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The award-winning scientific videography of senior lecturer Phred Petersen reveals the beauty of the world around us in super slow motion – and has a real impact in science. See the story behind his extraordinary videos below.


Turpentine on a hot plate

“I was originally a research chemist and I dabbled a bit in underwater photography. I was intrigued by the power of photography to let me see things that were outside of my normal perceptual range, and how that could help me understand the world around me.

I can capture video at up to 53,000 frames per second, as opposed to a standard camera, which takes 25 frames per second. This enables processes to be observed up to approximately 2,100 times slower than real life. It can take up to three days to set up a 25-nanosecond shot.

This sequence illustrates a liquid drop of turpentine onto a hot aluminium plate. Instead of wetting the surface, the drop spreads across the plate on a cushion of its own vapour, and then breaks up spectacularly.”


Chopper away and MAV takeoff

“For the most part, I am interested in seeing the way an event unfolds so I can more clearly understand what happens, and hopefully gain some insight into why it happens that way. I am fortunate in that many of the events I look at are intrinsically quite beautiful when you are able to see them in such detail. I am always walking the line between accurate scientific information and a visually interesting photograph.

Seen here is the ground plane rollup of air caused by the downwash from the startup of the rotors on a model helicopter (145mm in length). Alcohol vapour has a different refractive index than air and we can use this to trace the movement of the vapour caught in the airflow from the rotors.”


Coke 53KFPS 18 us

“In any situation, I strive to create the best image I can, but in some ways the “art” of the images is just icing on the cake. I must be mindful of the fact that any “artistic creativity” I put into the image must not compromise the veracity of the data that can be extracted from that image.

This sequence shows the escape of gas from a pressurised drink bottle from a toy rocket launcher. The bottle was launched at more than 80 km/h, and the gas jet was escaping at approximately 720 km/h.”


Vortex 5 and ruptured bubble

“I do not consider myself an artist – that title really belongs to the order that is nature. I am just very picky about how and when I look at things. Often the good moments don’t last very long.

This sequence shows the “collision” of a soap bubble being burst by a smoke ring.”


Quadcopter and smoke

“This sequence showing smoke rising from multiple incense sticks traces the flow around the rotors of a small quadcopter as it lifts off.

A sequence similar to this was used by the Country Fire Authority to help it optimise the position of air quality sensors so it could fly unmanned vehicles into bushfire areas to help assess the safety of these environments for ground personnel.

My work has many practical applications. I am involved in a study to look at environmental airflows in the workplace and the development of some virtual experiments for use in the physics curriculum at RMIT.”


Bottle and glasses

“This one is just for fun: what happens when you fire a marshmallow at a wine bottle at 450 km/h?

On a purely personal level, overall, this work feeds my own curiosity. That keeps me inspired to look even more closely at what we sometimes think of as ordinary.”

Phred Petersen graduated with a Master of Education in 2003 and is a senior lecturer in the Bachelor of Arts Photography program at RMIT. His work has been awarded the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Science Photography, has been featured in scientific journals and Cosmos magazine.