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A Comment Remembered

DrD

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Mechanics Corner
    A Journal of Applied Mechanics and Mathematics by DrD
    © Machinery Dynamics Research, 2016


A Comment Remembered

    
    Recently, in connection with one of the posts on Becoming An Expert, one of the ME Forum readers made a comment to me, something about seeing everything in terms of differential equations. That comment brought to mind a comment made to me many years ago that I want to pass along to you today.
    Most of my college education was at the University of Texas at Austin. It was there that I received BS, MS, and PhD degrees in engineering, and I was there studying for most of a decade. After I finished my PhD, I was asked to stay on the faculty for a year as an Assistant Professor, so that was my first post-graduate teaching position as well.
    One of the well known faculty members at UT-Austin was Dr. E.A. Ripperger, a man with a national and international reputation for his work in plastic stress wave propagation. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Dr. Ripperger directed a laboratory at the Balcones Research Center, a research arm of the University. He had many graduate students working under his direction, and he was riding high in terms of his reputation. He was a rather august figure, somewhat austere and above everyone else.
    While I was still a struggling and confused undergraduate, one of Ripperger's graduate students had taught my Mechanics of Materials course, and I had done well in that class. This fellow liked me, and when a job opening came up out at the lab, he let me know about it and helped me to land it. Thus I was working a few hours a week as a lab assistant for this particular graduate student who was himself working under Dr. Ripperger. Before long, I signed up to take a class in Intermediate Dynamics, and Dr. Ripperger was the assigned teacher. Truth to tell, he was only mediocre teacher, nothing to get excited about.
    The class was fairly difficult, and I was having trouble keeping up with it all. In particular, the solution of the many differential equations just overwhelmed me. Since I was working out at the lab, and Dr. Ripperger was out there from time to time, I thought it might be a good idea to go in to to see him at the lab to discuss the class. I found him at his desk one afternoon, and screwed up my courage to go into talk with him.
    I told him that I was finding the class difficult, even though I thought I had a good understanding of dynamics. I told him that my difficulty was particularly with the differential equations, not with dynamics. He listened quietly while I spoke, and then he fixed me with a withering gaze when he spoke, calling me first by name and then saying, "Did you think there was anything else besides the differential equations?"
    He said no more, and I slunk away to lick my wounds! I don't think I ever spoke to him again.
    
    DrD is a retired Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the USA. He can be reached for comments, questions, or requests via the ME Forum message system. Be sure to check back soon at www.http://mechanical-engineering.in/forum/blog/206-mechanics-corner/ for more articles.



2 Comments


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HI, JAG,

Fatigue is one of those things that, for the most part, we can only describe qualitatively. Yes, we have things like Miner's Rule, etc for predicting fatigue life, but we are only dealing there with gross effects; we are not getting into the detailed mechanics of crack propagation, etc.

For most matters, if you cannot describe something mathematically, you don't really have a detailed understanding. If you can describe it mathematically, it often requires differential equations.

Ripperger's comment to me was specifically in the context of dynamics, so perhaps it should not be taken too broadly.

DrD

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