Invisible Liquid Topographies

lagrangian coherent structures

This article in the NYT (previously noticed by mammoth and jargon etc) reports on studies of large-scale fluid-dynamics at Monterey Bay in California. Scientists using a land-based network of high-frequency radar sensors have made detailed maps of flows and currents, revealing a ‘hidden skeleton’ of hydronamic structures that determine their movements. Across the mouth of the bay, for example, is a line of turbulence, ‘like the filaments created by stirring milk into cold coffee’. This line forms a barrier: a floating object on one side will drift out to sea, while on the other it will not escape the bay. The structure is not fixed in place, but although it drifts, it doesn’t disperse.

“The structures are invisible because they often exist only as dividing lines between parts of a flow that are moving at different speeds and in different directions… ‘They aren’t something you can walk up to and touch… but they are not purely mathematical constructions, either’… The line is not a fence or a road, but it still marks a physical barrier.”

The article refers to these as Lagrangian coherent structures, and points out that they exist in water currents, turbulent airflow, and blood circulation. A more general term for these regularities in dynamic systems is singularity. Singularities can be static (the rest state of a system for example), or periodic (an oscillating equilibrium like a pendulum or orbital path). The collection of singularities that determine the behaviour of a system forms an invariant manifold. Manuel Delanda describes them this way:

“Singularities may influence behaviour by acting as attractors for the trajectories. What this means is that a large number of different trajectories, starting their evolution at very different places in the manifold, may end up in exactly the same final state (the attractor), as long as all of them begin somewhere within the ‘sphere of influence’ of the attractor (the basin of attraction)…  singularities are said to represent the inherent or intrinsic long-term tendencies of a system.”

It is fascinating to consider the possibilites of specifying matter not through its static positions, or as a series of temporal frames, but in terms of the singularities which form it: an invisible topography. The currently ubiquitous arch-school procedure of analysing a dynamic condition and then using it to generate static form barely scratches the surface of this way of specifying matter and its behaviour.

monterey bay radar sensors

Three Curious Singularities

The behaviour of two masses orbiting each other can be accurately modelled using the equations of classical mechanics; but as soon as a third is added to the scenario it becomes irreducibly complex. This is the famous three-body problem. However, in the complex phase-space of a three-body system, there are five stable points – called Lagrange points – in this system, at which one object will remain stationary relative to the others. From a spaceship at a Lagrange point, the sun and earth would appear fixed.

Above the Catatumbo River in Venezuela, there is a lightning storm that has been there at least since the sixteenth century. On each of about 150 nights per year there are over 200 lightning strikes. The storm, which was first described by Francis Drake in 1595 complaining that the lightning gave away the position of his soldiers waiting to capture the city of Maracaibo, is fed by anomalies of atmospheric composition, and is a major source of the world’s ozone.

Solitons are stable waves which form in turbulent conditions. Rogue waves, spontaneously generated mountains of water, are believed to be phenomena of this kind, as is the Morning Glory Cloud, which forms over the Gulf of Carpenteria in North Australia. In studies of traffic flows, the term ‘jamiton‘ has been proposed (I’m not sure if that’s serious or not).


2 thoughts on “Invisible Liquid Topographies

  1. Would it be to reductive to suggest that the formal portrayal of a dynamic condition is best done by a dynamic medium? The conditions of Deleuze/DeLand’as virtual seem to have been harnessed most effectively by designers working with mediums in which form is dictated by the unfolding of processes and flux. Landscape architecture and digital media come to mind.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of this, Philip – I might come back to it with a new post referring it to Christopher Alexander’s pattern languages. For me it’s not so much a matter of portraying or representing a dynamic condition, as it is of understanding architecture’s role in a dynamic world (and as itself already dynamic). If we think only in terms of representation, architecture gets reduced to expressionism.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s