Van Gogh Painted Fluid Turbulence Before It Was a Thing

The Starry Night by Vincent van GoghIn 2004, the Hubble Space Telescope captured an image of swirling eddies that reminded people of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” A nice observation – but it didn’t stop there.

By digitizing the 1889 painting and doing complex analyses of pixel brightness, scientists discovered that Van Gogh had accurately depicted fluid turbulence, a phenomenon that wouldn’t be described scientifically until half a century later – and has yet to be fully explained. The troubled artist executed this impressive feat in multiple paintings, apparently only during his bouts with severe mental turmoil, says an article in Mic. (No word yet on whether Van Gogh’s turbulent patterns were correctly transferred to the new Starry Night-inspired bike path in his hometown.)

This discovery just goes to show that “art is another way of knowing and understanding the world, not simply a source of pleasure and delight,” noted Bowdoin art history professor Pamela Fletcher – and it illustrates how interesting the world becomes when you break down barriers between art and science, added visiting assistant professor in computer science Mohammad Irfan, a fellow in the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative which Fletcher co-directs. Irfan has conducted similar research exploring the meticulous method to Jackson Pollack’s madness (hint: fractals) that set Pollock’s paint-spattered work apart both aesthetically and mathematically.

Stories such as these highlight the importance of digital studies in a liberal arts education, Irfan said. “Here, physicists, neither computer scientists nor art historians, are using computational techniques to analyze Van Gogh’s paintings – that, for me, is the punchline,” Irfan said. “Today, computational skills are must-have skills – for everyone, everywhere – to survive the challenges of the 21st century.”

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