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CHAPTER

What Is a Continuum?
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Physics may be defined as attempts to gain an understanding of nature. A model
is proposed for nature that is an idealization of nature: much of nature is left
unrepresented, and some features not observed in nature may be added (e.g., the
concepts of the infinite and the infinitesimal). Natural phenomena are converted into
problems in the context of this model. The solutions of the mathematical problems
are compared with experimental observation. The degree of agreement between a
particular natural phenomenon and the solution to the corresponding problem is a
measure of the relevance of the model to that particular phenomenon. A comparison
of a wide range of phenomena with the corresponding problem solutions gives a
measure of the relevance of the model in general.
One important task in physics is to work toward the discovery of the basic
quantities that constitute all of nature, and the laws that govern their interaction.
This motivation has led to the concept of the molecule, followed by the notions
of atom, proton, neutron, and electron, and now all of the various types of quarks,
together with quantum mechanics to govern their behavior. Such models in physics
can be described as discrete, since they regard matter as being composed ultimately
of atomic and subatomic particles. Discrete models underpin modern molecular
dynamics simulation tools, which predict the evolving kinematics and kinetics of
individual atoms in a deforming material.
In this book, we adopt a different approach to physics. We assume that matter
is a continuum, infinitely divisible without modifying any of its properties. Physical
quantities are regarded as continuous functions of space and time. Continuum models
underpin modern finite element and computational fluid dynamics codes, which are
widely used in industry and engineering practice.
The continuum and discrete approaches are eventually contradictory and irrecon-
cilable. For instance, in a continuum model, the smallest portion of a steel specimen
is still steel, with all of the properties of the original specimen. In a discrete model, as
we narrow our scope of interest to smaller and smaller volumes of the steel specimen,
we see that it is composed of several distinct types of atoms, such as iron and carbon,
the properties of each alone much different than those of steel. We then say that these
atoms consist of widely spaced subatomic particles, and so on.

Fundamentals of Continuum Mechanics


Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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4 CHAPTER 1 What Is a Continuum?

A physical theory must have relevance to the observations made of natural


phenomena. In general, a particular theory is in good agreement with some types
of phenomena, but in error for, or even unable to handle, other types of phenomena.
Failures of theories obtained via the continuum approach are well known; these
failures are what motivated the development of the predecessors of the current
discrete models. But there are also many successes: continuum models are quite
capable of describing much of what we experience in our world. The continuum
approach is therefore assured of worth and permanence.