One of the most enduringly popular submissions I receive is T. Lim’s experimental footage of two vortex rings colliding head-on. It’s an devilishly tough experimental set-up to master because perfectly aligning the rings is incredibly difficult. The pay-off, however, is huge because the breakdown of the colliding rings and their transformation into secondary rings is breathtaking. Destin at Smarter Every Day and his team have worked hard to recreate the experiment (top video), but they’re not the only ones – nor are they the first in decades – to do so.
Ryan McKeown and a team at Harvard have a set-up of their own for vortex ring collisions, and you can see a little of it in action in the middle video. Ryan’s set-up is, frankly, incredible. It scans a light sheet through the vortex rings at high-speed, allowing him to capture the collision and break-up in minute detail in both space and time. What you see in the latter half of his video is a digital reconstruction of that data – not a simulation but real data! His work is capturing vortex collisions in unprecedented detail, allowing researchers to probe the smallest scales of the phenomenon.
When two vortex rings approach one another, they can undergo what’s known as a vortex reconnection event. Bubbles rings are a great place to see this. The vortex cores get distorted when they’re close to one another due to the influence of the other vortex ring’s velocity field. This often stretches and flattens the vortex core. It’s impossible for the rings to simply break apart, though, (per Helmholtz’s second theorem). So when the original vortex rings thin to the point of breaking, they immediately reconnect to a piece of the other ring, creating a series of small vortex rings around the remains of the originals. The exact details of how this works are what investigators like Ryan and his colleagues are trying to understand. You can hear a little more about their work in my interview with Ryan in the bottom video, starting at ~2.54. (Video credits: Smarter Every Day, R. McKeown et al., and N. Sharp and T. Crawford; submission credit: a huge number of readers)