Sunflowers grown around the world for Turing

Thursday 21 June 2012

Sunflowers grown around the world for Turing

Sunflowers are beginning to bloom around the world for the centenary of the mathematician Alan Turing on 23 June. Over 9000 sunflowers are now being grown in 13 countries as part of Turing’s Sunflowers - a new research project led by MOSI (Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester) and Manchester Science Festival, in association with The University of Manchester and Manchester City Council.

Laaiba Khan (7) from Greenhill Primary School helped to plant sunflowers at MOSI

Laaiba Khan (7) from Greenhill Primary School helped to plant sunflowers at MOSI

Anyone can get involved in Turing’s Sunflowers project, which aims to collect data from at least 3000 sunflower heads and help solve a mathematical riddle in nature that Turing worked on before his death in 1954. It is part of international celebrations for Turing’s work this year, 100 years after he was born on 23 June 1912, and includes a drop-in event at Jodrell Bank’s Science Arena this Saturday.

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 the sunflower heads to test the extent to which they follow the Fibonacci rule, and the results will be announced during Manchester Science Festival (27 October – 4 November 2012).

Erinma Ochu, Project Manager of Turing’s Sunflowers said: “We’ve had an incredible response to our appeal to grow sunflowers to help continue Alan Turing’s fascinating study of maths in nature. There are now some 9000 sunflowers pledged to be grown around the world, and it’s particularly fitting that some of them are just beginning to bloom as his birthday approaches. We’ll be celebrating at Jodrell Bank’s Science Arena on 23 June, where visitors can learn about Turing through fun, interactive drop-in sessions and please send in your photos or films to our website.”

Turing’s Sunflowers is a mass-participation project which welcomes everyone. If you are already growing a sunflower you can also join the project, as seed heads will be gathered and analysed by scientists from the University from August. There will be a chance to bring your seed heads to events around the city and we actively encourage you send in your photos or films.

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.

Schools, community groups and businesses are already part of Turing’s Sunflowers project, as far afield as Jamaica and Australia.

If you want to get involved with Turing’s Sunflowers, register your sunflower or send in photos or film, look up www.turingsunflowers.com

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 and Manchester City Council.

• 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

• 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.