Friday, 16 March 2012

The wonder of maths in nature

Last week we were lucky enough to be joined by Jonathan Swinton, a Professor in Systems Biology who conceived of the Turing's Sunflower project for this year's festival.

Over several coffees in the MOSI cafe, Jonathan explained the mathematical concepts behind his idea to do a mass participatory experiment to build on the final work of Alan Turing in his centenary year.

World famous for his code-breaking skills and contributions to computing, Turing was also fascinated with the mathematical patterns found in plant stems, leaves and seeds, a study know as phyllotaxis. This was a key element to his research when he came to The University of Manchester.

Turing noticed, for example, that the number of spirals in the seed patterns of sunflower heads (and pine cones as Jonathan shows MOSI's marketing team in the picture) often conform to a number that appears in the mathematical sequence called the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…). Turing set out to explain how this might help us to understand the growth of plants. Sadly, he died before his work was complete and since then scientists have continued his work, but to properly test these hypotheses we need lots of data… and sunflowers are perfect for the job, so long as we can grow enough of them!

And that is the challenge... join us this spring to Grow a Turing Sunflower to celebrate his centenary and build on Turing's legacy to Manchester and indeed the world!

Up for the challenge? Sign up here.

  • To read up on Turing,  Jonathan recommends Andrew Hodges 'Enigma', recently republished to mark the centenary year.
  • Watch the ONE SHOW's take on the project featuring Jonathan and those all important spirals. Available on iplayer for a week (UK viewers only)


Jonathan said...

Can you explain exactly what hypotheses this will be testing? I though the Fibonacci series in plant primordia was established fact, readily demonstrated. So what is this sunflower project actually going to do? Demonstrate the phenomenon I assume. But what hypotheses need testing? What did Turing leave 'undone' that hasn't been done since? I've not found reference to this in the project pr so far - and so am a little suspicious this is juts a demo of curious facts, not really testing anything.

js229 said...

Jonathan, you ask a reasonable question. A commenter over at the Guardian asked a similar one, which I responded to over there, and which, though only a partial response, I hope begins to explain things.

Erinma said...

You can also watch a video explaining about what we are doing here: