This week marked Vincent van Gogh's 162nd birthday. The always-illuminating Maria Popova celebrated in her Brainpickings newsletter by bringing back studies linking van Gogh's celebrated 1889 painting The Starry Night — where light and clouds flow in turbulent swirls on the night sky — with studies of turbulence in fluid flows.
How this works is one of the hardest questions in modern physics.
The connection has an interesting history, being inspired by "a picture of a distant star from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, where eddies probably caused by dust and gas turbulence are clearly seen," as physicist José Luis Aragón of the Autonomous University of Mexico in Queretaro, and his collaborators from Spain and England, wrote in a paper from June 2006. You can see the picture, from a March 4, 2004, NASA press release here. The scientists wanted to check whether there was some kind of mathematical correlation between van Gogh's creation and turbulence as measured in natural phenomena.
They found that van Gogh's art, in particular in paintings from periods when his mental illness was at a peak, mirrors natural turbulence down to mathematical precision...
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.