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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Composites - The Semantic Tree of Knowledge

This post is about HOW to learn about composites. Here is a quote from Elon Musk about learning:

“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree – make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

Applying Elon’s advice to the subject of composites will be too lengthy for this post. So, here is a real life example from the medical profession, a famous family, the Mayos, who created one of the finest medical institutions in the world.

It all started in Rochester, Minnesota where W.W. Mayo and his family settled so that W.W. could open a practice as the local country doctor. He was already an accomplished surgeon, and that part of the Midwest did not have many good doctors. At that time there was little demand for surgeons, so W.W. filled the role of local country veterinarian as well. He operated on more cows than he did people. Whenever duty called, W.W. would load up his two young sons in his buggy – Will and Charlie – to help assist when seeing local residents who were ill or to perform surgery on people or animals. W.W. wanted to make sure that both his sons understood the fundamentals – the trunk of the medical tree – so he taught them from an early age. They saw what their father did at every surgery, nursing every animal and person back to health, and also how to figure out what was wrong with an animal when they can’t tell you where it hurts.

W.W. was teaching his sons the fundamentals, the trunk of the tree, which became the historical practice of the Mayo Clinic. The boys and their father would discuss what they did each day and they would share knowledge and understanding of every procedure, why it was done, what was wrong with the animal or person, and how they might have done better. Will and Charlie pushed this discussion practice into the basic practice of the Clinic. The doctors at the Clinic get together every evening, discuss the decisions they made about patient care, and how to improve their patients’ health. This sharing of ideas and techniques between doctors in unrelated fields became one of the great strengths of the clinic. The brothers, working from that foundation, went on to build out the branches and leaves of their tree of knowledge for the practice of medicine at the Clinic. All of this came about because of the foundation that their father taught them. There is a wonderful documentary by Ken Burns streaming on PBS about the Mayo Clinic that you might enjoy watching when you have a moment -

Now let’s get back to composites. First – all composite materials and structures have an analog in nature – like wood for instance – which is just Mother Nature’s way of using string and glue to make something she can use. Second, composites are materials, made of matter, all of which is represented in the Periodic Table of the Elements. For instance, one of the most important elements in composites is Carbon. To help understand composites, you first need to have an understanding of what you want to make. Then you will need to understand the properties and chemistry of carbon and the structures that carbon atoms can make. Once you understand that, you understand why carbon is the element that makes up the majority of the string in advanced composites. It is also the element that makes up the backbone of the glues that hold the strings together. Mother Nature has understood these abilities of string and glue from the beginning of time. From there you add on the knowledge of how the strings and glues go together – again copying nature – and you have the three main branches of this semantic tree of knowledge of composites. So, the major trunk of what Elon calls the “semantic tree of knowledge” of composites is the Periodic Table, and the three major branches of that trunk are the string, the glue, and how they go together to make something useful for humanity.

Once you understand the trunk of the semantic tree of knowledge of composites and the three major branches, the entire world of composites is open for further exploration.

Next week’s post is about Mother Nature’s best example of a composite material – wood – through the lens of musical instruments. For instance, tonal qualities of each species of wood; best wood for making a violin or guitar; different woods for the sound box and the neck; etc.


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