Thousands of sunflowers to be planted in honour of Alan Turing for MOSI-led experiment

Ruth Hazard | 23 March 2012
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A picture of a man, woman and child surrounded by sunflowers
Project Manager Erinma Ochu with Jonathan Swinton, a computational biologist who assisted with developing the experiment© Chris Foster/MOSI
Groups from all over Manchester are being encouraged to plant more than 3,000 sunflowers to help solve a mathematical riddle that renowned code breaker, Alan Turing, didn’t manage to crack before his death in 1954.

Turing is famous for helping to crack the Nazi Enigma Code during the Second World War, but later became fascinated with the mathematical patterns found in stems, leaves and seeds - a study known as phyllotaxis.

He was one of a number of scientists who tried to explain Fibonacci phyllotaxis, looking at how the spirals on sunflower heads often conform to a Fibonacci sequence.

This is where each number is the sum of the two before it (1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55, and so on).

Mathematicians at The University of Manchester hope to analyse thousands of sunflower heads to test the extent to which they follow the Fibonacci rule, announcing their results during the city’s Science Festival in October.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the wonder of maths in nature”, says Erinma Ochu, Project Manager of Turing’s Sunflowers.

A picture of children in school uniforms holding watering cans which they are using to pour water into plant pots filled with soil
Children planting their sunflowers for the Turing experiment
© Chris Foster/MOSI
“Communities coming together to plant sunflowers around the city 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.”

The mass-participation project is being led by the Museum of Science and Industry and Manchester Science Festival in partnership with The University of Manchester to celebrate the centenary year of Turing’s birth.

The last recorded experiment to test Fibonacci phyllotaxis in sunflowers was in 1938 by the Dutch academic JC Schoute, who studied 319 samples.

The experiment turned out to be inconclusive as a more substantial sample was required to provide the evidence needed.

“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," says Professor Jonathan Swinton, a computational biologist who is one of the project developers.

“The more people who can grow sunflowers, the more robust the experiment.”

Anyone can get involved by growing the flower over the summer. 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 for participants to take their seed heads to events around the city.

“Hands-on fun and experimenting are at the heart of Manchester Science Festival”, says Director of Manchester Science Festival, Natalie Ireland.

“Everyone that takes part can contribute to a real experiment. I can’t wait to see everyone’s sunflowers and the results.”

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