Where the Mind Stops—Not!

The way people use language, changes.

In the mid- and late-1990s, when the Internet was new, when blogs had yet to become widespread, when people would often use their own Web sites (or the feedback forms and “guestbooks” at others’ Web sites) to express their own personal thoughts, opinions and feelings—in short, when it still was Web 1.0—one would often run into expressions of the title sort. For example: XYZ is a very great course—NOT! XYZ university has a very great student housing—NOT! XYZ is a very cute product—NOT! … You get the idea—you really do! (NO not!!)… That’s the sense in which the title of this post is to be taken.

For quite some time, I had been thinking of a problem, a deceptively simple problem, from engineering sciences and mechanics. Actually, it’s not a problem, but a way of modeling problems.

Consider a body or a physical object, say a piece of chalk. Break it into two pieces. Easy to do so physically? … Fine. Now, consider how you would represent this scenario mathematically. That is the problem under consideration. … Let me explain further.

The problem would be a mere idle curiosity but for the fact that it has huge economic consequences. I shall illustrate it with just two examples.

Example 1: Consider hot molten metal being poured in sand molds, during casting. Though “thick,” the liquid metal does not necessarily flow very smoothly as it runs everywhere inside the mold cavity. It brushes against mold-walls, splashes, and forms droplets. These flying droplets are more effective than the main body of the molten metal in abrading (“scrubbing”) the mold-walls, and thereby dislodging sand particles off the mold walls. Further, the droplets themselves both oxidize fast, and cool down fast. Both the oxidized and solidified droplets, and the sand particles abraded or dislodged by the droplets, fall into the cooling liquid metal. Due to oxidized layer the solidified droplets (or due to the high melting point of silicates, the sand particles) do not easily remelt once they fall into the main molten metal. The particles remain separate, and thus get embedded into the casting, leading to defective castings. (Second-phase particles like oxidized droplets and sand particles adversely affect the mechanical load-carrying capacity of the casting, and also lead to easier corrosion.) We need the flow here to be smooth, not so much because laminar flow by itself is a wonderful to have (and mathematically easier to handle). We need it to remain smooth mainly in order to prevent splashing and to reduce wall-abrasion. The splashing part involves separation of a contiguous volume of liquid into several bodies (the main body of liquid, and all the splashed droplets). If we can accurately, i.e. mathematically, model how droplets separate out from a liquid, we would be better equipped to handle the task of designing the flow inside a mold cavity.

Example 2: Way back in mid-1980s, when I was doing my MTech at IIT Madras, I had already run into some report which had said that the economic losses due to unintended catastrophic fractures occurring in the US alone were estimated to be some $5 billion annually. … I quote the figure purely from my not-so-reliable memory. However, even today, I do think that the quoted figure seems reasonable. Just consider just one category of fractures: the loss of buildings and human life due to fractures occurring during earthquakes. Fracture mechanics has been an important field of research for more than half a century by now. The process of fracture, if allowed to continue unchecked, results in a component or an object fragmenting into many pieces.

It might surprise many of you (in fact, almost anyone who has not studied fluid mechanics or fracture mechanics) that there simply does not exist any good way to mathematically represent this crucial aspect of droplets formation or fracture: namely, the fact of one body becoming several bodies. More accurately, no one so far (at least to my knowledge) has ever proposed a neat mathematical way to represent such a simple physical fact. Not in any way that could even potentially prove useful in building a better mechanics of fluids or fracture.

Not very surprising. After all, right since Newton’s time, the ruling paradigm of building mathematical models has been: differential equations. Differential equations necessarily assume the existence of a continuum. The region over which a given differential equation is to be integrated, may itself contain holes. Now, sometimes, the existence of holes in a region of space by itself leads to some troubles in some areas of mechanics; e.g., consider how the compatibility criteria of elasticity lose simplicity once you let a body carry holes. Yet, these difficulties are nothing once you theoretically allow the original single body to split apart into two or more fragments. The main difficulty is the following:

A differential equation is nothing but an equation defined in terms of differentials. (That is some insight!) In the sense of its usage in physics/engineering, a differential equation is an equation defined over a differential element. A differential element (or an infinitesimal) is a mathematical abstraction. It begins with a mathematically demarcated finite piece of a continuum, and systematically takes its size towards zero. A “demarcated finite piece” here essentially means that it has boundaries. For example, for a 1D continuum, there would be two separate points serving as the end-points of the finite piece. Such a piece is, then, subjected to the mathematical limiting process, so as to yield a differential element. To be useful, the differential equation has to be integrated over the entire region, taking into consideration the boundary and initial values. (The region must be primarily finite, and it usually is so. However, sometimes, through certain secondary mathematical considerations and tricks involving certain specific kinds of boundary conditions, we can let the region to be indefinitely large in extent as well.)

Since the basic definition of the differential element itself refers to a continuum, i.e. to a continuous region of space, this entire paradigm requires that cuts or holes not existing initially in the region cannot at all be later introduced. A hole is, as I said above, mostly acceptable in mathematical physics. However, the hole cannot grow so as to actually severe a single contiguous region of space into two (or more) separate regions. A cut cannot be allowed to run all the way through. The reason is: (i) either the differential element spanning the two sides of the cut must be taken out of the model—which cannot be done under the differential equations paradigm, (ii) or the entire model must be rejected as being invalid.

Thus, no cut—no boundary—can be introduced within a differential element. A differential element may be taken to end on a boundary, in a sense. However, it can never be cut apart. (This, incidentally, is the reason why people fall silent when you ask them the question of one of my previous posts: can an infinitesimal carry parts?)

You can look at it as a simple logical consistency requirement. If you model anything with differential elements (i.e. using the differential equations paradigm), then, by the logic of the way this kind of mathematics has been built and works, you are not allowed to introduce a cut into a continuum and make fragments out of it, later on.  In case you are wondering about a logically symmetrical scenario: no, you can also not join two continua into one—the differential equation paradigm does not allow you to do that either. And, no, topology does not lead to any actual progress with this problem either. Topology only helps define some aspects of the problem in mathematically precise terms. But it does not even address the problem I am mentioning here.

Such a nature of continuum modeling is indeed was what I had once hinted at, in one of my comments at iMechanica [^]. I had said (and none contradicted me at that forum for it) that:

As an aside, I think in classical mathematics there is no solution to this issue, and there cannot be—you simply cannot model a situation like “one thing becomes two things” or “two infinitesimally close points become separated by a finite distance” within any continuum theory at all…

In other words, this is a situation where, if one wishes to think about it in mathematical terms, one’s mind stops.

Or does it?

Today, I happened to idly go over these thoughts once again. And then, a dim possibility of appending a NOT appeared.

The reason I say it’s a dim possibility is because: (i) I haven’t yet carefully thought it through; (ii) and so, I am not sure if it really does not carry philosophic inconsistencies (philosophy, here, is to be rather taken in the sense of philosophy of science, of physics and mathematics); (iii) I already know enough to know that this possibility would not in any way help at least that basic fracture mechanical problem which I have mentioned above; and (iv) I think an application simpler than the basic problem of fracture mechanics, should be possible—with some careful provisos in place. May be, just may be. (The reason I am being so tentative is that the idea struck me only this afternoon.)

I still need to go over the matter, and so, I will not provide any more details about that dim possibility, right here, right today. However, I think I have already provided a sufficiently detailed description of the problem (and the supposed difficulty about it) that, probably, anyone else (trained in basic engineering/physics and mathematics) could easily get it.

So, in the meanwhile, if you can think of any solution—or even a solution approach—that could take care of this problem, drop me a line or add a comment.  … If you are looking for a succinct statement of the problem out of this (as usual) verbose blog-post, then take the above-mentioned quote from my iMechanica comment, as the problem statement. … For years (two+ decades) I thought no solution/approach to that problem was possible, and even at iMechanica, it didn’t elicit any response indicating otherwise. … But, now, I think there could perhaps be a way out—if I am consistent by basic philosophic considerations, that is. It’s a simple thing, really speaking, a very obvious one too, and not at all a big deal… However, the point is, now the (or my) mind no longer comes to a complete halt when it comes to that problem…

Enough for the time being. I will consider posting about this issue at iMechanica after a little while. … And, BTW, if you are in a mode to think very deeply about it, also see something somewhat related to this problem, viz., the 2011 FQXi Essay Contest (and what its winners had to say about that problem): [^]. Though related, the two questions are a bit different. For the purpose of this post, the main problem is the one I mentioned above. Think about it, and have fun! And if you have something to say about it, do drop me a line! Bye for now!!

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A Song I Like
(Hindi) “nahin nahin koee tumasaa hanseen…”
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[PS: Perhaps, a revision to fix simple errors, and possibly to add a bit of content here and there, is still due.]