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Quick question about the field of mechanics?

  1. Apr 26, 2012 #1
    So, I've been looking into academics in mechanics and there's mechanical engineering. And there are also graduate programs in theoretical and applied mechanics. Exactly what is the difference between the two and what would be better suited for one who wishes to analyze real-world situations?

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 26, 2012 #2


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    The answer to that question is "Yes." (Do I have you thoroughly confused now? Good.)

    The fundamental, broad brush difference is this: mechanics refers strictly to mechanics, while mechanical engineering includes both mechanics (machine design, controls, etc) and also thermal sciences (heat transfer, thermal power, etc.) There is often broad overlap between departments, but some topics fall clearly on one side of the line, others on the other side. In my school, I studied machine design, a very mechanics oriented field, extensively while majoring in mechanical engineering. There was also a mechanics department in the school as well. The reason for my choice was very simple. I got much better financial support through the ME department than I did through the EM department, and I could study what I wanted to study in either department. Easy choice. My first teaching position was in an EM department, so there is very little difference for many purposes.
  4. Apr 26, 2012 #3
    thanks. how come physicists don't study mechanics? They mostly go into quantum or condensed matter and the like.

    So if I want to work in the industry, should I do mech E in undergrad while taking mechanics courses, then do theoretical and applied mechanics. btw, is TAM the same thing as EM.

    oh, and also, how come very few colleges offer majors like Engineering physics and Engineering mechanics.
  5. Apr 26, 2012 #4


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    Physicists consider classical mechanics to passe' today. It does not have cache'.
    It was not so in the 19th century, but today they consider there to be nothing fundamentally new left to learn in mechanics, so they have moved on to new things that include buzz prefixes like "quantum" or "nuclear" or "sub-atomic" or some such. And they are correct in that the general principles of macroscopic mechanics are well established; there remain, however, some absolutely great problems to be solved.

    EM and TAM are essentially the same thing. Different schools use different terminology, but the difference is nothing that one can ever define. At the University of Texas at Austin, it is the Dept of EM & Aerospace. At the University of Illinois (Champagne/Urbana) it is the Dept of TA&M. The UT-Austin department is a bit more space oriented, the UofI department is a bit more structures oriented (or at least these statements used to be true; I'm out of date now.)

    As to why relatively few colleges offer majors in Engr Physics or EM, it is mainly that it is a niche major, low demand. There is not a great demand for this major anywhere, and most schools simply cannot afford to offer a major in a low demand major. UT-Austin offers an Engr Science degree (i think they still do) that is comparable to an Engr Physics degree.

    If you want to deal with real world problems, either in things like civil structures, or machinery, you can get the necessary education in either an ME or EM department. For something like this, I would not even consider a physics degree. Engineers are the ones who deal with the real, macroscopic world that we live in every day.
  6. Apr 26, 2012 #5
    if mechanics is already done with, how come there is still research going on in the field?
    would I have a better understanding of real-life situations with a EM or ME degree?
    Would it be a better idea to major in ME, then get a masters and PhD in TAM to get a job and also learn what I want to learn?
    oh and the extra knowledge would help in the industry right?

    Last edited: Apr 26, 2012
  7. Apr 26, 2012 #6


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    I answered your first question just above; believe it.
    I think I have pretty well told you that the second question make no difference (can you read?).
    Depending on where you go to school, your only option may well be an under grad degree in ME, followed by graduate work in either ME or EM, whichever one you choose.
    An MS is almost certain to help, job wise. Whether a PhD is a good idea or not today is not altogether clear. Look at the situation when you get there.
  8. Apr 27, 2012 #7
    because those actually uses all fields of physics, while mechanics just uses mechanics. if you do research in mechanics, then every EM, quantum, and thermo class is wasted, is it not?

    there's probably more classical mechanics research in math departments. there are indeed many important questions left to be solved in classical mechanics like nonlinear system dynamics, fluid mechanics and the like, but that's for mathematicians and engineers to worry about, since it doesn't involve physics (EM, quantum and thermo).
  9. Apr 27, 2012 #8


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    Nothing is ever wasted; it will eventually prove useful at some point in your life. Whether it was an efficient use of your time or not is another question, however.

    I would suggest that E&M (Electricity & Magnetism) can be very complementary to mechanics if you want to get into the study of things like electromechanics, a field that I personally find very interesting. There is a long, close connection between the two back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there are many practical applications today in electrical machines of various sorts.
  10. Apr 27, 2012 #9
    I think thermodynamics is a big part of mechanics too.
    And also about mechanics and mechanical engineering, would physical chemistry help at all? Since it's about rate of chemical reactions and the like.
    And lastly, what would I learn differently from a masters in EM, rather than one in ME?

  11. Apr 27, 2012 #10


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    You really do not seem to understand how graduate education works. It is typically very flexible, allowing you to learn whatever it is you want to learn (within broad limits) that you work out with your adviser. Most graduate programs have only a few specified courses, but a lot of electives that allow you to shape your program to fit whatever it is that you want to study. The key is to design a coherent, systematic program of study that makes sense, and that is where your adviser comes in.
  12. Apr 27, 2012 #11
    oh, what is quantum mechanics useful for?
    and I'm planning on applying to cornell or caltech? Are they decent choices for what I'm interested in?
  13. Apr 27, 2012 #12
    thermodynamics is part of mechanical engineering but not mechanics.

    you are using a device that was designed directly with knowledge of quantum mechanics to speak to us right now.
  14. Apr 27, 2012 #13
    I just looked at this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanics
    It looks like statistical thermodynamics and classical thermodynamics is part of mechanics as pictured by the diagram. I don't know if wikipedia is fully correct though.

    Just one more question. Is engineering physics a useful major compared to ME.
    It seems interesting but, I'm just worried if I could find any jobs in the industry with engineering physics major and higher degrees in engineering mechanics.

    and also, is there any chemistry in engineering physics, engineering mechanics, or ME at all? besides material science which I think is required for all of them.
  15. Apr 27, 2012 #14


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    You have never said where you are (what level) in school right now? Are you in high school, college, or what?

    You have never said what your real career goals are. What kind of work, in what industry, do you want to do?

    You seem to want to pin down an awful lot of answers with very little input. It just cannot be done.
  16. Apr 27, 2012 #15
    Well, I'm a senior in high school right now.
    I've always been interested in math and physics so I guess that engineering suits me the best?
    It's probably too early to figure out what kind of work I want to do. I'm just interested in physics especially mechanics.
    and how come mathematicians are the ones researching into mechanics too?
  17. Apr 27, 2012 #16


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    This is about what I had come to suspect. You want certainty about you know not what; that is about too much to ask. Please try to be a bit more reasonable.

    Why do mathematicians do research in mechanics? Because it interests them! Often times by the time they have the problem in the form they want to work on it, you no longer recognize the physical problem, but it had its origins in some physical problem at one time. Basically, they work on whatever interests them. That is what most researchers do.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 28, 2012
  18. Apr 28, 2012 #17
    I disagree with Wiki because I've done the course and I've graduated. The (classical) thermodynamics that you learn in mechanical engineering/engineering mechanics is NOTHING like the (classical) thermodynamics you learn in physics, chemistry and materials engineering. There's no statistical thermodynamics anywhere for sure. I know this because I took both versions of thermo.

    Think steam tables vs. partition function.

    Here's what the engineering mechanics degree requires as upper division classes:

    http://www.civil.columbia.edu/misc-pages/degree_track_em.html [Broken]

    As you see its mostly classical mechanics and math.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  19. Apr 28, 2012 #18
    If you like physics and math, why don't you go into physics or math? If you like engineering, go into engineering. I wouldn't go into engineering just for a job. Mechanical engineering jobs are not as plentiful as they used to be (but still more plentiful than some fields).

    A BS in mechanical engineering will get you a job. A BS in Physics Engineering, as far as I know, is best if you want to pursue higher degrees, or want opportunities in a variety of areas of engineering. I might be wrong about that.

    A side note about classical mechanics: nonlinear (chaotic) classical systems are a very active area of research these days. The reason that people don't study simple mechanics is because it has been figured out already! Researchers moved onto other topics. Since QM is more fundamental and newer (relatively) there are more opportunities for research.
  20. Apr 28, 2012 #19
    so basically, mostly applied mathematicians study classical mechanics such as solid mechanics and fluid dynamics right?
    So what's the difference between an applied math guy studying fluid dynamics as his doctorate, and an engineering guy studying fluid dynamics in his doctorate?
    What, generally is the best major to take prior to a degree in theoretical and applied mechanics/engineering mechanics?

    And does it make a difference whether or not you do masters before you get a PhD? I was looking at Cornell's TAM, and it said you can just go directly to doctoral work as an undergraduate after doing 2 semesters of graduate work.

    As far as career goes, I'm just worried that working in mechanics in doctoral work wouldn't land me a job in the industry.
  21. Apr 28, 2012 #20
    At the doctorate level: the mathematician may be focused on method development while the engineer would be focused on using the methods developed by the mathematician towards designing useful things, and the physicist would be focused on using the methods developed by the mathematician towards characterizing useful natural or artificial phenomena.

    For example in fluids:

    the mathematician would develop a method - let's say finite element method.

    the physicist would apply that method to describing a problem that came up - let's say hypersonic flow in a small channel.

    the engineer would take the conclusions of the physicist and design something with it - let's say a shaped channel that can speed up a subsonic flow into supersonic then hypersonic.

    in terms of "distance from end product" it would look like this:

    mathematician physicist engineer
  22. Apr 29, 2012 #21
    which one mathematician, engineer, or scientist, would have the most to do with analyzing things? Like analyzing things in real life? Which major would be the best preparation for a doctorate/graduate degree in mechanics?

    And also, today, what type of weapons are there? Like, in weapon development, what kind of engineers are there mostly? Would it be engineering physics because of the vast knowledge?
  23. Apr 29, 2012 #22
    Would this sequence be recommended?
    Engineering Physics major (to understand basic engineering and physics and having a lot of opportunities)
    then Applied Mathematics major (focusing on mechanics)
    then PhD in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics?
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