What
is
turbulence?

Janet Rafner

Master's degree candidate at the Niels Bohr Institute

So, what is turbulence? Turbulence is a phenomenon in fluid dynamics, and is characterized by chaotic changes in pressure and velocity. This sounds theoretical, but in fact you can find turbulence everywhere in the world around us!

When you stir your coffee vigorously, you can see turbulent behavior in the coffee cup. Although scientists love their coffee, they study turbulence because it affects some critical situations. On one hand, understanding the dynamics of the turbulent air behind a large plane is key in maintaining the safety of the airspace around an airport. On the other hand, turbulent mixing can be helpful for designing more efficient systems for introducing medicine into the bloodstream.

In the Turbulence game, you are competing against other players to explore shapes that are formed in chaotic areas of turbulent flow. In technical terms, we call these shapes RIVs (the Regions of Intense Vorticity). We can see RIVs, but we don’t know very much about them - that’s where you come in!

In the game, we need your help finding the “biggest” Region of Intense Vorticity in each snapshot of the simulation. But by “big”, we mean the one that will hold the largest sphere. Why do we need to know that? This sphere size determines a very important length scale in turbulence. In technical lingo, the scale is called ‘the scale of sparseness of the RIV.’ But we just call it r.  This scale is thought to be closely related to the dissipation scale, which tells us about the process where chaotic turbulence begins to calm down and dissipate. Dissipation, which is a bit like dissolving, marks the end of the ‘energy cascade’. In an energy cascade kinetic energy is transferred (cascades) from larger to smaller scales of the flow and eventually dissipates completely.

Turbulence game is a collaborative project between mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, and game designers. The data we collect from your gameplay will be analyzed to gain insight into the key relationship between r and the dissipation scale. Your gameplay will then help us get one step closer to understanding turbulence, which was described by renowned physicist Richard Feynman as “the most important unsolved problem of classical physics.”

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