Turing's Sunflowers: Growing Alan Turing's Legacy

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Today, the findings of a major citizen science project, Turing’s Sunflowers, are being published in the open journal, Royal Society Open Science. This innovative project, which involved members of the public as well as scientists, built on work which was started by the mathematician Alan Turing before his death in 1954. The findings reveal new mathematical patterns found in the spirals of sunflower heads.

During the project, thousands of sunflowers were planted in honour of the mathematician Alan Turing as part of a research project led by the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and the Manchester Science Festival.

A hundred years after Turing was born, thousands of families, schools and growers from Manchester, the UK and around the world, got involved in the project to create the largest study of its kind. Over 500 sunflowers were analysed as part of the experiment, to celebrate Turing’s 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.

This experiment enabled the study authors, Professor Jonathan Swinton and Dr Erinma Ochu, to analyse sunflower heads to test the extent to which they follow the Fibonacci rule.

The findings back up the work that Turing carried out before his death. However, this citizen science experiment also builds upon his work, as the data submitted by growers reveals other types of patterns in the sunflower spirals that are not Fibonacci.

Sunflowers showing beautiful examples of the spiral patterning but no Fibonacci numbers are reported. It is these exceptions to the rule which are particularly interesting topics for future investigation. The data is now available to create new mathematical models to explain how these different number patterns occur in nature.

Professor Jonathan Swinton, a computational biologist, and the lead researcher, said: “This citizen science experiment has built on the work of Alan Turing and others and taken it further – the challenge to mathematicians now is creating models that take into account the full range of patterns, including the non-Fibonacci patterns that we have discovered in this dataset. We couldn’t have done this experiment without the contributions from growers all over the world”.

Dr Erinma Ochu, co-author and citizen science expert at The University of Manchester said: “We are really proud that this experiment has now been published and people can download the paper and see their contribution. This work is helping to grow Alan Turing’s legacy and inspire people around the world to get excited about maths and science.”

Professor Russell Foster, Chair of The Museum of Science and Industry and Fellow of The Royal Society said: 'It is incredibly important and fitting that the museum is driving forward initiatives like citizen science. This is excellent science undertaken by the public in collaboration with researchers and science communicators. The valuable knowledge being discovered by these projects contributes to the overall body of scientific knowledge and such collaborations represent an exciting new way for science to advance”.

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

For more information look up www.turingsunflowers.com


For further information and images please Kate Campbell-Payne, Communications Officer, Museum of Science and Industry on 0161 606 0176, or email kate.campbell-payne@msimanchester.org.uk

Notes to Editors


  • 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. 
  • Mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing studied spirals in sunflowers for the occurrence of Fibonacci numbers (see notes), but he died in 1954, before the work was complete. 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.
  • 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 it until recently.

About the project

  • Turing’s Sunflowers is a Museum of Science and Industry initiative in association with Manchester Science Festival and supported by The University of Manchester
  • Turing’s Sunflowers partners included the BBC, CityCo, Corridor Manchester, Creative Tourist, Manchester Garden City, Manchester City Council, Manchester Museum, The National Trust and The University of Manchester
  • Data analysis and preparation of this paper for publication were supported by the Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship (grant no. WT099887MA) and a Life Sciences Impact Award from the faculty of Life Sciences at The University of Manchester
  • Manchester Science Festival is proudly produced by the Museum of Science and Industry
  • Manchester Science Festival is the largest science festival in England. Dubbed ‘part laboratory, part playground’, the festival aims to be the most bold, creative and ambitious science festival in the UK. The Festival takes place annually in October. This year’s dates are Saturday 20 October – Sunday 30 October www.manchestersciencefestival.com

About the Museum of Science and Industry

The Museum of Science and Industry tells the story of where science met industry and the modern world began. Its mission is to inspire all its visitors, including future scientists and inventors, with the story of how ideas can change the world, from the industrial revolution to today and beyond. Manchester was one of the first global, industrial cities, and its epic rise, decline and resurrection has been echoed in countless other cities around the world. From textiles to computers, the objects and documents held in the museum’s collection tell stories of everyday life over the last 200 years, from light bulbs to locomotives.

The Museum of Science and Industry is part of the Science Museum Group, a family of museums which also includes the Science Museum in London, the National Railway Museum in York and Shildon, and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

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