Turing’s centenial flowers

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

When flowers are men­tioned in the con­text of Alan Turing (OBE, FRS, maths genius, tor­tured soul, ‘an enigma inside a colos­sus’, and one of the main mem­bers of the group of Bletchley Park code-breakers who were instru­mental in decod­ing the Nazis’ Enigma code and thereby cred­ited with con­sid­er­ably short­en­ing the Second World War and sav­ing many thou­sand of lives), the more know­ledge­able may think of Tommy Flowers. Tommy Flowers (MBE) worked along­side Turing and designed the Colossus com­puter used at Bletchley to help solve encryp­ted German mes­sages. But this item con­cerns flowers of a more botan­ical kind: Sunflowers. Amongst Turing’s many interests was pat­tern form­a­tion – morpho­gen­esis – which he expounded upon in one of his sev­eral sem­inal papers. In par­tic­u­lar, towards the end of his life, he was inter­ested in the pat­terns on sun­flower heads and believed they fea­tured Fibonacci num­bers. The Fibonacci sequence is named in hon­our of Leonard of Pisa (aka Fibonacci) and is the numer­ical sequence that pro­ceeds 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… (each num­ber is the sum of the pre­vi­ous two), and which is rep­res­en­ted in a range of bio­lo­gical phe­nom­ena. Sadly – and tra­gic­ally – Turing died in 1954 before he could com­plete this work. But, by way of cel­eb­rat­ing the cen­ten­ary of his birth, the Turing Sunflower Project was con­ceived, which aimed to col­lect suf­fi­cient data to put Turing’s (and other sci­ent­ists’) the­or­ies to the test. And the good news is that ‘Alan Turing was right’: ‘sun­flower spir­als clearly show a math­em­at­ical sequence in most cases, accord­ing to early res­ults’. The res­ults will be pub­lished shortly, accord­ing to Jonathan Swinton, one of the main instig­at­ors behind the pro­ject. And in their own way ‘Turing’s sun­flowers’ may even rival those of another ‘troubled soul’, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh – also believed to have taken his own life when the bal­ance of his mind was prob­ably dis­turbed. If you now have a yearn­ing to find out more about phyl­lo­taxy (which, des­pite its pre­fix, is not just about leaves!), may I recom­mend Adler et al.’s review art­icle ‘A his­tory of the study of phyl­lo­taxis’? For more on Turing, try Andrew Hodges’ ‘The Alan Turing Home Page’.

[I wish to thank the fol­low­ing for help in devel­op­ing this item: Jeff Moorby (who star­ted this par­tic­u­lar ball rolling in the first place!), the Annals’ own Dave Frost and Pat Heslop-Harrison, and that fab­ulous Irish cab­bie, Phil O’Taxis]

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

1 Response

  1. Pat says:

    If you still believe that Turing was a “tor­tured soul” who took his own life you should read this art­icle on the BBC:


    The day of the trial was by no means disagreeable.

    Whilst in cus­tody with the other crim­in­als, I had a very agree­able sense of irre­spons­ib­il­ity, rather like being back at school.”

    Turing had a bril­liantly ana­lytic mind and I don’t think he mis­took the state of soci­ety at the time for the way things should be. He was not a victim.

    He was, how­ever, as I have been, a care­less exper­i­menter who took his life in his hands dur­ing the pur­suit of an inter­est­ing hobby. One can get car­ried away with one’s enthu­si­asms even when potent pois­ons are being used.

    Turing was houn­ded,” he told the BBC, adding: “Yet he remained cheer­ful and humorous.”

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