The Shutting Down of the TAM Departments

I have followed this particular thread at iMechanica with some interest.

It no longer matters—not at least in this case of the Cornell TAM—but I may as well note here that I had supported keeping the Cornell TAM department separate. (I had written a small email as Mr. Alan Zehnder had suggested.)

I do believe that TAM, as an area of knowledge, is in an altogether different class from the usual engineering branches (like Mech, Civil, Electrical, etc.).

There are many areas that fall neither in physics nor in the usual engineering. A few readily come to mind: (i) Engineering Physics (ii) Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. (iii) Indeed, Materials Sciences also comes, in a way, in this category. In each of these cases, a separate existence is better to have. (IIT Bombay has a BTech prgram on the first but not on the second/third. I am mentioning this only to counter the claim often made that physics can handle anything that engineering doesn’t wish to, or vice versa. Nope. There are many areas in between, offering a partial, but valid, synthesis.)

As to TAM, there are many topics that are special only to TAM and cannot be imagined in any other department. For example, (a) energy principles (as in structural engineering) (b) more generally, variational principles and methods (as in every branch of physics and engineering), (c) dynamical instability, (d) space mechanics, (e) applied partial differential equations, (f) catastrophe theory, (g) Etc. If not in TAM, where else would the topics like these find a first-class treatment? Sure enough all these topics are sufficiently different, and sufficiently integrative in their own character, that a separate specialized study pertaining to them is called for. And, that can happen only in a *separately* organized department.

Coming in particular to the TAM departments, if anything, these should have been not only kept separate, but they should also have been *expanded*. They should have been augmented with the “third” paradigm of Computational Science, Engineering and Mechanics. Thus, TAMs should have been made TACMs (Theoretical, Applied and Computational Mechanics)—rather than made a part of a Mechanical Engineering Department here, or of of the Civil (and Environmental!!) Engineering Department there, etc.

Mechanics has aptly been called the mother of all physical sciences and most of engineering. Here, take a moment to think how the mechanistic models simplify something crucial in every branch from mechanical, civil and electrical engineering, to electronics, to biology (e.g. migration of K and Na ions across cell membranes—their *mechanics*). Think how condensed matter science is simplified by molecular *dynamics*. Etc. (Also look at the history of science—how it got developed). … Mechanics, thus, plays a special integrative role than no other subject does or can.

TAM Departments therefore fulfill a very special integrative need (and in a very special way) that no other department possibly could: integration of theory and practice of *mechanics*.

For example, do refer to any ordinary “engineering” mathematics book written by a mathematics department professor in India, and, go ahead and compare it with the treatment Professor Michael Greenberg gives the same topics in *his* book on engineering mathematics. The distinct TAM flavor is inescapable in that book of his. Greenberg is a Cornell TAM alumnus, I suppose (off-hand). And, I am sure there would be many others too, who “combine” or integrate, the theoretical and the practical in many innovative, even ingenious ways. Having a separate TAM department helps foster this culture of integration that is not otherwise found anywhere.

You might say (as Zhigang and Biswajeet have indicated above) that these TAM faculty members could perhaps work just as effectively in any other department. I doubt. Very much. My reason is to do with the way things get managed. Though this situation is human, let me give my argument by way of a physical analogy—to bring out the organizational mechanics [!], so to speak.

*Everybody* knows that in MD simulations theory, the potential function extends at least to the condensed matter boundaries, if not all the way “to infinity.” Everybody “knows” *that*. Yet, in practice, everybody cuts the potential off at some ridiculously small and finite distance—say, at 3 or 5 atomic radii (or whatever). Why? Because, otherwise, the simulation would get computationally too expensive. Now, here, does anybody have any real fundamental argument? Nope. Cutting off the potential is pretty arbitrary. Still everybody does it, practically. More important: While watching those wonderful MD simulation graphics or movies, none wants to be reminded that the potential was cut off. It’s inconvenient, and perhaps would be considered even rude to suggest that in a conference hall.

A similar mechanism also operates in human organizations, in particular, also in the academic (and industrial) departments. In principle, everybody agrees with everyone else’s research program(s). Every authority nods, at least smilingly if not enouragingly, to whatever is the specific way you wish to conduct your own research programs or want to practice your academic speciality. And yet, in practice, the cutting off of your ideas, your potential does take place routinely—despite all those benevolently smiling glances.

For example, for all you know, think, which ME Department chairman (or funds-management authority) is going to be sypathetic to a research topic like the studies of dynamical instability or of fracture mechanics, to be conducted in his own department—if these areas happen to be *in competition with* some core mechanical engineering topics like, say, data-oriented modeling of IC engines? Just think about it. Which ME chairman would permit the former at the expense of the latter? It’s obvious who is going to be a loser in this case, isn’t it? And what goes for funds (and promotions), also goes for intangibles like honors and respect.

And, finally, I also wish to name what is not being named in any such discussions. Under the worldwide trends of increasing State control of all private domains, including education, there is this increasing tendency towards making everything uniform. For instance, every e-school must look like MIT (or the top ten). Or, in India, every top aspiring engineering college (COEP or BITS) must look like the IITs (which, themselves, were based on the “MIT Model”.) May one raise the question, “Just why?”

Why can’t Cornell be Cornell? And, Dartmouth, Dartmouth? And, Harvard, Harvard? Why can’t each institution be like what it has always been like—or whatever it *itself* wishes to mould itself into, in future? Why can’t a COEP continue to remain like COEP? Why must COEP become like an IIT/IISc (which, themselves, are almost indistinguishable from each other anyway, except for the Tata and Raman names historically associated with the IISc—an association that even today still fools some foreigners)? Let me add a very minor detail here: Why must, for instance, COEP begin to call its third year by the name TYBTech—just like in IITs? What was so wrong in continuing to call it TE—in COEP’s own way?

Let me note here (simply because it has become so fashionable with the Indians settled and successful in USA, and, therefore, also in India lately) that the issue is not quite like what a second-rate, pragmatic, “businessman” would call it—an issue of “branding.” … Branding, of course, is a part of it. But the issue itself is both larger and deeper than being merely “branding”.

Why is there this bureaucratic sort of emphasis in every way—small and big—to make every private institution lose its own distinct and unique character, and be forced to acquire that bureaucratic greyness? be forced to follow the bureaucrat/politican/third-rate intellectual’s dream of egalitarianism? Pray, why?

Anyway, returning to the Cornell issue in particular, in my humble but honest opinion, it was a poor decision on both theoretical and practical grounds—no matter what the immediate compulsions might have been like, perhaps. I do believe that an integrative discipline like mechanics would eventually suffer if every school/university went that way. (And most have, already!) And, if mechanics suffers, so would mechanical engineers too, further down in future. So, it’s bad for *both*.

Just my two cents.

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2 thoughts on “The Shutting Down of the TAM Departments

  1. This is not directly related to the topic at hand, but I thought the following statement would interest you:

    “Schroedinger’s version of quantum mechanics requires that the state of an electron be represented by a complex wave function à = Ã(x; t), and Born added that the real bilinear function
    ½ = ÃÃy (70)
    should be interpreted as a probability density for ¯nding the electron at point x at time t. This mysterious relation between probability and a complex wave 26 function has stimulated a veritable orgy of philosophical speculation about the nature of matter and our knowledge of it. Curiously, virtually all philosophizing about the interpretation of quantum mechanics has been based on Schroedinger theory, despite the fact that electrons, like all other fermions, are known to have intrinsic spin. We shall see that that is a serious mistake, for it is only in a theory with electron spin that one can see why the wave function is complex.
    You may wonder why this fact is not common knowledge.”

    • Hi Biswajit,

      This is a bit late reply but I was not looking at the comments for a while…

      Yes, of course, spin is an essential part of the quantum description. … Actually, come to think of it, all standard UG courses on QM do include spin, though, personally, I’ve been having a hard time finding a *continuous* stretch of time (say a month or two) that I can exclusively devote to QM… May be some time in near future…

      Thanks for pointing out the reference, though!

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