Geek Trivia

Van Gogh’s Famous Painting “The Starry Night” Captured What Scientific Phenomenon In Action?

Solar Refractivity
Atmospheric Diffraction
Temperature Inversion
Teleprompters Are A Practical Use Of An Old Illusionist's Trick Known As?

Answer: Turbulence

Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, painted in June of 1889, depicts the view just before sunrise as seen from his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Unbeknownst to most people, The Starry Night is only one of nearly two dozen paintings Van Gogh made of the same scene (albeit in wide variation) from the same vantage point; though The Starry Night is the only version of the painting depicting a nocturnal scene (which is key in both the painting’s appeal and its relevance to our trivia today).

While the painting is notable for a wide variety of reasons including its enduring popularity, excellent use of luminance, and its distinct heavy stylization of the moon and stars in Van Gogh’s post-impressionist style, recent analysis has shown that part of the appeal of the painting might also lie in how well Van Gogh captured a natural phenomenon with an uncanny precision.

When physicists applied algorithmic analysis to The Starry Night, they found that the patterns of the luminance and swirls of the paint followed the same scaling laws that one finds in the mathematical laws in the theory of turbulence used to describe fluid flows in the Earth’s atmosphere. In essence, Van Gogh was able to perfectly capture, before the mathematics even existed to describe it, the turbulent movement of air in the atmosphere and how it would impact and distort views of the celestial bodies above.