Many of the big problems we are facing involve far from equilibrium systems that entail a cataclysmic change. Climate, turbulence and earthquakes, developmental biology, aging death, and even evolution. These phenomena are rare (sometimes occurring only once) and are entirely irreversible. While understanding the physics of such irreversible processes is of both fundamental and practical importance, these problems also pose unique challenges. These challenges, as they manifest in turbulence, were beautifully portrayed by Richardson:
“Big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser whirls and so on to viscosity”
Lewis Fry Richardson (1922)
In his short verse, Richardson captures the essence of the turbulent cascade—the conveyance of kinetic energy across scales that underlies the universal dynamics of turbulent flows. Indeed, such conveyance of important physical quantities (energy, stress, frustration and even information) down and up a vast range of scales underlines the dynamics of many systems. The same applies to how a multi-contact frictional interface will form and break or how correlated defect structures determine the strength of a space-rocket, how an intricate network of creases will form when we crumple a thin sheet or when soda can is smashed. The challenge in understanding these systems is in capturing the events as they occur, keeping up with the dynamics on all scales and at all times. Here, I will review our work on several key irreversible system and introduce the new tools we developed to address their unique evolution and discuss the interesting physics we learned. Specifically, I will discuss: turbulence in the collision of vortex rings, buckling, and failure.