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44

matter In motion

11Brownian
motion

Brownian motion describes the jerky movements of small


particles as they are buffeted by invisible water or gas
molecules. The botanist Robert Brown first spotted it as the
twitching of pollen particles on his wet microscope slides,
but it was Albert Einstein who described it mathematically.
Brownian motion explains how pollution diffuses through
still air or water and describes many random processes, from
floods to the stock market. Its unpredictable steps are linked
to :fractals.
The 19th-century botanist Rohert Brown was looking at pollen grains
under a microscope when he noticed that they did not sit still but jerked
around. For a moment he wondered if they were alive. Clearly they were
not, but were instead being knockep around by the motions of molecules
within the water chat Brown had used to coat the glass slides. The pollen
particles moved in random directions, sometimes a little and occasionally
quite a lot, and gradually s uffled across the slide following tracks that
could not be predicted. Other scientists puzzled over Brown's discovery,
which was named Brownian motion nfter him.

Random walk Brownian motion happens because a tiny pollen


particle receives a little kick every time a water molecule bumps into it.
The invisible water molecules are moving around and colliding with each
other all the time, and so they regularly bump into the pollen, jostling it.

Democritus postulates the existence


of atoms

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Brown observes pollen's
motion and proposes the
mechanism

Even though the pollen grain is hundreds of times bigger than a water
molecule, because the pollen is being hit at any instant by many
molecules, each moving in random directions, there is usually a force
imbalance which makes it move a little. This happens again and aga in
and so the buffeted pollen gain follows a jagged path, a hit like the route
of a staggering drunk. The pollen's path cannot be predicted in advance
because the water molecules collide at random and so the pollen may dart
off in any direction.
Brownian motion affects any small particlesuspended in a liqu id or gas.
Ir is exhibited by even quire large particles such as smoke particles that
jitterbug in air if viewed through a magnifying lern,. The size of the knocks
chat the particle receives, depends on the momentum of the molecules. Su
greater buffeting is seen when the molecules of the liqu1J or the gas are
heavy, or when they are moving fast, for instance if the fluid is hot.

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The mathematics bchinJ Brownian motion was pursued in the late


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19th cenrury but it was Einstein who hrought it to the attention of
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physicists in his paper of 1905, the same year he published his
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theory of relativity and an exp lanation of the photoelectric effect
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char won him his Nobe l Prize. Einstein borrowed the theory of heat, -rp
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which also was based on molecu lar collisions, to explain successfully
the exact motions chat Rrown had observeJ. On seeing that Brownian
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motion provided evidence for the existence of molecules in fluids,
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physicists were compelled to accept the theory of atoms which was still
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being questioned even as late as the beginning of the 20th century.

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Diffusion

Over time, Brownian motion may cause particles to move by


qu ite some distance, but never so far as if their paths were unimpedeJ and
they moved in straight lines This is because the randomness is just as
likely to send a particle hack on itself as move it forwards. So if a group
of particles was dropped in one spot into some liquid it would diffuse

The 'random walk' of


Brownian motion

1905

1960s

Einstein determines the mathematics


behind Brownian motion

Mandelbrot discovers fractals

:9

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outwards even if nobody stirred or there were no currents in the liquid.


Each particle would trund le off in its own way, causing the concentraled
droplet to spread out into a diffuse cloud. Such diffusion is important for
the spread of pollution from a source, such as aerosols in th e a cmosph ere.
Even if there is no wind at all the chemica ls will diffuse due to Brownian
motion a lone.

Fractals

The path followed by a particle undergoing Brownian motion


is an example of a fractal. Each step of the path can he of any size and in
any direction, but there is some overall pattern that emerges. This pattern
has structure within 1t on all scales, from rhe tiniest imaginable to quite
large modulations. This is the defin ing characteristic of a fractal.
Fractals were defined by Benoit Manc.ldbmt in the 1960s and 70s as a way
of q uantifying self-similar shapes. Shon for fractional dimemions, fractals
are patterns chat look essentially the same at any scale. If you zoom in on
a small piece of the pattern it looksindistinguishable from the larger scale
one, so you cannot tell what the magnification is just by looking at 1t.
These repeating and scale-less
patterns appear frequently in
nature, such as in the crinkles
of a coastline, the branches
of a tree, the fronds of a fem,
or the six-fold svmmetry of
a snowflake.
Fractional dimensions arise
because their length nr
dimension depends on the
scale at which you look. If you
measurethe distance between
rwo towns a long a coast you
might say it is 30 kilometres
between Land's End and
Mount's Bay, but if you
considered a ll the individual
rocks and measured around
each of them with a piece of
string, you might need a piece

of string a hundred kilomet res long to <lo this. If you went further and
measured around every grain of sand on the coast you might need a piece
of string hundreds of kilometres long. So the absolute length here depends
on the sca le on which you arc measuring. If you blur everything down to a
coarse level then you return to your fam iliar 30 kilometres. In this sense,
fracta l dimensions measure the roughness of something, be it a cloud, a
tree or a range of mountains. Many of these fractal shapes, such as the
outline of a coastline, can be produced by a series of random motion steps,
hence their link to Brownian motion.
The mathematics of Brownian motion, or a sequence of random
movements, can be used to generate fractal patterns that are useful in
many areas of science. They can create rough hewn virtual landscapes
of mountains, trees and clouds for computer games or he used m spatial
mapping programs that might help robots steer themselves across rough
terrain, by modeling its ridges and crevices. Doctors find them helpful in
medical imag ing when they need to analyse the structure of complex parts
of the body, such as the lungs, where hranch1ng srructures run from the
coarse co fine scale.
Brownian motion iJeas are also useful for prcJictmg risks anJ events in
the future chat are the summed outcome of many ranJom events, such as
floods anJ stock market fluctuations The stock market can be treateJ as a
portfolio of stocks whose pnccs vary randomly like the Brownian motion
of a set of molecules. Brownian motion abo figures in the modellmg of
other social processes ~uch as those in manufacturing and decision making.
The random movements llf Brownian motion have had a wide influence
and appearin many guises, not just in the dance of che leaves in a nice hot
cup of tea.

the condensed idea


An invisible
microscopic
ic dance