Report by Russ Dobler on June 25, 2016 event.
When NYU post-doc Enrico Fonda fired up the fog machine on June 25, it wasn’t to commemorate Mötley Crüe’s final performance, or to prepare for the following day’s Pride Parade. It was for science!
The fluid dynamics physicist shined a laser through the haze he created at the New York City Skeptics lecture at Baruch College to demonstrate the concept of turbulent flow. You might think of turbulence as just that thing that causes white knuckles on bumpy airplane rides, but it also happens to be one of the worst-understood phenomena in all of physics.
“It’s not that there were not enough smart people working on the problem,” Fonda said of the history of turbulence research. Werner Heizenberg, Richard Feynman and even Albert Einstein himself, all Nobel laureates, tried to tackle turbulence and failed. It led mathematician Horace Lamb to famously remark,
"I am an old man now, and when I die and go to heaven there are two matters on which I hope for enlightenment. One is quantum electrodynamics, and the other is the turbulent motion of fluids. And about the former I am rather optimistic.”
Turbulence is a seemingly simple idea – the description of how things like air and water flow when not tightly constrained. It’s apparently governed by some well-known mathematics, like the Euler and Navier-Stokes equations, and it surrounds us every day – not just on airplanes, but even in the way perfume is wafted across a room, Fonda said. Yet the enormous amount of data needed to precisely predict any given turbulent flow makes it more difficult to get a handle on then even more elusive things like the Higgs boson, creating a phenomenon that Fonda says is “more complicated than chaos.”
“Still, it’s not clear exactly how water flows in a pipe, to this day,” Fonda said.
Turbulence is so mysterious that the people who currently work on it can’t even agree what its biggest unanswered question even is. Is it really how to predict the phenomenology from the equations, or should we concentrate on more practical things, like how to reduce drag on vehicles or increase mixing in solutions? Do you even need to understand the equations for that, or would a model suffice? Is it more important to understand how dependent turbulence is on initial conditions, or how it transitions from simpler, laminar flow later on?
And how did Vincent van Gogh get it so right in “Starry Night”?
The occasionally psychotic painter, who committed suicide in 1890, had an intuitive grasp of turbulent flow, claims physicist Jose Luis Aragón. Aragón says the swirling patterns of light and dark in the famous piece align well with what’s predicted in real-life Kolmogorov scaling, a law that wasn’t developed until the 1940s. The result seems significant, as Edvard Munch’s iconic “The Scream,” with superficially similar swirl patterns, couldn’t pass the same test. Other creators have used geometry in their work, too, like sculptor Anish Kapoor and stained-glass artist Harry Clarke, but Fonda now wants to take things a step further.
“We organized a project that pairs scientist with artists,” Fonda said of his effort to build research results into new artwork from the ground up. The Physics of Art exhibition debuts at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works facility this fall, and will feature, among others, the work of electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical chemistry.
Fonda’s helped create some beautiful imagery himself, as part of the team that was able to directly observe the Kelvin waves of quantum turbulence for the first time. Check out a description and video here, and check back with New York City Skeptics for more info on “The Physics of Art” as it’s announced.