In this paper, we prove the spectral instability of general symmetric shear flows of the incompressible Navier-Stokes equations at a high Reynolds number in a two-dimensional channel. This includes shear flows that are spectrally stable to the corresponding Euler equations, and thus for the first time, provides a complete mathematical proof of the viscous destabilization phenomenon, pointed out by Heisenberg (1924) , C.C. Lin (1944)  and Tollmien (1947) , among others. Precisely, we construct exact unstable eigenvalues and eigenfunctions of the linearized Navier-Stokes equations around symmetric shear flows, showing that the solution could grow slowly at the rate of et/αR, where R is the sufficiently large Reynolds number and α is the small spatial frequency that remains between lower and upper marginal stability curves: αlow(R)≈R-1/7 and αup(R)≈R-1/11. We introduce a new, operator-based approach, which avoids to deal with matching inner and outer asymptotic expansions, but instead involves a careful study of singularity in the critical layers by deriving pointwise bounds on the Green function of the corresponding Rayleigh and Airy operators.
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