Tackling Turbulence

John Gibson snags CAREER award

Wednesday, March 9, 2016
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Mathematician John Gibson
Assistant professor of mathematics John Gibson, recipient of a NSF CAREER award.

CAREER award recipient John Gibson may be a mathematician, but his work tackles a problem he calls one of the biggest in physics and engineering: turbulence.

While the term conjures seatbelt-fastening air travel for most of us, Gibson explains that he’s focused on a type of turbulence akin to pushing water down a pipe. Moving slowly, the flow is smooth. “But if you start to push it too fast, that configuration becomes unstable, and that’s the big engineering problem,” he says. “Once the flow goes turbulent, it takes many times more energy to push the same amount of water down the pipe.”

Gibson’s work, which could have implications for energy consumption, focuses on the equations that describe fluid flow and the nature of turbulence. While people have known the equations for hundreds of years, they’re so difficult their implications are still not fully understood.

“A turbulent flow is like smoke swirling out of a smokestack, with all sorts of whorls and eddies,” he says. “This is a very complex process, with certain reccurring patterns. I’m developing a new mathematical framework to describe and analyze those patterns that you see over and over.”

It’s a problem, he says, that’s confounded mathematicians, physicists and engineers for more than a century. “I’m not going to crack this nut overnight, but along with other researchers I've made some real headway in the last 10 years,” he says. His CAREER award will fund graduate and undergraduate research assistants to join him in the quest for understanding. It will also support Gibson's efforts to enhance the scientific computing curriculum at UNH with the innovative Julia programming language.

An assistant professor in UNH’s mathematics and statistics department as well as the interdisciplinary integrated applied mathematics program, Gibson collaborates with engineering colleagues also interested in turbulent flows. “It’s an absolute cluster of strength here at UNH,” he says, naming mechanical engineering professors Greg Chini, Diane Foster, Joe Klewicki, Chris White and Martin Wosnick. “We have really great and complementary sets of skills.”

Gibson showers praise on his academic home as well. “We have a powerhouse math department,” he says. “I’m really proud to be a part of it.”

Photographer: 
Brooks Payette | College of Engineering and Physical Sciences