Brain Pickings

The Fluid Dynamics of “The Starry Night”: How Vincent Van Gogh’s Masterpiece Explains the Scientific Mysteries of Movement and Light

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“In a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind.”

In 1889, inspired by a famous astronomical drawing that had been circulating in Europe for four decades, Vincent van Gogh painted his iconic masterpiece “The Starry Night,” one of the most recognized and reproduced images in the history of art. At the peak of his lifelong struggle with mental illness, he created the legendary painting while staying at the mental asylum into which he had voluntarily checked himself after mutilating his own ear.

But more than a masterwork of art, Van Gogh’s painting turns out to hold astounding clues to understanding some of the most mysterious workings of science.

This fascinating short animation from TED-Ed and Natalya St. Clair, author of The Art of Mental Calculation, explores how “The Starry Night” sheds light on the concept of turbulent flow in fluid dynamics, one of the most complex ideas to explain mathematically and among the hardest for the human mind to grasp. From why the brain’s perception of light and motion makes us see Impressionist works as flickering, to how a Russian mathematician’s theory explains Jupiter’s bright red spot, to what the Hubble Space Telescope has to do with Van Gogh’s psychotic episodes, this mind-bending tour de force ties art, science, and mental health together through the astonishing interplay between physical and psychic turbulence.

Van Gogh and other Impressionists represented light in a different way than their predecessors, seeming to capture its motion, for instance, across sun-dappled waters, or here in star light that twinkles and melts through milky waves of blue night sky.

The effect is caused my luminance, the intensity of the light in the colors on the canvas. The more primitive part of our visual cortex — which sees light contrast and motion, but not color — will blend two differently colored areas together if they have the same luminance. But our brains primate subdivision will see the contrasting colors without blending. With these two interpretations happening at once, the light in many Impressionist works seems to pulse, flicker and radiate oddly.

That’s how this and other Impressionist works use quickly executed prominent brushstrokes to capture something strikingly real about how light moves.

Sixty years later, Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov furthered our mathematical understanding of turbulence when he proposed that energy in a turbulent fluid at length R varies in proportion to the five-thirds power of R. Experimental measurements show Kolmogorov was remarkably close to the way turbulent flow works, although a complete description of turbulence remains one of the unsolved problems in physics.

A turbulent flow is self-similar if there is an energy cascade — in other words, big eddies transfer their energy to smaller eddies, which do likewise at other scales. Examples of this include Jupiter’s great red spot, cloud formations and interstellar dust particles.

In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” This motivated scientists from Mexico, Spain, and England to study the luminance in Van Gogh’s paintings in detail. They discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures close to Kolmogorov’s equation hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.

The researchers digitized the paintings, and measured how brightness varies between any two pixels. From the curves measured for pixel separations, they concluded that paintings from Van Gogh’s period of psychotic agitation behave remarkably similar to fluid turbulence. His self-portrait with a pipe, from a calmer period in Van Gogh’s life, showed no sign of this correspondence. And neither did other artists’ work that seemed equally turbulent at first glance, like Munch’s ‘The Scream.”

While it’s too easy to say Van Gogh’s turbulent genius enabled him to depict turbulence, it’s also far too difficult to accurately express the rousing beauty of the fact that in a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind, and to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid and light.

Complement with Van Gogh on art and the power of love and a peek inside his never-before-revealed sketchbooks.

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The Mirror and the Meme: A 600-Year History of the Selfie

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How glass, tin, and mercury converged on a Venetian island in the 15th century to fundamentally change the way we look at ourselves.

In 1977, long before the social web as we know it existed, Susan Sontag foresaw a new dawn of “aesthetic consumerism” sparked by photography’s social aspect. Today, nowhere is this phenomenon more glaring than in the ubiquitous selfie. But how did we end up with this peculiar Möbius strip of self-image, turning our gaze inward and outward at the same time?

In How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us the mind-stretching story of how Galileo invented timeSteven Johnson peels back history’s curtains to reveal the unsuspected causal chains of innovation behind “that iconic, early-twenty-first-century act: snapping a selfie on your phone.” We might be apt to celebrate innovations like the evolution of photography and the rise of the social web as the impetus for the selfie revolution — but these, Johnson points out with his penchant for the unexpected sociocultural twist, can’t hold a candle to the true breakthrough that makes it all possible: glass. He explains:

Glass supports this entire network: we take pictures through glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.

We already know that glass is a remarkable material that planted the seed for the innovation gap between East and West, but the role of glass in the journey of our self-image extends beyond the technology and into how we think about the human countenance itself. Even though the self-portrait is a fixture of Renaissance art and early modernism, Johnson points out that it practically didn’t exist as an artistic convention until the beginning of the 15th century. “People painted landscapes and royalty and religious scenes and a thousand other subjects,” he notes. “But they didn’t paint themselves.”

And then something happened — glassmakers on the Venetian island of Murano figured out how to combine glass with a new technological breakthrough in metallurgy, which allowed them to coat the back of a piece of glass with a medley of tin and mercury, producing a highly reflective surface. The result was the mirror, which forever changed how we see ourselves. Johnson writes:

For the first time, mirrors became part of the fabric of everyday life. This was a revelation on the most intimate of levels: before mirrors came along, the average person went through life without ever seeing a truly accurate representation of his or her face, just fragmentary, distorted glances in pools of water or polished metals.

Mirrors appeared so magical that they were quickly integrated into somewhat bizarre sacred rituals: During holy pilgrimages, it became common practice for well-off pilgrims to take a mirror with them. When visiting sacred relics, they would position themselves so that they could catch sight of the bones in the mirror’s reflection. Back home, they would then show off these mirrors to friends and relatives, boasting that they had brought back physical evidence of the relic by capturing the reflection of the sacred scene. Before turning to the printing press, Gutenberg had the start-up idea of manufacturing and selling small mirrors for departing pilgrims.

But the most momentous impact of the mirror, Johnson argues, was a secular one — in revolutionizing the art of seeing, it invariably revolutionized art itself:

Filippo Brunelleschi employed a mirror to invent linear perspective in painting, by drawing a reflection of the Florence Baptistry instead of his direct perception of it. The art of the late Renaissance is heavily populated by mirrors lurking inside paintings, most famously in Diego Velázquez’s inverted masterpiece, Las Meninas, which shows the artist (and the extended royal family) in the middle of painting King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The entire image is captured from the point of view of two royal subjects sitting for their portrait; it is, in a very literal sense, a painting about the act of painting. The king and queen are visible only in one small fragment of the canvas, just to the right of Velázquez himself: two small, blurry images reflected back in a mirror. As a tool, the mirror became an invaluable asset to painters who could now capture the world around them in a far more realistic fashion, including the detailed features of their own faces.

'Las Meninas' by Diego Velázquez, 1656

Even Da Vinci extolled the creative value of the mirror in his notebooks:

When you wish to see whether the general effect of your picture corresponds with that of the object represented after nature, take a mirror and set it so that it reflects the actual thing, and then compare the reflection with your picture, and consider carefully whether the subject of the two images is in conformity with both, studying especially the mirror. The mirror ought to be taken as a guide.

Johnson considers the role of this breakthrough as a sensemaking device in an era when we were using glass to orient ourselves to the cosmos and, thanks to the mirror, to orient ourselves to ourselves:

At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered.

[…]

The mirror played a direct role in allowing artists to paint themselves and invent perspective as a formal device; and shortly thereafter a fundamental shift occurred in the consciousness of Europeans that oriented them around the self in a new way, a shift that would ripple across the world (and that is still rippling).

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace

This rippling, Johnson points out, was a perfect example of the hummingbird effect at work as various sociocultural forces converged to unleash its full potential for transformation:

The self-centered world played well with the early forms of modern capitalism that were thriving in places like Venice and Holland (home to those masters of painterly introspection, Dürer and Rembrandt). Likely, these various forces complemented each other: glass mirrors were among the first high-tech furnishings for the home, and once we began gazing into those mirrors, we began to see ourselves differently, in ways that encouraged the market systems that would then happily sell us more mirrors…

The mirror doesn’t “force” the Renaissance to happen; it “allows” it to happen.

[…]

Without a technology that enabled humans to see a clear reflection of reality, including their own faces, the particular constellation of ideas in art and philosophy and politics that we call the Renaissance would have had a much more difficult time coming into being.

Peering into the history of the mirror and the future of its modern progeny — which includes, notably, the selfie — Johnson leaves the trajectory of its sociocultural impact open-ended:

The mirror helped invent the modern self, in some real but unquantifiable way. That much we should agree on. Whether that was a good thing in the end is a separate question, one that may never be settled conclusively.

How We Got to Now is an illuminating read in its totality. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed art.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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The Jacket: A Sweet Illustrated Meta-Story about How We Fall in Love With Books

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A gentle reminder that to be somebody’s favorite thing in the world requires a certain quality of thingness.

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her sublime meditation on reading. But how that transplant happens is a matter wholly subjective and deeply mysterious. In the unusual, wonderful, and magically meta picture-book The Jacket (public library | IndieBound), writer Kirsten Hall and illustrator Dasha Tolstikova explore the beauty and terror of falling in love with a book from the perspective of the book itself.

It is also a story about the aching disconnect between merit and confidence, and the way in which love both transforms us and brings us closer to ourselves.

“Book was a book that had just about everything,” the story begins. “He was solid and strong. His words were smart and playful. The problem was, Book didn’t feel special.”

True though it may be that “there’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen,” Book does want to be noticed — so that he can be truly seen as a child disappears into his pages and falls in love with his story.

And then, one day, it happens. A little girl walks into the bookstore and falls in love with Book.

Book fit perfectly into the girl’s hands.

She took him everywhere, and Book thought he must be the girl’s favorite thing in the whole wide world?

Who doesn’t long to be someone’s favorite thing in the whole wide world?

But Book soon discovers that he must compete for the girl’s affections with her other beloved earthly companion — her dog, Egg Cream.

Book could see why the girl adored her dog.

He was wild and funny, furry and sweet.

He scratched at the door.

He rolled around on the floor.

He did neat things with sticks and balls.

He was warm and cozy. And he loved the girl.

For Book, though, Dog was a big problem.

A big, clumsy problem with scary teeth and a huge slippery tongue. He was messy and wet, and he licked and drooled.

No, Book didn’t like Dog one bit.

Then, sure enough, as Book is enjoying a quiet picnic with the girl “one perfectly lovely afternoon,” Dog-begotten disaster strikes. Suddenly, mud splatters from all sides and smothers him. Distraught that he has ruined Book, the girl screams at Egg Cream.

That night, her mother helps clean Book up, but the girl is “too sad and gloomy” to read.

As Book watches her sleep, he sinks into wistfulness as he contemplates no longer being her perfect book.

But when the girl opens her eyes in the morning, “something had changed.”

She has a plan.

With quiet excitement and optimism, she sits down at her desk with some art supplies as Egg Cream and Book wonder what she’s working on.

And then, the reveal: a colorful handmade jacket for Book, which she wraps around him as she beams a smile.

The book’s final spread features delightful hand-drawn instructions for how to make your very own book jacket.

Underpinning the sweet story is also a gentle clarion call for holding onto the intangible joys and tactile rewards of old-fashioned spine-and-paper books — an ebook, after all, can’t return the embrace of a handmade jacket, nor can it really be someone’s “favorite thing in the whole wide world” when its very thingness is so woefully nebulous.

Maira Kalman, wise as always, put it best: “When you hold a (real) book in your hands, the molecules in your body rejoice.”

The Jacket comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion Books, by far the most intelligent and imaginative picture-book publisher today, whose remarkable roster includes such treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, Wednesday, and Advice to Little Girls.

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