Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica |
Werner Heisenberg won the 1932 Nobel Prize for helping to found the field of quantum mechanics and developing foundational ideas like the Copenhagen interpretation and the uncertainty principle. The story goes that he once said that, if he were allowed to ask God two questions, they would be, “Why quantum mechanics? And why turbulence?” Supposedly, he was pretty sure God would be able to answer the first question.
The quote may be apocryphal, and there are different versions floating around. Nevertheless, it is true that Heisenberg banged his head against the turbulence problem for several years.
His thesis advisor, Arnold Sommerfeld, assigned the turbulence problem to Heisenberg simply because he thought none of his other students were up to the challenge—and this list of students included future luminaries like Wolfgang Pauli and Hans Bethe. But Heisenberg’s formidable math skills, which allowed him to make bold strides in quantum mechanics, only afforded him a partial and limited success with turbulence.
Some nearly 90 years later, the effort to understand and predict turbulence remains of immense practical importance. Turbulence factors into the design of much of our technology, from airplanes to pipelines, and it factors into predicting important natural phenomena such as the weather. But because our understanding of turbulence over time has stayed largely ad-hoc and limited, the development of technology that interacts significantly with fluid flows has long been forced to be conservative and incremental. If only we became masters of this ubiquitous phenomenon of nature, these technologies might be free to evolve in more imaginative directions.
Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | An undefined definition
Here is the point at which you might expect us to explain turbulence, ostensibly the subject of the article. Unfortunately, physicists still don’t agree on how to define it. It’s not quite as bad as “I know it when I see it,” but it’s not the best defined idea in physics, either.
So for now, we’ll make do with a general notion and try to make it a bit more precise later on. The general idea is that turbulence involves the complex, chaotic motion of a fluid. A “fluid” in physics talk is anything that flows, including liquids, gases, and sometimes even granular materials like sand.
Turbulence is all around us, yet it’s usually invisible. Simply wave your hand in front of your face, and you have created incalculably complex motions in the air, even if you can’t see it. Motions of fluids are usually hidden to the senses except at the interface between fluids that have different optical properties. For example, you can see the swirls and eddies on the surface of a flowing creek but not the patterns of motion beneath the surface. The history of progress in fluid dynamics is closely tied to the history of experimental techniques for visualizing flows. But long before the advent of the modern technologies of flow sensors and high-speed video, there were those who were fascinated by the variety and richness of complex flow patterns.