13.7: Cosmos And Culture
9:44 am
Tue February 18, 2014

How To See A Galaxy In Your Toilet Bowl

Originally published on Tue February 25, 2014 8:01 pm

Have you ever watched a little kid playing in a sink full of water? It could be the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink or even the tub — it's all the same to kids. The faucet goes on. The faucet goes off. The water fills up, the water drains away. Why is it that every kid everywhere can lose a good hour just watching water slosh around?

The answer is simple.

Kids are natural-born scientists, and in the flow of fluids (in this case water) they have intuitively found a laboratory to explore that most essential scientific question: How does the world behave?

But what about us grown-ups? The good news is that the childhood joys of the sink are still there for us, if we just take the time to notice. But it gets better — those splashy joys can be multiplied infinitely across the entire cosmos for us when we enlarge our vision and see that the whole universe is a giant sink. From the grace of spiral galaxies to the water spinning down your toilet bowl, the field of endeavor that scientists call fluid dynamics shows us something truly remarkable: The infinite heavens and the familiar Earth are the same, all united together under the same laws.

If you think back to your eighth-grade science class, you may remember that a fluid is anything that can't hold a shape. Your car may be fast, but it's still a solid, not a fluid. But liquids like the petrol in your tank and the coffee in your cup take the shape of whatever they're poured into. They are fluids. Gases like the air you're breathing and the CO2 pouring out of your exhaust pipe also take the shape of their containers; they are fluids, too.

The most important characteristic of a fluid is its ability to flow. The atoms in a solid — like an iron beam — are locked rigidly into place like Lego blocks in a Lego castle you (or your kids) built. But the atoms in a fluid can roll and tumble and cascade around each other (like those same Legos in the plastic bin when your kids have torn the castle apart).

It's that flowing freedom that gives fluid motion its hypnotic quality. Allow yourself to become mesmerized by the flow of a fast-moving river around a bridge trestle and you'll know what I mean. There is poetry in the massive cascade of waves as the river water pushes past an obstacle. And there is dance in the roiling turbulence that emerges downstream.

But, most importantly, the choreography of matter and motion you're watching right before your eyes doesn't care about place and time. What you see before your eyes today is being repeated all across the cosmos.

If you don't believe me, go flush your toilet.

As soon as you push that handle down on that most personal of household appliances, the universal laws of fluid dynamics kick in. The swirling pattern of water down the toilet drain is an example of what physicists call vortical motion. A vortex occurs whenever a fluid is forced to flow in circles. The polar vortex that made everyone's life a wintry hell last month originates with the atmosphere (a fluid) driven into circular motion by the Earth's rotation. But look at the graceful arcs of a spiral galaxy across 10 million light-years of space and you will see the same principles at work on scales so vast it will make your imagination cry uncle! (It takes the water in your toilet about a half-second to complete one rotation; the gas in a spiral galaxy makes the same trip in 200 million years).

The laws of fluid dynamics can be written down in mathematical form in just four lines. I know most folks don't speak math. But I have to tell you: They are a thing of beauty, like calligraphy or lines of the purest poetry. And what gives them their power is that the behaviors of all fluids everywhere and "everywhen" are already there, hidden in those symbols.

From the first moments after the Big Bang, to clouds rolling across the sky, to you staring down into your toilet — it's all the same. So if you really want to find your inner child and know the secrets of the cosmos at the same time, it's simple.

All you have to do is flush.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Time now for some life advice from our contributor, resident physicist Adam Frank. He says make friends with science and it will transform the ordinary, even the smallest of things, into the extraordinary. And Adam says children are already really good at this.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Kids drive us crazy all the time. Sometimes it's the endless begging for that box of sugar bomb cereal that we never, ever buy them. But sometimes it's the way they get fixated for hours on the simplest things, like the way water splashes in a sink. When that's the case, it's important for us to remember fixation is in their job description. They are, after all, new arrivals on this planet.

They're here to explore, to discover and in essence, to be scientists. So the next time you find your kid in the bathroom flushing the toilet for the 22 time, don't get frustrated. Just stop, just notice, just see what they are seeing and then with your adult eyes know that both of you are looking through a window to the entire universe.

You see, the most important characteristic of a fluid, like air or water, is its ability to flow. That's what kids get hooked on. But in that mesmerizing choreography of matter and motion, fluids hold an amazing secret. From the grace of spiral galaxies to the smoke curling away from a stick in incense, the field scientists call fluid dynamics shows us something truly remarkable.

The wide skies of cosmic space and the familiar earth, they're the same, united together under the same set of laws. Don't believe me? Well, let's get back to that toilet. Push the handle down on that most ignominious of household accoutrements and the universal laws of fluid dynamics kick in. The swirling pattern of water in the toilet is an example of what physicists call vortical motion.

A vortex occurs anytime a fluid is forced to flow in circles, like in your toilet, but 10 million light years out in space, you can see the same general principles at work in the beautiful arcs of a spiral galaxy. Now, it takes the water in your toilet about a fraction of a second to complete one rotation, but the gas in the disc of a galaxy makes the same trip in about 200 million years.

In spite of that amazing difference, the physics is, in general, the same. Now, here's the kicker. The laws of fluid dynamics, like so much of the world's behavior can be fully and completely embraced in just a few mathematically expressed laws. I know most folks don't speak math, but I have to tell you. The three elegant equations of fluid dynamics, they're a thing of beauty. They're like calligraphy or the lines of purist poetry.

And what gives them their power is that all the behavior of all fluids everywhere and every when are already there, already hidden in those hieroglyphic symbols. From the first moments after the Big Bang to the clouds rolling across the sky to you and your kids staring down into that toilet, it's all the same. So if you really want to find your inner child and know the secrets to the cosmos, at the same time, the next step is really simple. All you have to do is flush.

BLOCK: Adam Frank, he teaches physics at the University of Rochester and blogs at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.