“We illustrate reality, simplify it, and try to grasp the whole thing with our own imagination. Because we cannot understand the universe, but we can make a model of it,” Prof. Tim Ricken says about the extensive work at his institute. Since August, he has been the Director of the Institute of Statics and Dynamics of Aerospace Structures.
First ties to Stuttgart
Ricken studied in his home town of Essen and later became a junior professor for Computational Mechanics there. The Computational Mechanics program had been established based on the COMMAS Program (Computational Mechanics of Materials and Structures) offered in Stuttgart. “Prof. Jörg Schröder, who was from Stuttgart, was my colleague at the University of Duisburg-Essen. My professorship was tied to his institute” Ricken relates. After several years in Dortmund, where Ricken held the professorship Mechanics Statics Dynamics, he was called to Stuttgart. Six next generation scientists, doctoral students, and post-docs moved with him to the University of Stuttgart. “We are a good team, and I can’t wait to find out what is in store for us in Stuttgart.” The scientist originally studied construction engineering, so he is rather “down-to-earth”. But whether on the ground or in the air, the fields of activity are similar.
A real Star Wars fan
Upon entering his new office on Pfaffenwaldring, the first thing one notices is Star Wars characters, and even incoming emails sound stellar. “I am a huge Star Wars fan,” the scientist confesses. “It really was a childhood dream to work in space flight,” he says, and adds with a laugh: “I guess sometimes, dreams do come true.”
New research focus at the institute
Ricken comes to Stuttgart with new focal topics for the research program. A major topic across the world that is particularly well developed in Stuttgart is data-driven modelling. This new approach only became possible through larger computing capacity. “We used to need one model, which we fed with defined constraints in the form of parameters, for example starting speed and temperature. This model equation delivered one result,” Ricken recalls. “But that is not the kind of experience a person makes. If you stand in front of a ball and your target is to shoot it into a goal, you might make in three times and miss five times. So there must be a component that influences this. That is uncertainty.” Uncertainties, the passionate mechanic further explains, cannot be described with classic, deterministic models. “But I can encompass all of that if I integrate stochastic or other techniques such as fuzzy or possibility into my model.”
Big Data gives models a boost
Big Data is part of the picture at Ricken’s institute as well: Whenever you don’t know what is actually happening. In this approach, the model is to be generated from the data. Ricken says about handling billions of data records: “So I don’t worry ahead of time about any sort of basic assumptions, don’t make any equations. Instead I watch what happens thousands of times and correlate that with other circumstances I can think of for the experiment. The computer then tries to discern patterns in the data itself. That’s what is called machine learning.” The challenge, he believes, lies in combining both approaches – existing knowledge and the knowledge that can be drawn from the masses of collected data.
From atom to continuum-mechanical model
“Continuum mechanics is the core business of all mechanics, which I can use to describe physical processes on a spatial scale, for example in the centimeter range,” Ricken explains. While it used to be about pure, usually single-scale modelling, the new approach asks: “How do I get from the atom to the continuum-mechanical model. The idea behind it: When you know how the atom or crystal of a particular matter is structured, you can draw conclusions about the behavior of the object. “So if it were possible for me to infer the overall properties of the material from the atom, I would also be able to reverse the process. I could say: I want particular properties, so what would the atoms and their composition have to look like,” Ricken formulates the expectations from his research.
Vision of the virtual lab
“A virtual lab is my vision, and my colleagues and I have been working on it for a long time. We want to do more than just describe. Because when we know what requirements we have and how all scales below the atom function, then we can design the whole thing,” the creative scientist beams.
Unfortunately, however, there is no direct route from the atom to the continuum-mechanical level. Rather, there are many steps and scales in between. Ricken: “Add to that the different physics – the macro-scale is essentially subject to Newtonian physics, while in the atom range the laws of molecular dynamics apply.” These scales are what he wants to try to bridge with his research at the institute. “Our research focuses on material description,” says recent appointee to Stuttgart Prof. Tim Ricken.
Climate research in Antarctica
When Tim Ricken isn’t working on aerospace, you might well find the researcher in Antarctica, where he is engaged in climate research. As part of a multi-year research project by TU Dortmund and the University of Cape Town, he wants to know how plankton growth and plankton populations are changing. “We are trying to develop a model for it.”