Van Gogh’s Turbulent Mind Captured Turbulence

First published in August 2016

Scientists have discovered a distinct turbulent fluid pattern, surprisingly close to Kolmogorov’s equation, hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings. In a period of intense suffering,Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind (the concept of turbulence), and to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid and light.

Starry Night (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh

Says Marcelo Gleiser:
“The connection has an interesting history, being inspired by “a picture of a distant star from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, where eddies probably caused by dust and gas turbulence are clearly seen,” as physicist José Luis Aragón of the Autonomous University of Mexico in Queretaro, and his collaborators from Spain and England, wrote in a paper from June 2006. You can see the picture, from a March 4, 2004, NASA press release here. The scientists wanted to check whether there was some kind of mathematical correlation between van Gogh’s creation and turbulence as measured in natural phenomena.

They found that van Gogh’s art, in particular in paintings from periods when his mental illness was at a peak, mirrors natural turbulence down to mathematical precision.

The painter’s magnificent brushwork made (intuitive?) use of a property known as luminance, a measure of the relative brightness between different points. The eye is more sensitive to luminance change than to color change, meaning we respond more promptly to changes in brightness than in colors. This is what gives many Impressionist paintings that familiar and emotionally moving twinkle, as we can see, for example, in Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

The physicists took digital pictures of the paintings and calculated the relative probability that two pixels at a certain distance R would have the same luminance. (They also looked at Wheat Field with Crows and Road with Cypress and Star, both from the same period, with similar results.) They found what scientist’s call a scaling law, when the same patterns are repeated at different spatial scales (other scales are also possible, such as time scales). Scaling laws have a typical power associated with them, usually given by an integer or a fraction. Remarkably, van Gogh’s paintings from his own turbulent period show luminance with a scaling similar to that of the mathematical theory of turbulence.

In fluid turbulence, there is a famous scaling law known as Kolmogorov scaling, from Soviet physicist Andrei Kolmogorov’s theory from the 1940s. When a fluid hits turbulent flow, large eddies of size R break down to smaller ones, and power is transferred from large to small scales according to a scaling law. This can be approximately seen in Jupiter’s famous red spot, a self-sustaining turbulent flow that has been going on for as long as we have been watching it, some 300 plus years. Aragón and collaborators found that van Gogh’s luminance scales in the same way as the relative probability distribution of fluid velocities at different scales R in a turbulent flow.

Van Gogh’s creations during his most turbulent period mirrored nature’s turbulent flows, as if his mind somehow tapped into a universal archetype where luminous becomes numinous — and the painter’s brush and nature’s brush become one and the same.”


#64 AI and the Global Brain

Podcast with

Trying to wrap our minds, hearts, and bodies around the rapidly evolving field of AI

Decolonizing Science

Article by

We are witnessing a resurgence of indigenous knowledge and growing acknowledgement of its scientific value worldwide

Wholeness & Fragmentation

Video with

The problem with our "civilized" and compartmentalized ways of thinking, which is fragmented.

Assembly Theory

Article by

Bold New 'Theory of Everything' Could Unite Physics And Evolution

The Star Compass: kāpehu whetū

Article by

Indigenous Polynesian technology for navigating using the stars

#55 Cerebrospinal Fluid

Podcast with

A fascinating lecture on the potential mystical properties of fluid in our bodies

The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

Video with ,

A video version of our popular Sounds of SAND Podcast episode

A 9-minute journey inside a black hole

Video with

Ever wonder what would happen if we got sucked into a black hole? Turns out we could live in it — if it was big enough.

Support SAND with a Donation

Science and Nonduality is a nonprofit organization. Your donation goes directly towards the development of our vision and the growth of our community.
Thank you for your support!