The Flight on a Starry Night

I am an avgeek. I love flying and I love planes. Also- I am, like most of the avgeeks, in love with the silent beauty of gliders. Along with this, I’m also an artist and I’m mesmerized by the beauty of any form of art. Little did I know that these hobbies of mine will come together and take me on a magical journey to the mystical lands where physics and art converge to be one.

Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889)

“For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Vincent van Gogh

The Java Sea, though beautiful- can be quite turbulent at times. Bless my soul that I was on a plane, but the sea probably showed little mercy on the seafarers that night. Time passed by and the turbulence showed no signs of calming down. Since I couldn’t sleep a wink, I started thinking; Since I was traveling in a jumbo, I knew that this was not a case of wake turbulence- which occurs as a consequence of a smaller plane flying in dangerously close proximity to a large plane. It was then that I started wondering about the reasons behind the creation of natural turbulence. Googled it and I found some Wikipedia stuff about turbulence. Let me put that briefly- In fluid dynamics, turbulence is a fluid motion characterized by chaotic changes in pressure and flow velocity. An interesting thing about the flow of turbulence is that it is one of the most difficult patterns to understand in fluid dynamics. 

While it is relatively difficult to understand turbulent flow using math, it’s structure can be easily depicted and interpreted with the aid of art. 

The birth of a star (not the movie ‘A star is born’- I’m talking about an actual star in the universe!) from the molecular clouds is an extremely turbulent event and curiously enough, the patterns observed in the swirling structure of ‘The Starry Night’ match with those observed in the molecular clouds! Now let’s take a minute to digest that!

Van Gogh, as we all know, was an Impressionist. The Impressionists captured light in their paintings in the form of patterns, unlike their predecessors, the Realists, who captured light just the way they saw it. This creates luminance, an effect which occurs due to the intensity of the colours on the canvas. And when the primitive part of the visual cortex of the brain sees the light contrast along with motion- but without colours, it blends two differently coloured areas with the same luminance- But at the same time, our brain’s primate subdivision sees the contrasting colours without blending them together. This is the reason why the light in many Impressionist works seems to flicker, pulse and radiate in an odd fashion. 

Thus is the significance of the Impressionists’ quickly executed, prominent brush strokes. It helps capture something extraordinarily real about the movement of light!

While the movement of light, especially that of turbulence was a subject surrounded with great mystery, sixty years later, that is, sometime around the late 1950s, Soviet mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov made some groundbreaking discoveries about the mathematical understanding of turbulence. He proposed that energy in a turbulent fluid at length R varies in proportion to the 5/3rds power of R. Experiments conducted thereafter showed that Kolmogorov was remarkably close to the way the turbulent flow works. But even today, in the 21s century, a complete explanation of turbulence remains one of the most famous unsolved mysteries in physics. 

In 2004, the Hubble sent in some beautiful pictures of outer space where the scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star- and surprisingly enough, they were reminded of van Gogh’s The Starry Night!  This promoted a global study of luminance in van Gogh’s paintings in detail and the discoveries from this study are mind-blowing! They discovered that there’s a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures, which comes really close to Kolmogorov’s equation, hidden in many of van Gogh’s paintings! The researchers digitized these paintings to measure and compare the pixel separations in the curves from these paintings that were painted by van Gogh during his period of psychotic agitation. And they found out the behaviour of these strokes to be astonishingly similar to fluid turbulence. 

Upon comparison of these paintings with those painted by him during the calmer periods of his life- and also with the paintings of other Impressionists which seemed turbulent at the first glance, the scientists found no correlation between their patterns and this is what makes these works so distinct from all the other works. 

It is indeed difficult to comprehend the fact that van Gogh was actually able to picturise one of the most difficult and yet-to-be solved mysteries of humankind while living through a period of intense suffering. 

While turbulence and this correlation of turbulence with the patterns of a highly-prized painting are still a mystery, we can certainly take a minute to unlearn all the jargon and appreciate the sheer beauty of this marvelous work of art.

After wondering about all these things for almost the entire night, I saw the sunrise from my window, its beautiful shades of dawn thus elating the sky. The storm had subsided by then and the turbulence had cleared up- the flight was now smoothly cruising over the Indian subcontinent, ready to land in an hour’s time. Such is the beauty of nature. 

Madhura Joshi 


One thought on “The Flight on a Starry Night

  1. sunil Chavan says:

    Very very nice 👌👌👌👌👌👌

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