'The memory of life itself': Bénard's cells and the cinematography of self-organization

In 1900, the physicist Henri Bénard exhibited the spontaneous formation of cells in a layer of liquid heated from below. Six or seven decades later, drastic reinterpretations of this experiment formed an important component of ‘chaos theory’. This paper therefore is an attempt at writing the history of this experiment, its long neglect and its rediscovery. It examines Bénard’s experiments from three different perspectives. First, his results are viewed in the light of the relation between experimental and mathematical approaches in fluid mechanics, leading to a re-examination of the long-term reception of Bénard’s results among fluid dynamicists up to the chaos craze, whereby the traditional emphasis placed on mathematical physics is counterbalanced by greater attention to experimental approaches. Second, we focus on Bénard’s own way of using his results as analogies that could help grasp something about the reason why inorganic matter may structure itself in ways reminiscent of living forms. This is shown to resonate strongly with Prigogine’s work in the 1960s and 1970s. Third, Bénard’s adoption of the cinematograph as his preferred experimental instrument is interpreted as having reinforced his long-misunderstood belief that he had exhibited a form of self-organization essential to the understanding of life.Keywords: Bénard cells; Henri Poincaré; Chaos; Fluid mechanics; Cinematograph; Self-organization
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