31 Mesmerising Photos of Vortices: From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

By Attila Nagy on at

Vortices are beautiful and mysterious, found at every imaginable scale—from soap bubbles to black holes. They're so ubiquitous, in fact, that we tend to overlook them. But new research shows that studying the simplest vortices could glean surprising scientific insights.

Just look at the wonderful vortex shining in rainbow colours in the photo above. It was captured by a group of physicists at the University of Bordeaux, France, who heated soap bubbles from below to create large vortices like this one. The researchers discovered that these swirling vortices look like—and behave like—super storms you see in satellite weather images. They're related-and that means that simple soap vortices could help meteorologists understand the extreme weather phenomena that threaten millions of lives every year.

Scientists say that "vortices are prominent features of fluid flows and span length scales ranging from an insect's length to planetary sizes". The following images of natural or man made vortices, whirlpools, maelstroms and cyclones prove it—and we've ranked them from the absolute smallest to the (known!) largest. Enjoy.

31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

These dipolar vortices were generated in the wake of an adult water strider.
Photo: John Bush, MIT


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

An incense smoke vortex.
Photo: Philippe Teuwen


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

In your bathtub: a plughole vortex.
Photo: Dave Stokes


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

A vortex forms over a drainage ditch on a street covered in floodwaters.
Photo: Julio Cortez/AP


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

A whirlpool at a public garden pool.
Photo: Matthew Hunt


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Here's a laser light visualisation of the vortical flow above a F/A-18 model.
Photo: NASA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Flow patterns of fluorescent oil on a 5.8 per cent scale model of a hybrid wing body during wind tunnel tests.
Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center/Preston Martin


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Water swirling in salinity tanks at Britain's first-ever mainland desalination plant, which is known as the Thames Gateway Water Treatment Works, in Beckton, England.
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Researchers made the air vortex behind this landing plane visible using coloured smoke.
Photo: NASA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

HMS Dragon's Lynx helicopter fires infra red flares during an exercise over the Type 45 destroyer, leaving smoke vortices behind.
Photo: Dave Jenkins/UK Ministry of Defence


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

The Way of Vortex is a viewing platform installed at the bottom of the Oh-naruto Bridge in Tokushima, Japan. Tourists can admire the famous Naruto Whirlpools from here.
Image: Kounosu/Wikimedia Commons


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims move around the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

A Japanese TV screengrab of a fishing boat stuck in a giant whirlpool in Ibaraki during the 2011 tsunami.
Via imgur


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Swirls of green and red appear in the aurora over Yukon, Canada.
Image: David Cartier, Sr./NASA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

As air flows over and around objects in its path, spiraling eddies—known as Von Karman vortices—may form in the clouds. These vortices were created over the Aleutian Islands.
Photo: NASA/LandSat


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Low-level winds rushing over the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of northwestern Africa created these cloud vortex streets (aka Von Karman vortices). The Hubble Space Telescope is visible in the lower right corner.
Photo: NASA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Phytoplankton bloom in the North Atlantic. The vibrant colours are from tiny organisms—phytoplankton—that grow explosively, forming a giant arc hundreds of kilometres across, extending from west of Ireland to the Bay of Biscay.
Image: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

A large phytoplankton gyre—a very well-defined spiral eddy—is visible through the haze off the east coast of Japan.
Image: SeaWiFS Project/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/ORBIMAGE


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Typhoon Haiyan approaching the Philippines.
Composit image: 2013 EUMETSAT/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

A NASA computer model of the forceful winds of Hurricane Sandy.
Image: NASA/GSFC/William Putman


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Hurricane Danielle photographed by an Expedition 24 crew member on the International Space Station
Photo: NASA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Hurricane Felix photographed from the International Space Station.
Photo: NASA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

The northern ice cap of Mars.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Saturn's north polar hexagon. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft's wide-angle camera on November 27, 2012.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

The spinning vortex of Saturn's north polar storm.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Planet Jupiter: These oval-shaped vortices are located south of the Red Spot. The east to west dimension of the leftmost oval is 9000 kilometres—for reference, the diameter of the Earth is 12,756 km.
Photo: NASA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Jupiter's Great Red Spot and small cloud vortices
Photo: Voyager 2/NASA/JPL


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Neptune's Great Dark Spots, a series of anticyclonic storms, each about the same size as Earth.
Photo: NASA/JPL


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Spiral galaxy M81
Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Wisconsin/D.Pooley & CfA/A.Zezas; Optical: NASA/ESA/CfA/A.Zezas; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J.Huchra et al.; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA


31 Mesmerizing Photos of Vortices, From Soap Bubbles to Spiral Galaxies

Spiral galaxy NGC 4921.
Image: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA