In 1889, from his bedroom window in the asylum he checked himself into, Vincent Van Gogh created one of the most recognized pieces of art in the history of mankind- and it has a surprising secret.
Van Gogh drew inspiration for The Starry Night from a drawing done by William Parsons in 1845. Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, was an Anglo-Irish astronomer who managed to view the Whirlpool Galaxy through a massive 6 ton telescope he had installed inside his castle. Parsons then depicted this spiral structure in a drawing, and a print of this was soon circulating all throughout Europe. Van Gogh created a masterpiece with the aid of this depiction of the stars, but he also gave us clues to better understand some of the most complex mysteries of science.
Brilliant animator, Natalya St. Clair, and TED-Ed have brought us a helpful explanation of how Van Gogh’s painting incorporates turbulent flow in fluid dynamics- one of the most complicated mathematical ideas to explain, and also one of the most difficult for the human mind to grasp. This mind-bending interpretation mixes together art, science, and mental health for an astounding interplay amid physical and psychic turbulence.
“Van Gogh and other Impressionists represented light in a different way than their predecessors, seeming to capture its motion, for instance, across sun-dappled waters, or here in star light that twinkles and melts through milky waves of blue night sky.
The effect is caused by luminance, the intensity of the light in the colors on the canvas. The more primitive part of our visual cortex — which sees light contrast and motion, but not color — will blend two differently colored areas together if they have the same luminance. But our brains primate subdivision will see the contrasting colors without blending. With these two interpretations happening at once, the light in many Impressionist works seems to pulse, flicker and radiate oddly.
That’s how this and other Impressionist works use quickly executed prominent brushstrokes to capture something strikingly real about how light moves.
Sixty years later, Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov furthered our mathematical understanding of turbulence when he proposed that energy in a turbulent fluid at length R varies in proportion to the five-thirds power of R. Experimental measurements show Kolmogorov was remarkably close to the way turbulent flow works, although a complete description of turbulence remains one of the unsolved problems in physics.
A turbulent flow is self-similar if there is an energy cascade — in other words, big eddies transfer their energy to smaller eddies, which do likewise at other scales. Examples of this include Jupiter’s great red spot, cloud formations and interstellar dust particles.
In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” This motivated scientists from Mexico, Spain, and England to study the luminance in Van Gogh’s paintings in detail. They discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures close to Kolmogorov’s equation hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.
The researchers digitized the paintings, and measured how brightness varies between any two pixels. From the curves measured for pixel separations, they concluded that paintings from Van Gogh’s period of psychotic agitation behave remarkably similar to fluid turbulence. His self-portrait with a pipe, from a calmer period in Van Gogh’s life, showed no sign of this correspondence. And neither did other artists’ work that seemed equally turbulent at first glance, like Munch’s ‘The Scream.”
While it’s too easy to say Van Gogh’s turbulent genius enabled him to depict turbulence, it’s also far too difficult to accurately express the rousing beauty of the fact that in a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind, and to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid and light.”
Are you a fan of Van Gogh’s work? What other artists do you find mentally or scientifically intriguing? Tell us about them in the comments!
Written by Raven Fon