Archive for November 13th, 2014

Van Gogh The Starry Night 1889 MOMAThe Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most beloved paintings of all time, stirring all sorts of emotions from a wide spectrum of the population as it presents a paradox of serenity and turbulence in the night sky of Provence.  It has been analyzed to death by art critics, psychologists, theologians and every art history student since it was painted in 1889, each striving to explain the meaning that they pull from it.

And maybe they’re all right.

But recently there has been a different analysis of this work.  It has to do with fluid dynamics and the problem of finding a mathematical equation for turbulence– the sort of turbulence you might see in an eddy in a stream or that which is depicted in the swirling light and color of Van Gogh’s painting.  Russian mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov (1903-1987) came closest to solving this problem in the early 1950’s yet it remains one of the great unsolved problems of physics.

Back in 2004, the Hubble telescope picked up images of eddies of gas and dust around a distant star and scientists were reminded of Van Gogh’s painting.  Scientists from a number of countries collaborated on an analysis of the luminance in his painting and discovered that the structure of his painting was very much patterned like Kolmogorov’s equations for turbulence.

I am not going to say much more.  There is a wonderful short film below from TED-Ed and Natalya St. Clair that much better explains this. But before you watch, I wanted to add one more thing which is the supposed inspiration for Van Gogh’s sky.

Drawing of M51 Whirlpool Galaxy Lord Rosse 19th CenturyThere was a drawing that was well known in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century that was done by William Parsons, also known as Lord Rosse, who had built a large telescope on his Irish castle in the 1840’s.  Called Leviathan, it was the largest telescope in the world until 1918.  With it, Lord Rosse was able to observe the great swirls of the near universe, turning them into drawings which circulated throughout Europe.  This one shown on the left is of  the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, and is believed to have been the spark for Van Gogh’s sky.

Anyway, watch this great short on the analysis of Van Gogh’s great painting.  Or perhaps you would rather just be content with our own interpretation of the work and what it does for you personally.  Either way is good.

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