The Reynolds Experiment

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One of the most famous and enduring of all fluid dynamics experiments is Osborne Reynolds’ pipe flow experiment, first published in 1883 and recreated in the video above. At the time, it was understood that flows could be laminar or turbulent, though Reynolds’ terminology of direct or sinuous is somewhat more poetic:

Again, the internal motion of water assumes one or other of two broadly distinguishable forms-either the elements of the fluid follow one another along lines of motion which lead in the most direct manner to their destination, or they eddy about in sinuous paths the most indirect possible. #

There had, however, been no direct evidence of these eddies in a pipe. Reynolds built an apparatus that allowed him to control the velocity of flow through a clear pipe and simultaneously introduce a line of dye into the flow. He carefully varied the velocity and temperature (and thus viscosity) in his apparatus and not only documented both laminar and turbulent flow but found that the transition from one to another could be described by a dimensionless number he derived from the Navier-Stokes equation. This number was dependent on the fluid’s velocity and kinematic viscosity as well as the diameter of the pipe. This was the birth of the Reynolds number, one of the most important parameters in all of fluid dynamics. (Video credit: S. dos Santos; research credit: O. Reynolds)

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