Digital artists to interpret Turing’s sunflower code

Thursday 17 May 2012

Digital artists and technology experts at the arts and technology conference Future Everything (16-19 May) are being encouraged to create new work inspired by data from the largest experiment ever to look at mathematical patterns in sunflowers.

Turing’s Sunflowers is a mass participation research project led by MOSI (Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester) and Manchester Science Festival, in association with The University of Manchester. The team wants to hear from technology experts and artists who can use the data captured from growing thousands of sunflowers, to create maps, data visualisations, music or even a dance sequence inspired by the mathematical sequences in nature.

Enigma codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing was born 100 years ago and studied the mathematical patterns in sunflowers, but he died in 1954 before the work was complete. Mathematicians at the University of Manchester hope to analyse 3000 sunflower heads for the occurrence of Fibonacci numbers (see notes) and they are hoping that computer scientists at Future Everything can help to creatively display the data they gather.

The results of their work 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 Centenary year.

Erinma Ochu, Project Manager of Turing’s Sunflowers, will speak at today’s Future Everything conference with Professor Jonathan Swinton, a computational biologist who helped to develop the project.

Erinma said: “Turing was a brilliant mathematician and a pioneer of modern computing, so it seems only fitting that modern technology experts at Future Everything should help to interpret the code in nature which he investigated. We’re hoping that computer or technology experts may be able to help us display data such as where the sunflowers are being grown, or the patterns emerging from Fibonacci number occurrence in sunflower heads. Perhaps there could even be a dance or a piece of music inspired by the Fibonacci sequence!”

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.

So far over 6000 sunflowers have been pledged to be grown as part of Turing’s Sunflowers, and sunflower seeds have been sent to all schools in Greater Manchester. A public planting day will be held on 20 May at MOSI, while schools and public events are planned in the next few months.

Future Everything Conference is held at MOSI from 16-19 May, with an art exhibition which runs until 10 June www.futureeverything.org

If you want to get involved in the Sunflower Digital Hack please contact e.ochu@mosi.org.uk

There is a public sunflower planting session at MOSI on 20 May between 2-4pm: Plant a sunflower at MOSI - seeds and soil provided or bring your seedling to plant in the Museum’s giant planters.

If you want to help grow sunflowers for Turing please register your interest on 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

• June 23 2012 is the Centenary of Alan Turing’s birth and there will be a number of international events throughout the year to celebrate Turing’s life and scientific impact http://www.mathcomp.leeds.ac.uk/turing2012/

• Alan Turing was one of a few scientists who have tried to explain ‘Fibonacci phyllotaxis’ (Fibonacci patterns found in stems, leaves and seeds), but he died in 1954, before the work was complete. 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.