Grow sunflowers for mass Turing experiment

Thursday 22 March 2012

Thousands of sunflowers will be planted in honour of the mathematician Alan Turing 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 and help solve a mathematical riddle that he worked on before his death in 1954.

Alan Turing is 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, but later he 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 (see notes), and Turing was one of a number of scientists who tried to explain ‘Fibonacci phyllotaxis’, but he died before the work was complete.

Mathematicians at The University of Manchester hope to analyse thousands of sunflower heads to test the extent to which they follow the Fibonacci rule, to explain why this happens and the reasons why they sometimes don’t. The results will be announced during Manchester Science Festival (27 October – 4 November 2012) alongside a host of cultural events across Greater Manchester to celebrate Turing’s legacy in his Centenary year.

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’s Sunflowers will be a mass-participation project led by MOSI and Manchester Science Festival in partnership with The University of Manchester and a host of local partners. Everyone can get involved to grow sunflowers from now and over the summer, and seed heads will be gathered and analysed by scientists from the University from August. There will be community, schools and corporate planting sessions, and a chance to bring your seed heads to events around the city or send in photos.

Natalie Ireland, Manchester Science Festival Director said:
“Hands-on fun and experimenting are at the heart of Manchester Science Festival. Everyone that takes part can contribute to a real experiment. Sunflowers will pop up all over the city, at venues like MOSI - I can’t wait to see everyone’s sunflowers and the results.”

The observation of Fibonacci phyllotaxis goes back hundreds of years and has been revisited by a number of others as well as Alan Turing. The last recorded experiment to test Fibonacci phyllotaxis in sunflowers was in 1938 by the Dutch academic JC Schoute, who studied 319 samples, but a bigger sample is needed to provide more conclusive evidence.

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.

If you want to help grow sunflowers for Turing contact: sunflowers@mosi.org.uk  or register your interest via the Manchester Science Festival website: http://www.manchestersciencefestival.com/register/  

For media enquiries please contact: Sarah Roe, MOSI press and publicity officer on
Tel: 0161 606 0176
M: 07847 372647

Notes to editors

  • Turing’s Sunflowers is a MOSI initiative in association with Manchester Science Festival and supported by The University of Manchester
  • Current Turing’s Sunflowers partners include the BBC, CityCo, Corridor Manchester, Creative Tourist, Manchester Garden City, Manchester City Council, Manchester Museum, The National Trust and The University of Manchester
  • June 23 2012 is the Centenary of Alan Turing’s birth and there will be a number of major events throughout the year to celebrate Turing’s life and scientific impact
  • Fibonacci numbers are the sequence 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.
  • Manchester Science Festival explores the most exciting ideas, discoveries and possibilities of our time through an ambitious and cutting-edge programme. Engaging and inspiring families, adults, young people and communities with science, Manchester Science Festival takes place annually at the end of October. This year the dates are Saturday 27 October – Sunday 4 November: www.manchestersciencefestival.com
  • MOSI leads the coordination of the annual Manchester Science Festival
  • MOSI is the winner of the Large Visitor Attraction of the Year in the 2011 Manchester Tourism Awards.