Wednesday, 19 October 2011

An Elephant Packed Into a Cell?

Alan Turing and Morphogenesis
Sunday 23 October
£5 (£3 concessions). Booking advised

Morphogenesis, or the process by which bodies are formed from single cells, is one of the major mysteries of biology. Starting from a single cell, many organisms undergo morphogenesis to become 3D bodies. And that initial single cell does not have an accurate map of what the body will eventually look like—so how does a body form? How is the body of an elephant coded in a single tiny cell?

Alan Turing, in his lesser-known late work, showed theoretically how two types of chemicals might diffuse and react with each other to generate spatial patterns. The equations derived in the 1950s are still relevant today, as biologists are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on during the process of morphogenesis.

To mark the publication of Litmus, Comma's latest science-into-fiction project, Manchester author Jane Rogers and MMU scientist Dr Martyn Amos will discuss the final theorem of one of Britain's greatest scientists, Alan Turing.

Nija Dalal sat down with Martyn Amos to discuss Turing's biological ideas, and the interconnection between science and literature...

Who was Alan Turing?
Well, he’s probably most famous for cracking the Enigma Code. That work directly shortened the war by 2-3 years, so imagine the number of lives he saved! He’s also well-known for his untimely death, as a result of persecution for being homosexual, and he developed the Turing Test for determining if a computer has artificial intelligence. Basically, if a human talks to it and believes the computer is human, then the computer has artificial intelligence.

Turing’s biggest influence is in computability. He essentially founded the field of Computer Science, by placing it in a rigourous framework. Before him, computers were ad hoc machines, put together from components usually for a specific purpose.

He realized we could make a computer that is abstract. A machine that is designed for any type of computation. He revolutionized computation by realizing that computation is not connected to any one thing.

What is Morphogenesis?
This is his least well-known work, probably. It’s what he was working on just before he died.

Alan Turing had a long-standing interest in biology, nature, and natural history, so he grew interested in morphogenesis, which is the process by which a small package (initially just one cell) unwraps itself to form a body. What is in the encoding of a cell that instructs the formation of a 3D body?

Turing believed it was the interaction of chemicals, and he was the first person to apply mathematics to biology.

I think it’s important to recognize that he was truly a cross-disciplinary thinker. He applied engineering principles to answer a biological question!

So, what is Turing’s Theorem of Morphogenesis?
Basically, the theorem uses set of equations that predict the chemical interaction that create the stable patterns we see in nature, like a leopard’s spots. The flux and interactions of the chemicals give rise to stable patterns.

What’s amazing is that when Turing’s equations are rendered visually using computer simulations, we can see the patterns Turing’s equations predict, and they’re familiar. They’re out there, in nature, in the stripes and whorls of animal patterns! They’re called Turing patterns now. But he didn’t have the computational ability to see the patterns predicted by his own equations back then! Turing never saw the Turing patterns! His work was entirely theoretical.

Turing’s Morphogenesis theorem is still very controversial, though. Just because natural patterns look a lot like Turing patterns doesn’t mean they are being caused by Turing’s hypothesized chemical diffusion-reaction interactions. A lot of scientists don’t believe Turing had it right.

You’ll be discussing the relationship between science and literature… can you tell us a little more about that?
Comma Press is publishing an anthology called Litmus, which is about taking scientific ideas and putting them in short stories. Jane Rogers wrote a short story for Litmus, which has a thread of morphogenesis running through it. It’s a really beautiful story, and it shows how science and literature can come together in a way that isn’t necessarily science-fiction… more like science in fiction!

What do you want people to take away from this discussion?
I think I’d like them to know more about Turing and his work, to challenge the idea of him being just a maths nerd. I think it would be great if people came away with a richer understanding of his contribution and a richer sense of him as a human being… and maybe even be a little angry at how he was treated.

A sense of injustice is well-placed when you realize how amazing a thinker he was, and how poorly he was compensated for his immense contributions to knowledge and science.

Curious to learn more about the science behind morphogenesis and see some of those Turing patterns? Here’s a great article with lots of interesting images!

This event is hosted in conjunction with the Manchester Literature Festival.

The Manchester Science Festival 2011 presents
Alan Turing and Morphogenesis
36-40 Edge St, Manchester, Greater Manchester M4 1, UK
Sunday 23 October
2pm – 3pm
£5 (£3 concessions). Booking advised.

1 comment:

krg said...

Fascinating! But is it really true that MMU has a professor called 'Martyn Amos'?

That seems like all the science/literature link one needs!