.

Well, I have tried your patience for long enough.  I just wish to end by once more expressing my thanks to all who have helped me, supported my efforts and collaborated with me over the years.  And thanks to you for listening to me.  And thank you for awarding me the Timoshenko Medal. 

[1] His advice translates as “There’s a very clever worker called James Rice doing grand things in nonlinear fracture mechanics.  I don’t understand it myself, but it’s great stuff.”



Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Bob:  You have been a caring mentor and an inspiring role model.  Your work has had a profound effect.  In your hands, mechanics becomes a way to describe all things describable.  Crack-tip blunting, transformation toughening, powder sintering, composite fatigue, electromechanical coupling, living tissues, lithium-ion batteries...  Huajian asked, what have you not worked on?  You make old mechanics fresh, and youthful mechanics useful.  Thank you for showing the way.  Looking forward to watching your next adventure.

Emilio Martínez Pañeda's picture

I saw Prof. McMeeking not so long ago and we exchanged a couple of jokes regarding the significant relevance of Timoshenko Medal speech of acceptance and how difficult it is to keep the level of previous awardees. 

I pleasantly see that he pulled out of his sleeve a fantastic (and humorous) speech. Congratulations for this very nice piece of text (and thanks to iMechanica for sharing it) and of course congratulations for the (well deserved) medal.

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