Visualizing Turbulence

A circular web of orange lines splitting like fractals, with the words "And little whirls have lesser whirls, and so on to viscosity"

Turbulence, the seemingly random and chaotic state that fluids often tend toward, can be difficult to wrap one’s head around. Turn your faucet on high or pour milk into your coffee, and the flow just looks like a completely unpredictable mess. But there are important patterns to be found.These flows have many different lengthscales and timescales to them. Think of a cloud. There are very large-scale motions that are close to the size of the entire cloud, but there are also very small ones that may be only a centimeter or so in size. 

Our best understanding of turbulence so far says that energy starts out in these large scales and slowly works its way down to the smaller ones, where viscosity (essentially friction, in this case) can transform that motion into heat. Above you see a creative way to display this fact. Using data from a numerical simulation, the authors transformed velocity information into these mandala-like patterns. The center of the image represents the large lengthscales, where energy is added. Moving around the circle, like a clock’s hand does, shows different positions in space. Moving radially from the center outward takes you through different lengthscales from large to small. 

Notice how the large lengthscales break into smaller and smaller ones as you move outward. The pattern looks like a set of fractal pitchforks, with each lengthscale fracturing into smaller and smaller ones as the turbulence breaks down further. There’s lots more to see in the original poster, below, but you should really click here for the glorious full-size original. The poem, by the way, is the work of physicist Lewis Richardson, who wrote it to summarize how turbulence works. (Image credit: M. Bassenne et al.)

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