Convective cells form as fluid is heated from below. As the fluid near the bottom warms, its density decreases and buoyancy causes it to rise while cooler fluid descends to replace it. This fluid motion due to temperature gradients is called Rayleigh-Benard convection and the cells in which the motion occurs are called Benard cells. This particular type of convection is essentially what happens when a pot is placed on a hot stove, so the shapes are familiar. Similar shapes also form on the sun’s photosphere, where they are called granules.
Stuck here on Earth, it’s hard to know sometimes how greatly gravity affects the behavior of fluids. Fortunately, astronaut Don Pettit enjoys spending his free time on the International Space Station playing with physics. In his latest video, he shows some awesome examples of what is possible with a thin film of water—not a soap film like we make here on Earth—in microgravity. He demonstrates vibrational modes, droplet collision and coalescence, and some fascinating examples of Marangoni convection.