Ever roll down your window a bit while driving and immediately hear a terrible, rhythmic noise? That awful whum-whum-whum is–oddly enough–an example of the same physics that allows you to make an open bottle whistle by blowing over it. Fluid dynamicists call it Helmholtz resonance. Air flowing over the bottle neck or around the car makes the air inside the container vibrate with a frequency that depends on the bottle or car’s characteristics. That vibration generates noise that we hear as a hum or whistle for a bottle or a lower frequency whum-whum for a car window.
The images above show flow past different open windows on a car. Air flow remains relatively steady past the side-view mirror and front window of a modern car, so the noise from opening the front window is not usually too bad. But flow separation and reconnection near the rear window of a car creates very unsteady airflow there which exacerbates this resonance issue. This is why lowering the rear window usually causes more noise. Fortunately, the solution is relatively simple: open more than one window and it disrupts the resonance! (Image credit: Car and Driver; submitted by Simon H.)