Sharpe Takes Long Day's Journey to Share Ideas in South Africa By Ken Keatley Bill Sharpe took a very long trip to talk about his work with very small specimens. The longtime chairman of mechanical engineering at Hopkins, Dr. Sharpe endured a 15-hour plane ride to spend two weeks during November in South Africa, where he was a keynote lecturer at the quinquennial National Conference on Fracture at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The conference provided an international forum for him to present the findings of his pioneering work in experimental solid mechanics; specifically, his use of a laser-based inferometric system to measure mechanical properties in microsamples taken from steel weldments. "With the end of apartheid, there are more opportunities for cooperation among researchers than there were before," Dr. Sharpe said. "This technique of mine has some applications in South Africa, where they make some very novel hard materials from minerals we don't have in this country." Dr. Sharpe was invited by Neil James, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand, to attend the conference, which emphasized practical applications in a variety of fatigue and fracture technology areas. Dr. James came to Hopkins in 1987 specifically to study Dr. Sharpe's laser strain measuring system, and built a similar device for the Council on Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa. "But Neil's system has never really been used very much, so they also had me go up to the federal research institute while I was there to get it working and give them some suggestions on applications," Dr. Sharpe explained. Dr. Sharpe's research in the area of microsample testing is becoming increasingly important. While large weldments, such as in bridges and buildings, can be tested using traditional means, smaller weldments in ships and automobiles require more sophisticated testing techniques to ensure their accuracy. His laser technique, which he began developing some 30 years ago as a Hopkins graduate student, is also being formulated for testing the materials used in micro-electromechanical systems, tiny motors and clips that are smaller than a millimeter. Not all was work, though, as Dr. Sharpe sampled the cultural and geographic wonders of a diverse and ever-evolving land. He visited a diamond mine and a game park, and even made a trip to the parents of Hopkins colleague Andrew Douglas in Pretoria. And while impressed by the beauty of the countryside, where rolling hills are topped with shrubs, and the majesty of cities like Johannesburg, Dr. Sharpe also saw first-hand the poverty and squalor that define the existence of many in South Africa. "There continue to be real fundamental problems, but there is optimism about the future," said Dr. Sharpe. "My uninformed opinion of what South Africa needs is for Nelson Mandela to stay alive for another 10 years. There seems to be universal admiration for him." He was also grateful for the opportunity to observe the organization of the mechanical engineering department at Witwatersrand, where a senior design program is similar to the one offered at Hopkins. "Probably, their mechanical engineers are educated as well as ours," Dr. Sharpe said. "It was a neat experience to see them work."
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