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Plant sunflowers and help solve an unfinished Turing experiment

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Recognise that sequence of numbers?

It is called the ‘Fibonacci phyllotaxis’ and computer pioneer Alan Turing was working to solve a mathematical riddle that he worked on before his death in 1954.

Now thousands of sunflowers will be planted in his honour as part of a new research project led by MOSI (Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester) and Manchester Science Festival, in association with The University of Manchester.

A hundred years after Turing was born families, schools, community groups and businesses will be encouraged to plant over 3000 sunflowers to celebrate his work.

Turing became fascinated with the mathematical patterns found in stems, leaves and seeds – a study known as phyllotaxis.

The spirals on sunflower heads often conform to a Fibonacci number and Turing was one of a number of scientists who tried to explain ‘Fibonacci phyllotaxis’, but he died before the work was complete.

Erinma Ochu, Project Manager of Turing’s Sunflowers said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the wonder of maths in nature. Communities coming together to plant sunflowers around the city and beyond is a fitting celebration of the work of Alan Turing, and they will also provide the missing evidence to test his little-known theories about Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers.”

Professor Jonathan Swinton, a computational biologist, and one of the project developers, said: “Turing knew about sunflower heads containing Fibonacci numbers and he tried to use it as a clue to help understand how plants grow. Since then other scientists believe that Turing’s explanation of why this happens in sunflowers is along the right lines but we need to test this out on a big dataset, so the more people who can grow sunflowers, the more robust the experiment!”

Turing wrote a seminal paper in 1951 on form in biology and went on to work on a specific theory to explain the appearance of Fibonacci numbers in plant structures, notably spirals on sunflower heads. His only surviving programs for the Manchester Mk1 computer were devoted to solving this problem. Yet the work was unfinished at his death and was little known about until recently.

So get planting

If you want to help grow sunflowers for Turing contact: sunflowers@mosi.org.uk

or register your interest via the Manchester Science Festival website:

Thanks to Inside the M60’ss website for this story