Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Reynolds number: A case-study about a simplified concept

Lately I've been re-reading some older papers on random walks in colloids to prepare for my dissertation proposal. One such paper from a 2007 PRL issue is entitled "Self-Motile Colloidal Particles: From Directed Propulsion to Random Walk." The first sentence reads
"The directed propulsion of small scale objects in water is problematic because of the combination of low Reynolds number and Brownian motion on these length scales."
This struck me as particularly interesting because I had never considered the Reynolds number as useful for describing particle transport within a fluid; rather I always imagined it as a number that somehow answered the yes-or-no question "is this bulk fluid turbulent when flowing?" This conceptualization of the Reynolds number comes from my fluid and thermal systems class in the sophomore engineering curriculum at Rose-Hulman. Since I am so much wiser now than I was then, I decided to re-examine this number and its importance.

After consulting Wikipedia, I now understand the Reynolds number as a dimensionless ratio of the magnitude of the inertial forces transmitted by the fluid to the viscous forces. In other words, higher Reynolds numbers means that the fluid molecules will all move in more-or-less the same direction for longer periods of time and over larger domains. If something perturbs a region of the fluid at very large Reynolds numbers, the perturbation is transmitted by a large-scale, correlated motion of the molecules. This is because the dissipation of the fluid does not suffice to damp this motion.

Going further, this picture explains why scientists who study complexity and emergence love turbulence. If a system can not quickly dampen a fluctuation (in this case a small pocket of correlated motion within the fluid), it grows chaotically into a large-scale turbulence. Often, ordered patterns of fluid motion emerge from this chaos, like in Benard cells. So the Reynolds number leads to much more than a simple answer to a yes-or-no question; the physics behind it describes the chaos and complexity of turbulence itself.

This introspective exercise also demonstrates the short-comings of over-simplifying a concept when teaching it to others. I was blind to the connections between Reynolds number, the microscopic behavior of a turbulent fluid, chaos, and emergence for so long* because I only considered the yes-or-not question above, not the concept behind the number.

*It's been 8 years since I took that class. Yikes, I'm getting old.