2022 Winter Huxin Public Lecture: Between the Form and the Intangible

03, 2023

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To Wei Yang, the form and the intangible are connected by force. It applies to matter and spirit, and exists in the universe or a particle.

To Jiaying Chen, scientific research has a form, yet its impact is intangible. Science helps us understand the world, but the world is much more than just science.

At the 2022 Winter Huxin Public Lecture, Wei Yang, expert in solid mechanics and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Jiaying Chen, philosopher and senior professor of the Philosophy Department of Capital Normal University, shared their thoughts on the form and the intangible from the perspectives of physics and philosophy. Westlake University president Yigong Shi presided over the Q&A.

Q: People often misunderstand mechanics as an academic major. As mechanics  overlaps with physics, some assume that mechanics is about problems on a macro level, whereas physics is at a more micro level. What do you think of the current status of mechanics? Where would it go, and what role will it play in the future?

Yang: In our high school textbook, physics is generally divided into force, heat, electricity, magnetism, and atomic physics. Mechanics is regarded as a part of physics. If we look at it from a historical perspective, mechanics is also the earliest discipline developed within physics.

At the end of the 20th century, theoretical mechanics and applied mechanics took separate paths . Theoretical mechanics developed towards physics and a more microscopic world, while applied mechanics, or engineering mechanics, oriented to engineering and technical disciplines developed in the modern day. In the 21st century, mechanics develops in numerous forms. We believe that the first stage of development is the formation of mechanics as a discipline, which has played a leading role in the overall scientific development. The second stage is when mechanics connects engineering, technical and other disciplines.

Fast forward to the present day, when we are at the third stage, where we need to absorb new information from other disciplines and adopt both macro and micro perspectives. In the encyclopedia, mechanics now has a different definition which encompasses both the macro and micro as well as the connection with physics, chemistry, and life sciences. I expect more to come in the interdisciplinary integration.

Q: When should we systematically study philosophy? Some see it as a way out of chaos, a lighthouse to guide us in understanding the ultimate question of meaning. Others might think it necessary, regardless, to have an in-depth exploration on the ultimate question.

Chen: My opinion is that most people don’t need to systematically study or experience philosophy – it’s not a common need. But like you said, some might have such a need – they are the ones who should enter that realm. The ultimate question is always there, but systematic thinking is not the only way out. In fact, I don’t know if there is an answer to it.  We can respond to this ultimate problem through experience and other practical approaches.

Q: How should one adapt psychologically to the changing world? How do we see the bigger picture in science and philosophy and be part of it?

Shi: Personally, I find the best way to deal with changes is to stop worrying and live in the moment. Raising a scientifically valuable question is sometimes harder than answering one. How you come up with a question shows your taste and insights on science.

I don’t think I raised particularly good questions when I obtained my Ph.D., nor did I do so in my postdoc. What I did was to stay focused, observe, learn, and contemplate in the ever-changing academic environment. For me, the bigger picture revealed itself to me around the time I decided to move back to China. With the experience and accumulation of knowledge, I felt secure enough to take a leap of faith. Sometimes life could surprise you that way.

Yang: I want to bring it back to mechanics. Stress and tension are often used by psychologists, when they describe adaptation,  and also by mechanics researchers. For example, I study solid mechanics, and that deals with the relationship between stress and strain.

I would like to answer the question from the perspective of the initial form of our nervous and cardiovascular systems in a changing world. In mechanics, we study the optimal initial form. In that sense, we need to add some pre-tension to our nervous and cardiovascular systems. This pre-tension helps us to resist changes in the unknown situation, and achieve positive results.

This is how I see it from the mechanics perspective, using the inverse solution method. In order to achieve a good result, we deduce inversely and understand what kind of initial state we should be in.

Q: Is there really an invisible power that influences us in this  society? Could that be the “Tao”, or “the Way” in traditional Chinese philosophy?

Chen: There are a thousand Taos in a thousand people’s eyes. It’d probably take a long time to fully express my insights into the Tao. A good way to look at it would be to respect the existence of a higher power beyond humanity. Many people in this contemporary time believe that humans can control nature, but it’s dangerous if that idea turns into a stubborn belief that humankind is in control of everything. It’d be a psychological and mental disaster regardless of the actual damage such a belief could cause.

*Westlake University is not liable for the opinions of the participants.