Growing Alan Turing's legacy

Wednesday 18 May 2016 Tagged inAround the world, Counting, Weird & Wonderful

We’re proud to share exciting news about the Turing’s Sunflowers project, a citizen science experiment celebrating the legacy of Alan Turing in the centenary of his birth.

Thousands of sunflowers were planted by families, schools and community groups in honour of Turing as part of the study to explore number patterns in sunflowers and to help solve a mathematical riddle that Turing worked on before his death in 1954.

Famous for his code-breaking skills, which helped to crack the Enigma Code during the Second World War, and as a founder of computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing later became fascinated with the mathematical patterns found in stems, leaves and seeds - a study known as phyllotaxis.

The spirals in sunflower seed heads often conform to a Fibonacci number (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55, and so on, where each number is the sum of the two numbers before it). Turing was one of a number of scientists who tried to explain ‘Fibonacci phyllotaxis’, but he died before the work was complete.

Professor Jonathan Swinton who led on the study has now re-checked all of the sunflower pictures and data sent in by growers and, with the project coordinator, Dr Erinma Ochu, published the findings and the dataset in the academic Journal, Royal Society Open Science, which anyone can download.

Excitingly in addition to finding sunflowers with Fibonacci numbers, in a few cases, seedheads with non-Fibonacci numbers or ‘nearly’ Fibonacci numbers were discovered.

This paper, not only includes sunflower pictures submitted by you, the growers, but also provides a new dataset, which will allow theoretical explanations of Fibonacci phyllotaxis to be tested.

The challenge now, will be to create mathematical models of how sunflowers grow to take into account the rare exceptions to Fibonacci patterns.

We really want to thank every single grower who submitted data, pictures, cake  and photographic exhibitions.

To download the paper visit: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160091