Complete measurement of helicity and its dynamics in vortex tubes
Helicity, a topological measure of the intertwining of vortices in a fluid flow, is a conserved quantity in inviscid fluids but can be dissipated by viscosity in real flows. Despite its relevance across a range of flows, helicity in real fluids remains poorly understood because the entire quantity is challenging to measure. We measured the total helicity of thin-core vortex tubes in water. For helical vortices that are stretched or compressed by a second vortex, we found conservation of total helicity. For an isolated helical vortex, we observed evolution toward and maintenance of a constant helicity state after the dissipation of twist helicity by viscosity. Our results show that helicity can remain constant even in a viscous fluid and provide an improved basis for understanding and manipulating helicity in real flows.