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Imperial College symposium debates future of soil mechanics theory.

CONTINUING USE of continuum models in geotechnical analysis received a minor knock during a debate at Imperial College's Geotechnics in the New Millennium Symposium last month.

Speaking for the motion 'this house believes continuum models are past their sell-by date', Dr Colin Thornton of Aston University gave an impassioned plea to 'throw out the garbage and get back to physics'.

Thornton said particle physics could be applied to soils and would take away 'the black box approach to geotechnical analysis.'

Under house rules Thornton and his seconder Dr Angus Skinner, recently retired from Imperial, had only to sway one vote to win the debate since a count taken at the start of the session revealed no-one to be in support at the outset.

Speaking against the motion, City University's Professor John Atkinson, next year's Rankine Lecturer, responded: 'We are debating if continuum models are reliable and fit for purpose or are they past their sell-by date?

'Theories are not like food, they are not perishable, continuum modelling will remain the core of soil mechanics for the foreseeable future, although certainly other techniques [such as a particle approach] have a role to play in improving the constitutive equations.'

Seconder against the motion, Professor David Muir Wood, added: 'There are bad [continuum] models and good models and geotechnical engineering is about choosing the right one for the circumstances. It is about predicting stresses and strains, boundary problems, and average quantities.'

At the end, a re-vote showed five delegates (including some of Imperial's finest) had changed their minds in favour of the motion, and on that basis - and with only 6% of the total vote - session chairman Dr Trevor Addenbrook passed the motion.

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