Turbulent flow is a chaotic diffusion phenomenon visualised for example when smoke rises from a cigarette and it’s one of the most difficult patterns to describe mathematically. However, art is a medium that is able to depict the way turbulence looks ever since in 1889 Vincent Van Gogh almost perfectly managed to integrate this massively complex phenomenon into his famous piece called “Starry Night”. He painted this piece when he was residing in the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-provence after he mutilated his own ear in a psychotic episode.
Van Gogh and other impressionists painted light in a different way compared to their predecessors by seemingly capturing the light’s motion. The effect of turbulence can be achieved by mixing different colors with the same luminescence to trick our visual cortex into thinking that the painted light flickers or pulses. This comes very close to how light actually behaves and how turbulence was described mathematically by Andrey Kolmogorov some 60 years later, although a complete mathematical basis for turbulent flow is still lacking.
Scientist from the UK, Spain and Mexico analysed Vincent Van Gogh’s repertoire and concluded that specifically his paintings from periods of psychotic agitation behave remarkably similar to fluid turbulence. Interestingly, neither paintings of calmer periods in his life nor other artists’ seemingly turbulent paintings showed signs of this correspondence. Was Vincent Van Gogh, in a period of intense suffering, able to perceive and replicate one of nature’s most difficult concepts?
Watch the complete explanation in the excellent TED-Ed talk below or visit the TED-Ed website!