Dr. Jishnu Keshavan joined the department of mechanical engineering as an Assistant Professor at IISc on July 15th, 2020. He was interviewed by a Dr. Safvan Palathingal who got his PhD from the department in Dec. 2019 before he joined IIT-Hyderabad as an Assistant Professor. Here is a conversation between them.
We present the highlights of the discussion between Dr. Safvan Palathingal and Dr. Jishnu Keshavan
Safvan: Thanks for agreeing for this interview. It is my pleasure to welcome you to the Faculty Spotlight. Could you take us through your academic journey so far? A trip from your hometown to IISc…
Prof. Keshavan: Sure, and thanks for the welcome. I grew up and completed my schooling from Hyderabad before moving to IIT Bombay for my bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering. One memorable experience from back then was my final year project, where I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Prasanna Mujumdar on developing accurate finite-element models for a cantilevered piezoelectric plate under distributed loading, which I believe was (and probably still is) an open problem. Then, upon graduation in 2004, I moved to the University of Maryland at College Park, where I graduated with MS and PhD degrees in Aerospace Engineering in 2007 and 2012 respectively. This is when I first came across the work of Dr. Sean Humbert (he eventually ended up as my PhD advisor) who was developing mathematical models that governed insect flight behavior in very cluttered environments. The idea was that gaining an understanding of the mechanisms that insects rely on to perceive and quickly react to clutter would lead to the possibility of emulating these mechanisms to achieve similar levels of performance with engineered platforms. This was such a unique perspective to take to the problem of synthesizing high-performance autonomous systems that I chose to stay on as a Postdoctoral scholar to continue this work in the same department until 2015, before joining the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder as a Senior Research Associate. This was again a very productive period as this gave me the time I needed to explore the possibility of incorporating learning-based control schemes within this broad area of bio-inspired design and control. I also had the opportunity to further develop this work at Mississippi State University, where I held a tenure-track position in Aerospace Engineering for close to a year before I joined IISc a few months ago.
Safvan: Can you tell us about your current research interests? Also, could you share your perspective on the current research trends in the field of bio-inspired robotics?
Prof. Keshavan: The advent of autonomous robots is beginning to redefine a variety of industries ranging from automated manufacturing to package delivery. While these systems are currently restricted to deployment in highly controlled settings, their large-scale deployment across a range of diverse environments still eludes us. The key to achieving this transition lies in endowing robotic systems with the ability to generate necessary motion cues from noisy sensory data and make rapid control decisions in uncertain and dynamic environments. This is where biomimetic systems that emulate the sensing and control architectures of their natural counterparts may find their use. This data-driven paradigm offers the promise of realizing simple and efficient perception-action loops through useful reductions of high dimensional data, which allows systems with limited computational capabilities to perform well in the presence of uncertainty, thus rendering them especially suitable for implementation on small-scale engineered platforms.
My research is mainly focused on leveraging visual feedback for endowing robots with a considerable degree of autonomy. Learning-based visual motion-planning and navigation schemes that enable deployment of autonomous systems in unstructured, dynamic terrain, such as a cluttered warehouse and factory floor, or an urban environment populated with moving people and traffic, are of particular interest. Reliable deployment in these scenarios requires the development of efficient control systems that provide performance guarantees in the face of uncertainty and limited knowledge of the system’s dynamics. To this end, a significant part of my current work involves research along two complementary streams, namely understanding visual feedback and control mechanisms governing fly behavior and replicating these ideas in the design of autonomous systems, and designing adaptation and learning techniques for extracting useful visual cues and employing these in feedback to accomplish autonomous operation in navigationally challenging environments. Realizing these strategies on a single platform is difficult enough, but their realization on multiple platforms working in a coordinated manner – the multi-agent system – is the big challenge with real transformational potential across a range of different industries.
Safvan: That is really exciting! Can you tell us about the physical scale of these smart flying machines?
Prof. Keshavan: The critical issue is the computational efficiency of the sensing and control paradigm that endows intelligence to these engineered platforms. These processing mechanisms need to work within the size, payload, and bandwidth constraints imposed by the scale of these platforms. Clearly, the smaller the scale, the greater the need for computational efficiency. Tiny insects seem to meet this challenge effortlessly, so how do they do it? Gaining an understanding of how they process information has to be the key to realizing intelligent systems at similar scales. Of course, these ‘computationally-light’ architectures should also find use at the other end of the system scale where there is a need for intelligent precision manufacturing automation. So, we are looking at working with machines as large as say, a Baxter robot, and as small as a fruit fly (or it’s functional equivalent, which is the Crazyflie nano quadrotor).
Safvan: At this point the research students in the department would be really keen on knowing the kind of projects they can take up with you. It would be great if you can offer them a small “teaser” of what is to come.
Prof. Keshavan: Sure. Let me mention two of my projects of immediate interest. Insects are known to rely on visual cues to land on either a stationary or a moving surface effortlessly. However, there are some critical gaps in our understanding of how they accomplish this. Finding a solution to this problem and demonstrating similar levels of performance with intelligent systems has immense practical value, ranging from landing on a ship-deck to docking applications in outer space. Moreover, this is also related to the problem of multi-agent system formation control in cluttered environments where in addition to preserving formation which is a difficult task in itself, there is a need to evade clutter that is either static or moving as one might expect in an urban environment. Accomplishing these objectives via onboard sensing and control is the interesting challenge.
Safvan: That sounds intriguing. Now let us talk about your teaching interests. Can you tell us about the courses that you are planning to offer?
Prof. Keshavan: As is probably apparent by now, a lot of my research involves leveraging tools from linear and nonlinear control theory for wheeled and aerial robotics applications. Consequently, I will certainly be interested in teaching any of the multiple courses in the areas of linear and nonlinear systems theory and control as well as a course on introduction to robotics that the department has to offer. In addition, as a lot of topical research in robotics involves having to mitigate the influence of uncertainty on state estimation and control, I would like to offer a course on robust multivariable control as well, which would be a nice complement to the courses mentioned above. Finally, if time permits, I would like to develop a course on robot vision and control which would be in either a 1:2 or a 2:1 classroom-lab format. I believe this is a course that would be directly relevant to students involved in robotics research.
Safvan: Thanks, Prof. Keshavan. Let us move on to your thoughts on academia in general. You have previously worked as a faculty at Mississippi State University before joining IISc Bengaluru. How would you compare the academic positions in India and abroad? Can you also tell us about the influence of these factors on your return to India as a faculty?
Over the course of the last several years, I have been fortunate enough to have interacted with several faculty at IITs and IISc as well as in the US. What’s apparent is that while there may have been a qualitative difference in the resources available for pursuing research in the past (may no longer be the case), the emphasis on academic rigor and quality of faculty and students in top universities in both countries are probably the same. The one significant difference is the freedom granted to pursue problems solely motivated by your research interest here at IISc (and other IITs), which might not always be the case with universities in the US where the pressure to secure extramural funding can sometimes dictate research. That allied with the resources made available here for innovative experimental and translational research was the decisive factor in opting to move to IISc. Finally, being close to my parents and extended family made it a no-brainer for me to return to India.
Safvan: What attracted you the most about the Mechanical Department at IISc?
Prof. Keshavan: What attracted me the most was the fact that nearly all faculty are engaged in experimental research, which points to a culture that places strong emphasis on experimental research. Plus, the possibility of collaboration with one of the most diverse groups of faculty and students on campus with research interests spanning areas such as bio, solid and fluid mechanics, energy systems, nanoscale devices, manufacturing and robotics.
Safvan: Can tell us about your interests and hobbies? What is your favorite way to spend time outside research and academia?
Prof. Keshavan: Reading (fiction mostly) and sports (tennis, squash and badminton) are my main interests outside academia. I have always enjoyed travel involving cross-country drives over extended periods as well, which is something I hope to resume in the near future.
Safvan: Is there something that you miss you could do as a graduate student but not anymore?
Prof. Keshavan: As a graduate student, I could always find time to test and validate a few outlandish ideas that usually had a very low probability of success. What I do miss now is spending time in the lab building and testing systems that would often crash and only occasionally work as expected.
Safvan: Finally, what would be your advice to final-year students in the department in terms of planning for opportunities in academia and industry by the end of their academic year?
Prof. Keshavan: In these trying times, I would urge students to start planning (and networking) early, and remind them that patience and perseverance are the key to landing opportunities in both academia and industry. I wish them good luck and best wishes on their respective journeys.
Safvan: Thank you, Prof. Keshavan for spending your valuable time with us. I wish you all the best at IISc and a wonderful career ahead. We hope that you can resume your long drives in the very near future.
Welcome to the Faculty Spotlight section of the Mechanical Engineering department at IISc Bengaluru! It aims to spread the word about the various academic and administrative accomplishments of the ME department faculty.
For our first faculty spotlight, we are celebrating the scientific contributions and leadership accomplishments of Prof. K. R. Yogendra Simha, who is retiring in July this year. For this spotlight, Assistant Professor Dr. Navaneeth Ravichandran interviewed Prof. Simha on various topics ranging from his academic journey to his key leadership roles and his vision for the area of experimental solid mechanics and Mechanical Engineering in general. In these stressful times of CoViD-19, this interview was conducted in a remote/online Q&A format, and we thank Prof. Simha for his considerate, thoughtful and insightful replies to the questions in this first spotlight of the ME department.
We present the highlights of the discussion between Dr. Ravichandran and Prof. Simha
NR: Let’s begin our discussion with “Team Simha”. Could you talk about your past students and their accomplishments as well as the leadership roles that you have undertaken over the past several years at IISc?
KRYS: Dr. Ravichandran, I am glad that we are starting this conversation with my PhD students who, like beacons, lighted up my academic journey and served as vital catalysts for my professional growth. I am particularly lucky that I served as the principal advisor for about a dozen PhDs and another six Master’s research degrees. Here I must also acknowledge and thank a large number of Master’s degree students furnishing ingenious and often spontaneous ideas for building jigs and fixtures, and lighting the way ahead for experimental investigations. I also interacted with a number of research students in mechanical engineering (ME), management studies (MS) and many other departments.
Earlier, the unique appeal of our students stemmed from the vast diversity of their unmined experimental and theoretical talent which, in retrospect, might seem rather naïve today, with students enjoying unlimited internet and computing power. This abundance, in conjunction with the institutional acquisition of sophisticated instruments and equipment, has ushered in a dizzy new era, blending science, engineering and technology in the new millennium. Having witnessed first-hand these tectonic shifts in the academic outlook of students and faculty globally and locally during my service in the mechanical engineering (ME) and management studies (MS) departments, I hope you will appreciate that it is impossible for me to single out or grade research student quality and impact based on numerical metrics of papers and citations, or other awards and distinctions. In spite of this, some generous souls must have somehow conspired and colluded in awarding my students and myself memberships and fellowships in a few technical societies. Being contented with mainly academic matters and avoiding contest and controversy also meant parting ways with awards and prizes!
You may then be wondering what leadership implies in academics today without awards and accolades. In my view, leadership is the collective enterprise of a disciplined team of students and faculty who remain focused on consistently achieving local goals in the short term. The confidence gained from this will eventually pave the way for global rewards in the long run. The fact that only a few local teams cross this chasm to excel globally, is the outcome of cohesive empathy and cooperative labor among the members. This was indeed the glorious situation all over the world a hundred years ago, when education and excellence were abundant in every local university and college. Academic exchange occurred freely but fiercely in several countries in diverse languages and dialects including English, but only marginally. Today, a hundred years later, the number of schools and universities has multiplied a hundred-fold and so also has the competition. The resulting melee and academic pell-mell in this millennium have all but eliminated or endangered native languages and learning. Instead, global chains of talent are being rapidly assembled like premier leagues! Once again, I am truly astonished and humbled that I could lead teams, chair departments/centers or preside over societies and associations. Well, even if only a ceremonial title, I must confess that I thoroughly enjoyed being President, IISc Gymkhana, and playing games with thousands of IISc students! One can go on and on about leadership, but I guess leaders are best left alone to fend for themselves!
NR: Let’s talk a bit about your academic journey. Why did you choose research as a career, and why IISc?
KRYS: Dr. Ravichandran, I like the sound of your word “academic journey”. Like space and time, there is no beginning or end for intellectual pursuits. It seems endless and infinite but is perhaps limited by the energy and enthusiasm of the players involved. For excelling in academics, I believe it is important to appreciate the interface separating research and teaching, just like an engineer sandwiched in the S&T coin. The pursuit of science has been going on ever since the dawn of civilization. Engineering mechanics, materials science and thermodynamics as byproducts bloomed explosively during the Industrial Revolution. The general public awareness and consumption of technology started only about a hundred years ago with petroleum and electricity. Now, and in the foreseeable future, technology appears to be the alluring academic narrative for garnering support from public and private enterprises alike. Engineering, including ME, is all about the design and development of engines for textiles, transportation, housing, mining and agriculture. Technology encompasses a much more widespread and well-managed network of consumer goods and services subject to local laws and regulations.
Flipping the S&T coin, or if you like, the R&D coin, becomes exceedingly difficult if you are set on technology-development missions to power-deliver the goods expected for academic survival and recognition. On the other hand, science and basic research demand a lot more dedication to detail for interpreting the nuances and discrepancies which otherwise are ignored or filtered out statistically for speeding up technology-development missions.
Only a few institutions like IISc have maintained a culturally serene ambiance to nurture science in engineering by providing generous assistance to research scholars and faculty alike. The ME department, in particular, has played a stellar role in promoting physics, chemistry and mathematics via joint initiatives within and outside IISc. It is indeed heartening to note that faculty with engineering degrees are welcome into science departments and vice versa. I am excited to hear that several young IISc faculty like yourself are pulling engineering science closer towards the arena of quantum mechanics and devices. Perhaps a plausible historical inspiration for this synergistic fusion of science and engineering could take us back to the days of Nobel Laureate C. V. Raman who was instrumental in setting up an engineering workshop in a central location (which happens to be the current CPDM premises adjacent to ICER) soon after he took over as Director of IISc in 1933. It may also be quite thrilling for you to learn that another Nobel Laureate, Max Born, was recruited as a faculty member by Director Raman. Even more incredible is that Born’s PhD thesis was on the stability of slender elastic columns–a subject taught avidly today in several IISc departments including ME! Another everlasting Raman legacy at IISc concerns unveiling the intriguing nature of light and its interaction with matter and sound. Experimental studies on piezo/ferroelectricity, crystal optics, photoelasticity, thus evolved and introduced into the ME department right from its inception, rapidly spread out far and wide igniting the attention of students and faculty across disciplines and departments at IISc.
NR: What got you interested in experimental solid mechanics?
KRYS: The above prelude (to your earlier questions) nicely sets up a reply to your query as to what got me into experimental solid mechanics (ESM). Well, there is a great thrill in interpreting forces, moments, shock, vibration, fatigue and fracture experienced in life (sports in particular!) invoking the principles of mechanics. But when you realize that real life experience differs a lot from class room mechanics, you begin wondering about the material properties assumed. I am tempted to propose a resolution here. Since not a thing or a property can be clearly construed or measured applying the continuum hypothesis, blending quantum and continuum as a quantinuum could perhaps lead the way forward? There already exist courses and books blending statistical mechanics and elasticity, but, of course, gaps remain.
Bearing in mind that the word solid is nothing but just another fleeting state of matter, ESM research includes all continua from viscous liquids through amorphous gels and glasses to polycrystalline metals and alloys or the entire gamut of engineering activity! It is precisely this universal appeal and ubiquity that has drawn me and many others across the centuries to ESM. Spanning a wide range of scales, it is manifest in nature all the way up in the cosmos and down to tiny atomic clusters. This long saga of experimental mechanics is well chronicled in texts and monographs to clearly convey the central concepts to students and faculty.
But today, Dr. Ravichandran, young minds are aspiring to unlock the ultimate and infinite limits of intelligence and learning well beyond the province of the human brain. Exciting new artifacts and synthetic products are sweeping away traditional concepts of manufacturing and testing. This new area of biomechanics and materials has already produced a prolific number of papers and patents in the new millennium – probably more than the combined output in the long history of mechanics. There is also a disturbing dearth of basic texts and monographs to guide and motivate a larger pool of aspiring students including undergraduates. Perhaps I will say more about this later to share my concerns and hopes!
NR: The term “quantinuum” sounds interesting! Let’s briefly discuss the “million-dollar problems” in solid mechanics ~30 years ago, when you began your academic career.
KRYS: Dr. Ravichandran, it is funny to imagine a few lucky professors investing a million on tech stock 30 years ago. Today, they would be merrily sailing their own luxury yachts rolling with bullion worth billions! Fortunately (or unfortunately?), whether it is 30 or a 100 years ago or another 1010 years later in 3030, PhD students and young faculty will always be dreaming and gaming big time decoding bigger riddles worth trillions about achieving eternal life and universal welfare. Of course, by then, solutions and remedies for 3 or n-body problems, deadly maladies and pandemics would have long been formulated and forgotten!
I do recall here that quite a few outlandish notions and proposals were actually seriously debated and discussed in several meetings, even though, finally, only a few got modestly funded. Among many, the idea of automobiles and aircraft running on plain water, however, got a lot of mileage. Even after 200 years of thermodynamics, hotchpotch perpetual motion R&D flings continue to attract the press and the public alike. Let me hasten to add, however, that though those discussions and debates raged for hours together, they always did reiterate and reinforce the lofty aims of pursuing academic excellence.
At this juncture, it is useful to trace the early history of experimental solid mechanics. The transition in tilting texts from structural mechanics/strength of materials to solid/continuum mechanics occurred towards the end of the golden era of structural mechanics texts by Timoshenko in the 1960s. This transition also witnessed prolific literature on the mechanics of continua spearheaded by the Truesdell school. The exacting notions and lemmas formulated for unifying solids and fluids relegated continuum mechanics to the theoretical pursuit of esoteric matter devoid of engineering significance. The distinction between solids and fluids was restored gradually in the titles and contents of the books. The significance of experimental stress, strain, displacement, velocity, vibration and modal analysis was also highlighted in these books culminating in more books and journals proudly and prominently titled experimental. I will return to this publishing epoch again when we discuss books.
NR: Thanks Prof. Simha, for this historical summary of evolving solid mechanics texts! Going forward in the future, for younger scientists and engineers reading this article, what do you think the “million-dollar problems” in solid mechanics are now?
KRYS: Specifically, in the experimental solid mechanics context of unsolved problems, fracture, fatigue and friction constitute a formidable triad. A rough estimate of the loss of life and property probably runs into several millions every hour! Papers and books published on each topic of this triad over a century have been largely inconclusive owing to a multitude of length, time, strain, strain rate and temperature scales. For instance, the mathematically proven singularity at a crack tip manifests itself in a spectacular burst of radiation of electrons and photons. Bridging quantum and continuum mechanics poses a formidable barrier in this class of problems dealing with dissipation, damage and radiation of matter and energy.
This list of unsolved problems is long and is getting longer as newer and more exotic materials such as piezoelectric ceramics and bulk metallic glass (BMG) are being invented. This elongated list of unsolved problems is bound to occur as long as short-term quick-fix recipes rule the corporate R&D roost. Protecting aircraft components utilizing thermal barrier coatings (TBC) quite often exacerbates fatigue. Similar uncertainties confront protecting marine parts from corrosion. Experimental mechanics can quickly aid in unraveling the root cause of fatigue cracking.
There are similar dangers awaiting us today in the field of synthetic biomaterials and procedures recommended for health care and rehabilitation. Surprisingly, there is also a perceptible increase in the acceptable levels of risk among the subscribers and users of remotely-controlled devices and appliances such as drones and robots! The eternal concern for all ages has always been whether we use S&T for human welfare or annihilation. There is hope always for collective wisdom to prevail over impulsive public actions and reactions.
NR: Let’s get into some of your research and teaching highlights. Can you share some of the experimental projects and research studies that you are proud of in your career? Not many people may appreciate this, but you spent the first half of your research career in the pre-internet era and the second half after the internet took off. In your view, what were the immediate challenges in the early 2000s and how has the internet changed the research mindset of faculty members and students?
KRYS: For the experimentalist, every set-up or measurement is wonderful and memorable if it only works! Professors are often caught unaware by minor changes which cause major snafus in the full view of their students! Experimentally-skilled students can quickly gauge the true worth of theoretical notions and computational simulations. Professors have to be, therefore, more alert and circumspect before proffering practical advice to students, and my own motto is to keep mum!
Observing dark and bright bands with the naked eye is a practised art essential for interferometry as in moire/photoelasticity/holography. Artistically-inclined students who are endowed with special skills and techniques sometimes prove to be superior to high resolution digital cameras, which are also quite expensive! Now, recalling moments, experiences and projects that are special and remain green in my memory is tough! There were so many jigs and fixtures that creative students and staff came up with on a regular basis that I wish there were further initiatives to patent their inventions and contraptions! This is not just wishful thinking, but a fact that the pre-internet generation of students had a penchant for practice on par with theory. The experiment-theory-computation sequence was an implicit code of engineering education all over the globe.
The new millennium has thrown up more serious challenges for our students and faculty for promoting and protecting IP – an unknown acronym in most universities until Y2K when the internet tsunami blew away hallowed traditions and notions of education evolved over centuries. In the aftermath of depleting enrollment in classical topics and foreign languages, universities joined the internet bandwagon by developing online curricula endorsed and funded lavishly by computer corporations.
Reverting to students during this internet transition period, fortuitously, I was chairing the department of MS. I began observing engineering students gradually cultivating a flair for excelling in business management and allied courses like OR, HR and economics. A related contemporaneous student craving for autonomous systems and machines obviating the need for human operators also chewed up traditional curricula. Consequently, decades later, undergraduates applying for internships and placements across diverse universities and departments present multicurricular transcripts reading like a multicuisine a la carte!
While this may sound odd and alarming for experimental science, these same internet-savvy students are actually now better equipped to assist us in more ambitious S&T missions in real time as required in space, homeland security and surveillance, transportation and health care sectors. They are also computationally competent to attempt simulating deep science issues right down to the level of atoms, electrons and may even include quarks in the near future.
Continuing to talk about teaching students, their prior training and talent set up the initial and boundary conditions for the teacher to optimally tailor the syllabi and references etc. These have to be tuned every time to suit the individual needs of students along with an updated set of assignments and tests reflecting international trends in university research and corporate R&D with the latter often steering and sustaining the former. It is therefore always a great source of mystery and joy that a good number of PhD theses somehow manage to transcend the transient and desultory market trends that have been inexorably unleashed.
This is a good place, Dr. Ravichandran, to pick up the topic of texts and teaching aids to motivate aspiring undergraduates and young scientists. There is an overwhelming flood of information via papers and patents on the Internet besides many courses online. Wading through this glut is tortuous and time-consuming for the students. It is also frustrating when we realize that the accelerating frontiers of products and techniques can seriously undermine the credibility of this mode of learning. There are no easy remedies to solve this unprecedented crisis in professional education in the internet millennium.
In the past century, students and faculty took great pride in reading texts and reviews by masters like Prandtl, von Karman, Rayleigh, Raman, Taylor and Timoshenko among others. A long time ago, I recall a friend and a fellow graduate student confiding in me that his entire PhD thesis was an elaboration of just one prophetic remark following a formula from a text on radiation by Chandrasekhar who a few weeks later claimed the Nobel prize. Meeting this famous author the following summer in his university office and listening to his words of wisdom including rock mechanics was a great experience for me. Impeccably dressed in a grey suit with a picture of Ramanujan behind, this scene remains green in my memory as a perfect portrait of the very soul of a savant serving science. In those days, the iconic trinity of Rabindra, Ramanujan and Raman inspired and lured billions towards literature, mathematics and science. Dr. Ravichandran, can you imagine how great it would be today if we had these masters around writing texts and articles to channelize the brilliance of millennials today?
Allow me to also quickly add here that I am well aware of the predicament of a modern writer inundated by the torrid information flooding the internet and social media. The latter medium is now fast becoming the primary mode for projecting science and engineering via the internet. Newspapers, magazines and the internet serve well as information-flow devices but become too unwieldy to isolate and separate knowledge from mere information. This SNR (signal to noise ratio) dilemma, loosely termed information entropy (IE), obscures knowledge pathways for creative research. Paradoxically, on the other hand, big data entropy is a golden opportunity for information scientists! We will take up this issue later, Dr. Ravichandran, when we discuss books.
NR: While we are at this juncture, we would love to hear about some of the courses that you enjoyed teaching at ME@IISc?
KRYS: Well, I enjoy teaching as much as I enjoy learning from teachers and students in my life. I am well aware that learning new knowledge and skills is more critical for teaching today than ever before. I guess these are like the two sides of the academic coin. I enjoy teaching all aspects of engineering mechanics from materials design, analysis and manufacturing viewpoints. Investigating structural failure and accidents demands linking strength, stiffness and toughness of engineering materials with elastic stability and post-buckling modes of slender components. Along with other colleagues, we offered experimental courses for Master’s and PhD students. There is tremendous scope for augmenting course work in engineering mechanics to deal with soft matter, smart materials and impact engineering.
NR: Let’s now switch gears and talk a bit more about your leadership roles at IISc. Can you talk about your role at CSIC? For people who are unaware, what are the unique roles of CSIC? What are some of the important changes you brought about at CSIC to make it a prominent entity at IISc? Can you also share some of your memories of heading CSIC?
KRYS: Dr. Ravichandran, after all the talk on engineering materials and soft matter, we are now treading on grave matters impacting R&D interaction with industry and society at large. Leveraging intellectual resources for augmenting industrial R&D potential is a key strategy in universities today. CSIC plays a key role in facilitating IISc faculty and staff engagement in various activities like testing and certification, project management, teaching and training entry level engineers, and partnering industrial and corporate R&D effort.
It has been my good fortune that several professors who were instrumental in setting up CSIC continued to offer guidance and encouragement to expand the scope and reach of IISc consultancy services. Some pivotal projects pertaining to infrastructure included railway bridges and the Bangalore International Airport. I also proudly recall here our colleagues from the Chemical and Biological sciences developing drugs, vaccines and enzymes.
As far as my own CSIC assignments and experience are concerned, I must thank the various engineering heads and employees in those industries I worked with for imparting practical skills which otherwise would have remained recondite and elusive. Even now, after many decades, I recall how a manufacturing unit in a mining company struggled to detect the cause of several fatal accidents while drilling hard rock. For deciding on a suitable course of action, the company management sought technical advice from IISc and IITM. IISc was awarded the contract to conduct the investigation, a decision graciously accepted and approved by the senior IITM professor who was also present during the deliberations.
I will now briefly give some technical reasons for fatalities during hard rock drilling with long steel rods with bits. Miners pushing on these percussion jack hammers for drilling hard rock faces are inevitably set up for gory accidents. Human factors and hostile environments like fatigue, poor lighting and ventilation render this job even more hazardous. When the steel shaft fractures near mid-length without warning, the fractured rod gets stuck in the rock. In that fraction of a second, the unwary miner plunges towards the rock and is impaled by the stuck rod which acts like a sword. Thanks to the concerted investigative effort of the miners and engineers concerned, the main cause of these fractures was traced to the insidious effects of fatigue crack propagation which were aggravated further by corrosion.
I close this account by once again recalling the kind encouragement and advice of that senior IITM professor, who later also evaluated a research thesis. Here, I also wish to mention that this eminent professor’s PhD work at IISc was hailed and cited by Timosheko and Goodier in the third edition of their evergreen classic text on the theory of elasticity. These special memories and moments acquired over the years elevate the glory of working in the field to learn the ropes and obey the forces of nature. I need not belabor this point today with rising urban risk levels posed by fire, flood and wind besides seismicity.
Early in my career when I started teaching fracture mechanics, I guess the best lesson the students learnt occurred at the infamous Bangalore aircraft crash site. Amazingly, despite all the terror and trauma unleashed by fire and sound, among the few brave passengers who jumped out and survived was a friend of mine! This one singular event perhaps spurred my resolve to go all out in the field even when it meant investing precious time and resources.
NR: Can you talk about the experience of writing a book on Fracture Mechanics? In your opinion, how important is research on fracture mechanics in relation to the technological advancements of the present times? In this context, similar to your previous answers, could you walk us through the historical journey that the “current topics of interest” in solid mechanics (and Mechanical Engineering, in general) have gone through in the past century, and how IISc has contributed to this development in your time?
KRYS: It was my maiden mission, attempted with an incredibly modest budget and was accomplished under the aegis of CCE (Center for continuing education) especially set up for teaching teachers! Interestingly, this idea was mooted by Professor Srinath while chairing ME and advising ISTE & AICTE besides writing many popular engineering books. This concept of teaching teachers is like teaching birds to fly, except that here they are caged and fed as per curricular constraints. I figured the best way forward was some light reading with a Q&A section at the end. This model worked out well for me and, I guess, for the publisher as well. Obviously, writing booklets for speeding up learning has its own merits and pitfalls, but the writer can always hope that the books will be read in full! As hinted earlier, SNR/IE content rises rapidly with the number of pages and students may even give up reading once and for all!
Let us briefly return to the publishing epoch of books and journals for experimentalists. Recall that it began towards the end of Timoshenko’s reign on structural mechanics. Timoshenko and his contemporary Taylor were well ahead of their times in inculcating experimental traits in their students, which later on effected wonders in the publishing world. It is indeed befitting that this is the centenary year of Batchelor, an illustrious student of Taylor’s, who wrote captivating books on fluid mechanics and turbulence besides founding the journal of fluid mechanics (JFM). Across the Atlantic on the other side, the baton was passed on to Timoshenko’s students. In this passage, Frocht pioneered the launching of optical techniques in general and photoelasticity in particular through a two-volume treatise, and also supervised the PhD thesis of Prof. Srinath—another glorious ME link!
In this information age, books are getting bulkier with tons of auxiliary data. Earlier, big books displayed rigor and authority backed by the authors’ original ideas and nuggets of wisdom dispersed generously throughout. Today, teams of authors and publishers are collating and compiling massive volumes. They seem to emphasize exceptional case studies and successful innovations rather than amplifying anomalies and lack of rigor while modeling the underlying science.
Historically, engineering authors began with strength of materials, hydrodynamics, heat and thermodynamics. The more advanced books on elasticity, plasticity, fluid mechanics, and heat transfer, which appeared later, propelled numerical methods culminating in powerful computational techniques which helped current research. Industrial R&D, relying mainly on the 3M design triad of mechanics, materials and manufacturing, produced wonderful results for setting up plants for generating power, manufacturing cars and planes and, above all, vital urban infrastructure for the exponentially growing KIT economy (knowledge and information tech). There is no question that the internet supercharging of the KIT economy in cyber space would have been well-nigh impossible to imagine without the requisite physical machinery and architecture.
The new millennium is all about evolving strategies for resolving the conflicts arising from the unabated demand for abundant energy and computing power without contaminating air, water and the environment. Prioritizing health implies that it is apposite to prefix medicine to S&T and relabel it MS&T. It helps us to digress a bit on the core topics today derived from the four PCBM links of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. The PM link, the most ancient, dating back to early astronomy, formed the bedrock of engineering science. The PC and BC links anchoring physiology became the hallmark for medicine.
After a long period of gestation, BP and MB links exploded on the scene upon the unraveling of the helical structures and patterns of DNA and proteins. Here, again, there is some spectacular IISc history. Professor Ramachandran, another illustrious Raman student who founded the department of molecular BP, discovered the triple helical structure of collagen almost simultaneously with DNA. Even today, many of us recall and remember this gentle professor stepping out of his small office and pacing the CCE corridor deep in thought about his famous plot, a landscaped replica of which adorns a corner at the union of the PCB sciences blocks at IISc. In the final reckoning, double helical DNA which offered a viable mechanism for replication, conquered and triggered an irreversible exodus of young minds towards biology and the life sciences—a trend which continues multifold in this millennium.
Young minds are also riding the internet extravaganza of massive computing power behind mind-blowing 3D multimedia animation and simulation in colorful splendor. Presently, I am told that designing video games is a closely guarded multibillion dollar business on par with other supercomputer operations required for trading, weather forecasting, security, defense and surveillance. The R&D aspects of cooling chips and devices have become critical for survival and safety. There have been instances of fatal aircraft accidents caused by intense heating. Thus, thermodynamics, heat transfer and fluid mechanics are now playing a key role for fine tuning the 3M design triad with powerful computation. Materials research is now well poised to crack the very core of matter down to angstroms, thin sheets and clusters of atoms using a wide array of software for simulating the molecular dance by capturing the motion of atoms and electrons. These high-end research efforts restricted to a few research centers of excellence are not always in sync with the commercially available and affordable codes used widely in universities. As a result, there is a need for exercising caution before acquiring new codes to ensure their quality and authenticity.
Here, allow me to introduce one more triad, lurking unseen, as a regular strategy for marketing touch-screen control and browser-based software products, drives, accessories and apps! Frequent updates rely on generating codes, operating systems and setting up fresh deletion or license expiry protocols. This paradigm of creation, maintenance and destruction by generating, operating and deleting codes periodically is the modern marketing GOD mantra that we should all be aware of!
Today, the M and T of MS&T are like two wild rivers in full spate with a very thin and tenuous interface gluing them together. This is the subject of animate materials science. The history of science dealing with inanimate inorganic matter comprising solids, liquids and gases is replete with myriad schools of excellence in chemistry, agriculture, nutrition, mineralogy and metallurgy. The science of lifeless solids, gels, colloids, suspensions and condensed matter spanning rigidity to fluidity leaves a lot of room in the middle but not for anything with life! This is the crux of organic matter alive with milling cells, ions, DNA and other nuclei. Live data streaming in from across hospitals and bio-labs are screaming at medical and technical professionals for answers. Decoding and interpreting the vital signs and signals picked up from embedded sensors and moving markers will probably decide the future levels of university funding. There is a growing misperception that medical tech is getting rather expensive without being effective owing to excessively invasive procedures.
NR: Can you share your experience of your work in geology? What were some of the research topics that helped with the understanding of the solid mechanics of the earth?
KRYS: About my association with geology, I must say the inspiration came from climbing hills and mountains during vacations and tours inland and overseas. I am indeed quite fortunate that I have had some great times on the big three: The Himalayas, Rockies and Andes. I also enjoyed a summer conducting rock-fracture research on the Rockies for mining oil shale formations from the Devonian era. Geology and the earth, like biology and man, explore the intricate workings of the interior with surface signals and features like heat flux, rivers, growing hills and valleys besides seismicity, electrical discharge, climate change, rain and precipitation.
NR: I’ve heard that you were actively involved in conceptualizing several demonstrations at the Visvesvaraya Technological Museum. Can you tell us about your involvement with the Tech museum?
KRYS: Conveying the excitement of science and engineering to students in schools and colleges is best effected by interacting with them in schools and city museums. In this context, there was a hugely successful show on the power of mathematics on planetary earth organized by TIFR in the Visvesvaraya Tech museum. This show had footfalls in tens of thousands every day with teachers, children and their guardians accosting professors and volunteers with all kinds of puzzles and problems! It is always wonderful to spar with the young when you do not know who will win or who will lose patience first!
NR: Many IISc faculty travel abroad during the summer on collaborative visits. Can you comment on how important these visits are, in enhancing the image of IISc, perhaps drawing from your own experiences as well?
KRYS: Travel and collaboration are major attractions for students and scientists to enjoy learning along with some earning. Achieving the primary objective, however, requires extraordinary planning and cooperation between the participating groups for the successful execution of ideas and experiments. In this context, I wish to differentiate between experiments and tests with the latter implying routine effort with standard machines and specimens. Industry- sponsored collaborative experiments provide greater potential for generating patents, but may not get published as papers. International conferences offer an easy platform for learning the tricks of the experimental trade! I have already hinted at the great opportunities for conducting field work on rough mountain terrain in distant lands!
An institutional image is a perspective projection of the cumulative intellectual capital gained per some standard unit of investment. Books, papers, patents and process copyrights constituting the IP metric often get distorted or even discarded without some regular flashes of excellence.
I guess leadership is all about identifying and exhibiting sparks of talent among IISc students, staff and faculty. Competitions among teams give better results than when individuals compete. This is indeed the case in sports and entertainment. Individuals do train rigorously to compete fiercely as in tennis and chess to become champions and grandmasters of theory and simulation.
Academics is a different ball game altogether in which individuals are not pitted against one another but are attempting to solve challenging problems with varying levels of success. Lacking absolute measures, questionnaires, public polls and perceptions for ranking scientists and universities become indispensable for funding agencies and governments. This competitive aspect of excelling in academics underscores the need for keeping a strict vigil on research and teaching quality and originality. The increasing emphasis on quantity indirectly implies routine and mundane reproduction. This can only be averted if the research problems are well-defined in advance to meet the required quality. Implementing quality improvement strategies for auditing university research requires continuous monitoring by a dedicated committee rather than by individual fancy. Systems and protocols already exist and are well spelt-out for hoisting up the IISc image and reputation locally as well as internationally. I also strongly opine that a sound local purpose goes a long way for excelling globally. Ironically, some believe the other way round also works sometimes!
NR: Last, but not least, we would love to hear from you where you see the ME department going in the future. What are some changes that you would like to see in the department that would make it an even better place to do research, both for students and faculty?
KRYS: Dr. Ravichandran, you are really launching some missiles in the final three sets of this Q&A marathon! Let me first assure you that ME has always been leading the charge quietly and consistently right from its inception. Funnily, in the context of fracture mechanics, strengthening implies toughening, which, in turn, connotes flexibility, resilience and endurance, not leaving out other mechanisms for sharing stress and strain! Students and faculty could get together in small groups to set up short and long-term targets of excellence in classical and emerging areas through discussion. Would that million-dollar analogy perhaps work out for coaxing students on the path of excellence, Dr. Ravichandran?
For a discussion on setting up such targets for the next few years, let us revert to the MT interface of animate matter. The mechanics of growth, form, damage, decay, degeneration and dissolution of animate matter during normal and abnormal bodily functions is a tentative but enormously broad subject in scope and utility. There is a great future for the noninvasive sensing of material and structural integrity via acoustics instead of x-rays and chemical agents. Activating robots on the surface with sensors for scanning temperature, electric charge, moisture levels and acoustic signals in real time offers gentler and less aggressive diagnostic procedures and will be a big fillip for healthcare. You may be wondering if this sounds rather familiar if you recall the earth signs and signals mentioned earlier!
Rather than make changes myself, I would elicit opinions from all concerned through group meetings and questionnaires. In this regard, I can immediately recommend your Q&A for all, including new faculty, to share their previous experience wherever it was. These are done routinely in B-schools and tech firms to boost employee morale and I do not see why we should not try these out in tech departments. Of course, feedback from students on courses and instructors do give a glimpse into the matter, but group dynamics results can project a considerably different image. I strongly recommend that you shine this spotlight Q&A on all faculty right away to get more insight.
An immediate action point that comes up front pertains to the various research areas available to our research students. It is necessary to maintain some lower and upper bounds for the number of faculty and the elective courses offered thereof for enhancing the research quality of students in a particular area. I say, from personal experience and conviction, that the confidence, clarity and commitment exuded by my teachers provided all the inspiration and motivation I needed in my professional career. I am sure you too will concur, Dr. Ravichandran. You have merely to look at your faculty colleagues to figure out this one! This is a common observation across top-class universities which will speed up students completing their course work and theses. Lacking sufficient elective courses, the students’ RTP appears concocted and haphazard offering little hope for thesis quality augmentation. Tentatively, if you want me to put down some ball park figures, I reckon 3-6 faculty offering 3-6 electives would be a comfortable target to shoot at. I am sure this will go a long way in preparing our PhDs for seeking out careers in academics to better serve the needs of the teaching profession.
Coming to future plans and given all factors today, Dr. Ravichandran, universities have to crank up the delivery side of their profession to justify the largesse provided by government agencies, and private and public undertakings. There is a need to heighten safety, and health and hygiene awareness in society with research students as volunteers. This responsibility rests more on the shoulders of young faculty like you to exploit high tech to connect with research students and youth at large. The Internet and social media seem to have erroneously tempted and misled many, both old and young, to fantasize that the future IOT world would be a wonderland of unlimited treasure for leisure and entertainment! I would like to imagine that all these dreams will become a reality in the future, but mentoring people to inculcate pragmatism and purpose in defeating disease and discontent in society is needed much more. This can perhaps be accomplished by a regular exchange of ideas and strategies between the participating funding bodies and university beneficiaries including PhD scholars and young faculty like you.
Furthermore, a regular program, even if only informal and uncredited, for all students and interested faculty, can be initiated in the department thus empowering students to uphold the spirit of original enquiry, academic honesty and, above all, quality. I am extremely confident that the ME department in its voyage completing 75 eventful years will develop many new flagship research missions in the years to come!
We have come a long way along this Q&A. I suppose we both need a break, Dr. Ravichandran!
I thank you for preparing a magnificent Q&A with these thought-provoking questions for which you must have put in a lot of thought and time. I am sorry if I took a long time, but I enjoyed writing in that extra time. I do hope my writing makes pleasant reading even if seems a bit meandering. Well, I suppose memory flows spontaneously if meandering and repetition are allowed! This Q&A experience reminded me of those long written PhD comprehensive exams that stretched on for hours and days. At this point, I wish to thank all the past and present ME faculty, staff and students for their advice and understanding which enabled me to complete my official and formal journey. I do hope there will be many more informal occasions to discuss other perhaps more interesting matters in the future. Finally, I thank Prof. Ananthasuresh for his kindness, commitment and encouragement for this Q&A and other events planned as the Chair of the ME Department. I wish him the very best outcome in all his endeavors and may they bring more glory to ME.
NR: Thank you Prof. Simha, for taking us through this journey of your academic career at IISc, and providing a balanced historical perspective of how research and teaching are evolving in solid mechanics, and Mechanical Engineering, in general. I am sure that all the readers would have enjoyed going through this conversation, and will be inspired to do more and better.