The route to turbulence in pipe flow is a complex, nonlinear, spatiotemporal process for which an increasingly clear understanding has emerged in recent years. This paper presents a theoretical perspective on the problem, focusing on what can be understood from relatively few physical features and models that encompass these features. The paper proceeds step-by-step with increasing detail about the transition process, first discussing the relationship to phase transitions and then exploiting an even deeper connection between pipe flow and excitable and bistable media. In the end a picture emerges for all stages of the transition process, from transient turbulence, to the onset of sustained turbulence in a percolation transition, to the modest and then rapid expansion of turbulence, ultimately leading to fully turbulent pipe flow.
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