We use high-resolution velocity measurements in a jet-stirred zero-mean-flow facility to investigate the topology and energy transfer properties of homogeneous turbulence over the Reynolds number range
–500. The probability distributions of the enstrophy and strain-rate fields show long tails associated with the most intense events, while the weaker events behave as random variables. The high-enstrophy and high-strain structures are shaped as tube-like and sheet-like objects, respectively, the latter often wrapped around the former. Both types of structures have thickness that scales in Kolmogorov units, and display self-similar topology over a wide range of scales. The small-scale turbulence activity is found to be strongly correlated with the large-scale activity, suggesting that the phenomenon of amplitude modulation (previously observed in advection-dominated shear flows) is not limited to specific production mechanisms. Observing the significant variations in spatially averaged enstrophy, we heuristically define hyperactive and sleeping states of the flow: these also correspond to, respectively, high and low levels of large-scale velocity gradients. Moreover, the hyperactive and sleeping states contribute very differently to the inter-scale energy flux, characterized via the nonlinear transfer term in the Kármán–Howarth–Monin equation. While the energy cascades to smaller scales along the jet-axis direction, a weaker but sizable inverse transfer is observed along the transverse direction; a behaviour so far only observed in spatially developing flows. The hyperactive states are characterized by very intense energy transfers, while the sleeping states account for weaker fluxes, largely directed from small to large scales. This implies that the form of energy cascade depends on the presence (or absence) of intense turbulent structures. These results are at odds with the classic concept of the energy cascade between adjacent scales, but are compatible with the view of a cascade in physical space.