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Physicists Still Don’t Know What Vincent van Gogh Knew

When experts list the ten most famous painters in the world, van Gogh is usually included, even though he didn’t sell many paintings during his lifetime. He indeed resides in the #1 spot on my list.

I recently wrote about visiting the Orsay Museum in Paris and being captivated by van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

Not that I didn’t enjoy some of the other famous works on display painted by Manet, Monet, Gaugin, and Renoir, to name a few of the artists. The sculptures were incredible too. And thanks to an articulate guide, I learned more art history in a few hours than I’d learned over the preceding decades.

Sculptures and paintings comingle (Photo courtesy of Canva)

But after our guide showed us The Starry Night and then herded our small group to the next painting, I didn’t want to leave. Something about the painting held me captive.

Ahead of His Time

Although Van Gogh was born 170 years ago, only recently was a connection made between his paintings, particularly The Starry Night, and the mathematical model of turbulence.

Turbulence, in physics terms, is “a common type of fluid motion characterized by chaotic changes in pressure and flow velocity.” How turbulence works is considered the oldest and “most important unsolved problem in classical physics.”

Why Does Turbulence Matter?

Solving the problem by arriving at the laws governing turbulence isn’t just a mental exercise for brainy physicists. It has enormous practical implications. For example, the solution would be useful in the design of airplanes and in understanding and predicting weather. Yet the problem of understanding turbulence remains unsolved.

Example of turbulence in a cloud (Photo courtesy of Shadra_Audrey, Canva)

Werner Heisenberg, a 20th-century German physicist, invented matrix mechanics, the first complete version of quantum mechanics. For sure, Werner was an intelligent man.

On his deathbed, he is reported to have said, "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: ‘Why relativity? And why turbulence?’ I really believe he will have an answer for the first."

That’s how complicated the physics of turbulence is. And yet, van Gogh understood it intuitively.

Who Put Two and Two Together?

José Luis Aragón, a physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and his team focused on accurately portraying turbulence in van Gogh’s paintings in a research paper published in 2008. Aragon pointed out that “van Gogh's works from his ‘psychotic’ periods closely follow the mathematical structure of natural turbulence, such as that of swirling water.” When the paintings were digitalized, the luminance closely followed the mathematical formula currently understood to describe turbulence.

Intuitive Knowledge

We don’t yet know how a person arrives at intuitive knowledge of this magnitude. All we can say with certainty is that some works of art, such as The Starry Night, demonstrate an understanding of the incredibly complex phenomenon of turbulence. The knowledge must come from an independent source. Intuitive knowledge is something we sense rather than something we understand rationally.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations . . . I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am.”

Learning to trust my instincts has been a lifelong process. Looking back, I can see that the biggest mistakes in my life were ignoring my intuitive knowledge. After seeing van Gogh’s painting, I may become a better listener.



(Cover photo courtesy of Canva)