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Van Gogh Painted Turbulence 76

rangeva writes "Nature is reporting that Van Gogh works have a pattern of light and dark that closely follows the mathematical structure of turbulent flow. From the article: 'Vincent van Gogh is known for his chaotic paintings and similarly tumultuous state of mind. Now a mathematical analysis of his works reveals that the stormy patterns in many of his paintings are uncannily like real turbulence, as seen in swirling water or the air from a jet engine.'"
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Van Gogh Painted Turbulence

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  • by luder ( 923306 ) * <> on Monday July 10, 2006 @06:49AM (#15689957)
    Just proves his head was full of air and that he had a single neuron, precisely located on it's center. When he cut one of his ear, he created a stream of air, coming from the interior of his head (high pressure) to the outside (low pressure). The single neuron, placed in the middle of the stream, obviously caused some turbulence, explaining why he "painted turbulence".
  • Eventhough studies like these can be interresting...

    I like van Gogh, the article is somewhat interresting, but I enjoy the paintings without the mathematical analysis better.
  • Amazing (Score:5, Funny)

    by JanneM ( 7445 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @06:56AM (#15689972) Homepage
    Absolutely amazing. I mean, what are the chances that he ever saw turbulent streams or windswept clouds living in rural Europe or that he took his inpiration from those pattern as much as from all the other organic/natural patterns he used everywhere in his art?
    • Re:Amazing (Score:4, Funny)

      by arivanov ( 12034 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @08:01AM (#15690132) Homepage
      That depends.

      Many variables involved.

      Quantity and quality of paint thinner sniffed this morning.

      Quantity and quality of absint drank with coffee for breakfast

      Quantity and quality of the dirt on the knife used to cut your year off causing a infection of the remaining stump

      Quantity and quality...

      Dunno, while I like Van Gough and I would not go for his methods of achieving artistic inspiration.
  • Intuited? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gowen ( 141411 ) <> on Monday July 10, 2006 @06:58AM (#15689977) Homepage Journal
    Why would he have to intuit chaotic flow? Anyone who's seen smoke rise from a cigarette or viciously stirred an absinthe and water mix, has seen similarly chaotic swirls. I think its safe to say Vincent would have done both.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 10, 2006 @07:41AM (#15690059)
      'ear 'ear.
    • Re:Intuited? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by kikibobo ( 185258 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @08:26AM (#15690234)
      What he intuited, it would seem, is Kolmogorov scaling. Other artists, gifted artists, tried to render turbulence, but their renderings did not exhibit Kolmogorov scaling. So, that's pretty interesting -- his paintings manifest a deep theoretical result, that other paintings which try to capture the same phenomenon, do not. It's reasonable to suggest he intuited something pretty deep that others did not.
      • Pardon how sarcastic this is going to sound--I promise that's not how I mean it: You're right, this is pretty interesting. I was so interested that I tried to look up Kolmogorov scaling in, among other places, the wikipedia. The closest thing I could find was Kolmogorov Microscales [] which is not very helpful, since a painting cannot 'exhibit' units of measure proper. If you know anything about the phenomenon of this 'scaling' I'd love to hear more about it, especially as I'm a big 'Gogh fan.
        • There's more information on Kolmogorov's scaling laws here [], not that I understand most of it. As far as I can tell, in a turbulent system the difference between the values of a physical property at two points follows a power law [] with respect to the distance between the points; the power laws for different physical properties have different exponents, but they all seem to be multiples of a third (?).
          • It has to do with how you go from one to the other. Taking derivatives or integrals will increment or decrement the exponent by 1, and the different scalings are all derived from eachother.

            The simplest way to see Kolmogorov scaling is to posit that the effect of viscosity in turbulence occurs only at the smallest lengthscale, and that aside from that energy must be shuttled via conservative mechanisms up and down between lengthscales. That is, energy is only dissipated at the smallest scale, so large scale
            • Thanks very much for the information! Does the difference between 2D and 3D have anything to do with the fact that 3D dynamical systems can be chaotic while 2D systems can't? Or am I seeing patterns in smoke here?
              • 2D systems can be chaotic. I think what you're thinking of is systems with 2 degrees of freedom, which is different.

                There are some visible differences between 2D and 3D turbulence though. 2D turbulence is marked by point vortices that form various correlated structures, but a lot of the turbulence is just carried by the interactions between point vortices of different sizes.

                In 3D, those vortices become threads, and they can get tangled up and so on. Vorticity is no longer conserved and so you have things li
        • Sounds to me rather like the sort of fractal scaling that they recently discovered in the works of Jackson Pollock.

  • Here's a shocker: Van Gogh saw leaves blowing in the wind, the wind patterns on the surface of the water, and a myriad of other things that are visual cues to what turbulence looks like. Combine all those together with his incredible painting talent, and surprise! He manages to paint something like what the air was actually doing. Oh, and he may have actually seen some colors in the air through sensory blending (drugs plus being a bit crazy).
    • No you can't (Score:5, Insightful)

      by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @10:40AM (#15691053) Homepage Journal
      You can see turbulent phenomena. You can feel that representations of such phenomena are correct or incorrect. But that's not the same as seeing turbulence.

      Seeing turbulence itself takes more than having the image of a turbulent phenomenon on your retina. That takes place at a higher level of the brain, one that is more imaginative. Artists don't "see" in the way a camera sees. not even photographers, who must search for the right opportunity where what they are looking for can be stripped naked of irrelevant detail.

      Painters especially don't just record what they see. They abstract salient details and present them in ways that emphasize or deemphasize. Even the most routine of painters will move a tree in a landscape or improve on a train of clouds in order to produce a more pleasing rhtyhm. But what we are talking about here goes way beyond that.

      Naturally, any realistic depiction of landscape will reproduce mathematical relationships, such as the fractal geometry of waves. But only a master like Hokusai can make a wave whose fractal nature is burned into our memory.

      Works such as "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" by Hokusai, or "Starry Night" by Van Goh are not realistic, they are hyper-real. It takes a great drafting skill to paint what is there, yet while it is a talent, it is not genius. Go out and look at some waves or some swirling smoke then try to think how difficult it is to freeze such a moving, evolving phenomenon and boil it down to its perceptual essence. That take genius.

      The reason art is valuable to the human race is that it show us how to be aware of what is latent in our perception, but does not enter into our consciousness.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 10, 2006 @07:27AM (#15690029)
    Somewhat interesting but not nearly as interesting as the theory that an eye problem or digitalis poisoning was the main cause of his use of color and the halo's he painted around light sources. See -> ite/VanGogh.html []
  • Turbulance has resonence.
  • Bah (Score:5, Funny)

    by pr0nbot ( 313417 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @07:45AM (#15690070)
    Amateur - I code turbulence!
  • Newton (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tsa ( 15680 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @07:52AM (#15690100) Homepage
    The article goes on about turbulence as if you can only draw these patterns if you know the maths and laws behind it. That's a bit like saying you can't catch a ball tossed to you if you don't know Newton's laws.
    • Re:Newton (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      That's a bit like saying you can't catch a ball tossed to you if you don't know Newton's laws.
      Look, maybe not all of us are super-athletes like yourself, but I certainly couldn't routinely catch a ball thrown to me until I learned about Newton's laws. Arcs! The ball goes up and it will come down in an arc. Genius! I had been trying to jump up and catch the ball and it kept hitting me in the crotch before I learned about Newton's laws. It was a painful 18 years.
      • Re:Newton (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Look, maybe not all of us are super-athletes like yourself, but I certainly couldn't routinely catch a ball thrown to me until I learned about Newton's laws.

        Then it's a good thing that your particular gene combination remained unexpressed until after Newton; if it had been widespread while mankind was still in the Stone Age, humanity would have died out from not being able to hit prey with rocks and spears. And think of all the events of history that would have turned out different if people couldn't get

    • Re:Newton (Score:2, Funny)

      by Vengeance ( 46019 )
      I don't know about you, but every dog I've ever had has been a first-rate mathematician. Their ability to calculate the parabolic trajectory taken by a ballistic tennis ball is first rate.
    • Re:Newton (Score:5, Insightful)

      by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @08:13AM (#15690168) Homepage Journal
      Most people are capable of catching a ball. I'd hazard to say that the laws, or some mathematical approximation, are hard-wired into the human nervous system.

      However, most people can't render a decent image of a lit box -- not just the outline of a box, but an image of the light that the box reflects. I think it would be fair to say that Van Gogh probably spent a long time looking at, studying, and rendering these turbulent systems. In short, he taught himself the laws.
      • Re:Newton (Score:4, Informative)

        by nuggz ( 69912 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @08:31AM (#15690255) Homepage
        Most people are capable of catching a ball. I'd hazard to say that the laws, or some mathematical approximation, are hard-wired into the human nervous system.

        It seems to be software actually. ingcatch.htm []

        I'd argue that 30+ years of training makes it quite difficult to adjust, but I'm not NASA.
        • That is a neat article. My first thought was that they should enable that experiment to see if the subconscious is able to make predictions beyond Newtons laws. Objectively, I doubt the human senses are sensitive enough to go beyond the need for Newtons laws. But the idea of a learned response to the environment was followed by the idea of closely studying that response in various experiments to see what is implied about that environment. In theory, anyway, it makes me wonder if we could learn more about gr
      • However, most people can't render a decent image of a lit box.

        If they just wait a while they can make an image of a small heap of charcoal. Most people can manage that.
      • Most people are capable of catching a ball. I'd hazard to say that the laws, or some mathematical approximation, are hard-wired into the human nervous system.

        I'd hazard to say that the laws, or some mathematical approximation, are learned by the incredibly adaptable and flexible human nervous system, over the first few years of life which are usually spent picking up objects, dropping them and also throwing them at your siblings.

    • That's how I got out of gym class in elementary school.
  • by Aphrika ( 756248 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @08:24AM (#15690228)
    Turbulence is derived from the Latin turbinis which means vortex. The same name also gave way to turbine - a phrase first used by Claude Burdin to describe the aforementioned device in 1828.

    Van Gogh lived from 1853 until 1890, so man-made turbines existed during his lifetime, as well as the more natural effects he will have seen that others have mentioned.

    Ergo, the entire point of the article is moot, he painted what he saw and understood, that - believe it or not - is what artists do. Why people have to waste their time trying to comprehend why Van Gogh painted turbulence is beyond me...
    • The point isn't moot. Van Gogh didn't use various examples of turbulence as the direct influence for his art. It isn't as if he set up by a turbine and painted what he saw. He was in a studio painting what he wanted. There's no doubt that he had come into contact with a turbine, but it is remarkable that he was able to replicate it's advanced mathematical properties, more or less from memory without being conscious of them.

      It's more akin to the prevalence of the Golden Ratio in art and aesthetics. It's wor

    • If you RTFA, you'd see that they compared Van Gogh's works to other artists who painted what ostensibly are turbulent scenes (specifically, The Scream) and that painting did not have nearly the same degree of compliance with the Kolmogorov functions.
      In essence, this study is not asking "can an artist paint something that looks turbulent" inasmuch as they are saying that during his psychotic stages, van Gogh captured turbulence with a degree of accuracy not found in other works by artists of his caliber.
    • by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @09:07AM (#15690435) Homepage Journal
      If you'd have RTFA, you would have noticed that the scientists scanned *other* artists work do not exhibit the level of accuracy that Van Gogh's work does.

      "Van Gogh seems to be the only painter able to render turbulence with such mathematical precision. "We have examined other apparently turbulent paintings of several artists and find no evidence of Kolmogorov scaling," says Aragon.

      Edvard Munch's The Scream, for example, looks to be superficially full of van Gogh-like swirls, and was painted by a similarly tumultuous artist, but the luminance probability distribution doesn't fit Kolmogorov's theory.

      So, if other artists were looking at turbulence and painting it, they failed, only Van Gogh was able to do it.
    • Ergo, the entire point of the article is moot, he painted what he saw and understood, that - believe it or not - is what artists do. Why people have to waste their time trying to comprehend why Van Gogh painted turbulence is beyond me...

      "Publish or Perish?"

      But yes, the idea that Van Gogh, at a time when he was most divorced from reality, created things of such mathematical precision is very interesting, particularly as an example of the union of madness and genius.

    • The fact that he painted turbulence is irrelevant. What is relevant, is the accuracy with which he did it. If he is able to make almost exact replicas of turbulence years before scientists discover the relation to turbelence, and how it works, it shows that van Gogh had a much better understanding of it than everyone before (and during) his time. This is just a little insight into the mind of a genius.
    • Ergo, the entire point of the article is moot, he painted what he saw and understood, that - believe it or not - is what artists do.

      Actually, that isn't necessarily what artists do. Since the earliest cave paintings to Venus de Milo to modern cartoons, artists paint representations of what they see (with their real eyes or mind's eye) with varying degrees of attempted and actual accuracy. Trying to rigorously paint "what one sees" -- though still with large amounts of abstraction and representation -- was
  • This reminds me of all of those English classes in high school where the teachers would tell us all of these subtle things that were represented in writers works. I would always wonder if the authors would laugh themselves silly over all of it.

    Why does all of this mean Van Gogh new that he was painting turbulence? Why can this not just be a byproduct of the way that he holds the brush and moves the brush on the canvas?

    I bet that somewhere out there is a cave drawing where the patterns on the rock are a p
    • Richard Feynman used to drive a van with funny squiggle grafitti on it. They are very similar to figures used to describe quantum chromodynamics. By coincidence, Feynman was a physicist noted for developing the figures. What are the odds?
    • It seems unlikely that Van Gogh's painting style accidently approximated - with some accuracy - some kind of mathematical system. Even if it wasn't actually a conscious choice to paint turbulence then perhaps it was some instinctive understanding or recognition of how certain systems worked.

      The bridge between science and art is that of conscious decision, science has always been about coming to some recognition about the world around us where we can say 'yes, I understand'. Art seems to be a recognition tho
  • It's only natural (Score:3, Insightful)

    by deuterium ( 96874 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @10:21AM (#15690913)
    People, by their very nature, cannot truly produce randomness. Everything we output is laden with the associations and processes inherent in the brain. Jackson Pollack apparently painted with a certain fractal regularity [] that he wasn't conscious of. I imagine that Van Gough didn't intend to depict turbulence per se, he just painted that way, and others percieve the mechanics.
  • People who never had any training in music can somehow play music, people who never studied math but have a high mathmatical aptitude, or even people who have plenty of indicators for Aspergers (sp?) syndrome who otherwise are capable programmers and entrepeneurs (Bill Gates, anyone?). Of course, the "idiot" is in quotations because two out of three ain't bad.
  • Pollock and fractals (Score:4, Interesting)

    by OldManAndTheC++ ( 723450 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @02:55PM (#15692899)

    This article reminds me of a similar study done on Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, which exhibit the characteristics of fractals. Pollock painted in the '50s, before fractal geometry was developed. Works by other artists, who imitated Pollock's technique, do not have the same qualities. Both Van Gogh and Pollock seem to have been able to perceive the mathematical underpinnings of the natural world in an intuitive way, and could communicate that perception through their art.

    Some more info [] (PDF warning).

  • Two observations.

    1. Van Gogh may have simply had about -4.50 myopia and was painting realism...
    2. The Starry Night painting at the MoMA in NYC looks like crap... small, unfinished at the edges, and not
    breathtaking like certain other Van Gogh paintings I've seen. The posters are better than the original.

  • .. the turbulence of the matter inside his aqueus humour as he looked from spot to spot?

  • Van Gogh's ability to properly depict (even closely) one of Nature's most chaotic of events only implies that somehow, his brain was able to calculate his efforts. Without getting into pseudo-science, crystals and all that biz; it is rather obvious that those who extend deep into the extremes of various mental illnesses or retardations display extrodinary abilities, such as high level autism.

    Without any psychology or neuroscience, I speculate that perhaps such abilities are so taxing that their brains aren
  • From the article:

    harder than quantum mechanics

    What is that supposed to mean? Quantum mechanics appears on undergraduate mathematics, physics and chemistry courses. Almost every university offers such courses and probably dozens, if not hundreds, of people graduate from each of these universities having completed courses in QM. I expect that a reasonable proportion of /. readers are among these people. Sure, it can be tricky stuff sometimes. But you don't need to be some kind of genius to understand it -

"I will make no bargains with terrorist hardware." -- Peter da Silva