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Jan. 9, 2003, Gazette

The art of physics


Dr. Yakov Afanassiev’s photo captures what is known as a vortex dipole.
Two photographs that appear in the 2003 Art of Physics Calendar. Dr. John de Bruyn’s photo of icicles on his clothesline captures a phenomenon known as Rayleigh-Taylor instability. Dr. Yakov Afanassiev’s photo captures what is known as a vortex dipole.
Dr. John de Bruyn’s photo of icicles on his clothesline captures a phenomenon known as Rayleigh-Taylor instability

Physics takes on an artistic form in a 2003 calendar produced by the Canadian Association of Physicists, aptly titled Art of Physics.

The photos have been selected from past winners of an annual photographic contest held by the same association. Two Memorial professors’ photos are featured in the calendar.

Dr. John de Bruyn, professor in the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography, took a photo of icicles on his clothesline. It initially won third prize in the 1996 competition. He woke up one morning after a night of freezing rain, and noticed that all the icicles that had frozen on the line were equally spaced.

He took the photo, and subsequently began an investigation into the phenomenon which is related to his primary area of research, the formation of patterns in fluid dynamical systems. When a layer of heavy fluid lies on top of a lighter fluid, gravity makes the heavy fluid fall down. On the other hand, surface tension tries to stop the resultant curving. The competition between these two forces acting on the layer of water that had formed on the clothesline resulted in a compromise; a wave formed on the bottom of the water layer that eventually grew into the icicles.

The spacing of the wave is determined by properties of the water (in this case, at zero degrees). The wavelength is thus predicted to be about one inch, the very spacing seen between the icicles on Dr. de Bruyn’s clothesline. This phenomenon, known as Rayleigh-Taylor instability, is captured in his photo.

A picture taken by Dr. Yakov Afanassiev, assistant professor in the same department, also illustrates some interesting behaviour in a simple layer of water. Dr. Afanassiev’s photo was taken in his lab, along with the assistance of student Jennifer Wells, and won third prize in last year’s contest.

His photo captures what is known as a vortex dipole, a phenomenon whose shape resembles that of a sliced mushroom. A vortex dipole is often found in the ocean, when a force (such as wind or instable currents) is applied to a localized area of the ocean.

To stimulate an ocean environment, Dr. Afanassiev used stratified water in a large tank. This can be done by putting less dense water on top: either cool water on the bottom and warm water on top, or saltwater on the bottom and fresh water on top. He then put the tank on a rotating platform to create the effects of the earth’s rotation, and added pH indicator to the water in the tank. To make the flow visible he changed the pH balance of the water, changing its colour. Finally, he created the vortex dipole by simply drawing a wire through the water. The result is a magnificently colourful photo that illustrates this physical phenomenon.

The beauty of physics is evident in these photos. According to Dr. de Bruyn, “physics is esthetically pleasing.” That, combined with the intriguing nature of the physics demonstrated, makes these photographs both art and science.

To order an Art of Physics calendar, check out the Web site of the Canadian Association of Physicists at www.cap.ca. To see other photos in Dr. Asfanassiev’s gallery of fluid motion, please see his Web site www.physics.mun.ca/~yakov.