HIT: Do three-letter acronyms always win out?

In 1997, I visited Delft Technical University and while I was there gave a course of lectures on turbulence theory. During these lectures, I mentioned that nowadays people seemed to refer to homogeneous, isotropic turbulence; whereas, when I started out, it was commonplace to simply say isotropic turbulence. The homogeneity was assumed, as a necessary condition for the isotropy. After the morning session, when we were making our way back for lunch, the postgrads who were attending, said to me `Three-letter acronyms always win out!’. Naturally, I pooh-poohed this, but many years on, I have to confess that I use the three-word name of the subject (it was the title of my 2014 book) and the acronym as well. Sometimes it is just a matter of euphony. But does it do any harm? Well, that’s an interesting question, but for the moment let us make a short digression.

In recent years I have been thinking a little about cosmology (well it makes a change from turbulence) and have learned about the cosmological principle, which states that the universe is both homogeneous and isotropic.Homogeneous means that its properties are independent of position and isotropic means that its properties are independent of orientation. In everyday life, one might think of a piece of metal or plastic being homogeneous and isotropic, in contrast to wood which has a grain. So naturally when I step out into my back garden in the evening, I can observe this for myself … or rather, I can’t. Actually the night sky looks anything but homogeneous, let alone isotropic. Are the cosmologists deluded?

The answer lies in the fact that the cosmological principle applies to averaged properties. Apparently it is necessary to take averages over huge volumes of space, each of which contains vast numbers of galaxies, for the concepts of homogeneity and isotropic to apply. Evidently, to paraphrase J. B. S. Haldane (and following in the footsteps of Werner Heisenberg) the universe is not only bigger than we think, it is bigger than we can think. So, if I want to behave like an idiot, I should just go about proclaiming: `The cosmologists are mad. You only have to look up at the night sky to see that their claims about the uniformity of the universe are completely unjustified.’ In doing so, I would be ignoring the details of what the cosmologists actually said, and surely no one would be so silly as to do that before launching into speech? Well, in turbulence that is exactly what many people do.

In turbulence, for many years we have had flow visualisations based on direct numerical simulation of the equations of fluid motion. These undoubtedly show a spotty distribution of various characteristics of interest, especially the dissipation rate, and this is generally taken as supporting the idea that turbulence intermittency has implications for statistical theories. Indeed, there are those who go further and see results like this as invalidating assumptions of homogeneity and isotropy. What they leave out of the reckoning is; first, that homogeneity and isotropy are properties of average quantities, in turbulence as in cosmology. Secondly, the flow visualisations are snapshots or single realisations. If you average over them, the spottiness disappears, as indeed it has to, in order to conform to homogeneity and isotropy, and the field becomes uniform and without structure.

If we go to the fountainhead for this subject, in Batchelor’s classic monograph on page 3 we may read: `The possibility of this further assumption of isotropy exists only when the turbulence is already homogeneous, for certain directions would be preferred by a lack of homogeneity’. Batchelor also points out that homogeneity and isotropy are average properties of the random variable, and in fact they are defined formally in terms of the probability distribution functional (the pdf, or equivalently its moments).

So this is where I answer my own question. It does matter. It is needed for clear thinking and the best possible understanding that we are careful about the fact that homogeneity is a necessary condition for isotropy. In the process we have to be careful about definitions. In that way one can perhaps avoid the egregious errors which occur in a recent paper, where it is argued that intermittency at the small scales is incompatible with homogeneity and so invalidates the energy-balance equation derived rigorously by averaging the equations of motion. Actually, intermittency is present at all scales and is part of the exact solution of the equations of motion. It is not in any way incompatible with the pdf, which must take a form appropriate to the intermittent (single-realization characteristic) and homogeneous (ensemble-averaged characteristic) nature of the random field. We shall return to a more specific way to this publication in later posts.

2 Replies to “HIT: Do three-letter acronyms always win out?”

  1. Homogeneous and Isotropic are important for formulating problems. Then one must consider the waves and vortex structures that arise in this homogeneous background. Once the turbulence and structures are strong there is not much one can do analytically or even conceptually. Once the 3D waves or turbulence are significant I do not see a way to proceed except by numerical/computer simulations.

    This is the situation I [we] have been facing in the TAE [ Tri Alpha Energy] plasma studies where the plasma chamber is 3D and the plasma pressure is same energy level as the magnetic field energy density. the core region the plasma currents reverse the direction of the magnetic field giving the system the name Reversed Field Pinch. This occurs in the magnetosphere and the solar plasmas and is a natural state — i think for dynamical plasmas. But, the description of the state seems to demand number simulations in 3D. Example, is the solar plasma emission that transforms and twists as it leaves the solar coronal and enters the magnetosphere and then hits the magnetic fields of the planets Venus, Earth, Mercury and especially Jupiter and Saturn.

    So Theory is Great Tool but for practical or realistic predictions it seems that often one must converted the fundamental equations [Newton and Maxwell etc] to 3D computer simulations and then diagnose the complex structures with other theoretical tools.

    So the one must learn first the basic laws of Newton and Maxwell and Einstein, then theory and then simulation methods! A big job that takes years of thinking , analysis and coding our high tech computers.

    1. Thank you for the comment. You have a really tough problem in plasma physics. HIT is studied in order to understand the purest turbulence physics. It doesn’t pretend to offer a starting point to really complicated practical problems. But it is actually quite applicable to atmospheric and oceanic flows and is studied for that purpose.Despite its very pure nature and relative simplicity it is riven by controversy!

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