Why Turing's Sunflowers?

Field of Sunflowers

Sunflowers are not only beautiful. They are fascinating. The spirals of seeds in sunflower heads often follow a special pattern of numbers called the Fibonacci sequence. Mathematical patterns can be found in other plants and animals too – everything from pine cones to a tiger’s stripes can be linked to mathematics.

This brilliant video gives a fantastic insight into where you can find fibonacci numbers in nature.

Alan Turing, perhaps best known for helping crack the Enigma Code during WW2, was fascinated by how maths works in nature. Turing noticed that the Fibonacci sequence often occurred in sunflower seed heads. He hoped that by studying the plant it might help us understand how plants grow, but died before he could finish his work. Our tribute to Turing is a mass experiment to grow 3,000 sunflowers. If enough people grow, we can collect sufficient data to put Turing’s and other scientists’ theories to the test. What better way to mark the mathematician’s centenary than to complete his final research project?

Taking part is easy. All participants need to do is grow a sunflower, keep the seed head and take part in the head count in September and October. For that, participants will be able to take their seed head to one of our special counting locations, or post their ‘spiral counts’ online. Researchers at The University of Manchester will then collate the data, and the results will be announced during Manchester Science Festival.

Everyone who submits data from their sunflower will be included as part of the Turing's Sunflowers group and referred to on academic publications that result from the experiment.

Professor Jonathan Swinton who conceived of the experiment tells us a bit more about the experiment in this video. On one level its just about growing a sunflower for yourself and looking to see if you get Fibonacci spirals, on another level its everyone coming together that is growing a sunflower and sharing that data so that we can look at how often Fibonacci numbers appear in sunflowers and on the final level its about providing additional data like the number of petals, the diameter of the head to contribute to and perhaps update mathematical models of how sunflowers grow.