Citizen scientists honour Alan Turing with sunflowers

Amy Freeborn

I enjoy gardening, I have an amateur interest in science and I am always keen to get involved in... well, worthwhile things. So when I heard about the Turing's Sunflowers project, naturally I was eager to take part.

Turing's Sunflowers is a citizen science experiment in the name of code-breaker and computer scientist Alan Turing. Towards the end of his career (the end of his life) Turing became fascinated by the patterns that occurred in nature, and used mathematics to explore and try to predict those patterns, in a study known as phyllotaxis.

He developed a theory that the seeds in a sunflower head conform to the Fibonacci code, a sequence of numbers in which the next figure is the sum of the previous two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on.

Turing wrote about phyllotaxis in a seminal paper in 1951, entitled 'The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis', but he died before he could complete his research into sunflowers.

It is a fitting tribute that in this, the centenary year of his birth, people from around the UK, and indeed the world, are embracing science, maths and nature to complete Turing's final experiment.

Led by the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry and Manchester Science Festival, in association with The University of Manchester (the last institution at which Turing worked before his death in 1954), the initial aim of the Turing's Sunflowers project was to collect 3000 sunflower heads for analysis.

But by the end of May - the optimum sunflower seed-planting period - three times that many flowers had been pledged by people from 13 different countries.

"We've had an incredible response to our appeal to grow sunflowers to help continue Alan Turing's fascinating study of maths in nature," says project manager Erinma Ochu.

"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 Turing's birthday approaches on 23 June."

I have pledged to grow 25 flowers - 20 of which are in my little front garden, and another half a dozen in flower pots out the back.

Patterns aside, sunflowers are an amazing plant. I sowed my seeds on a Saturday and by the following Thursday the sprouts had emerged at least half an inch out of the soil. In the warm spell at the beginning of this week my sprouts almost doubled in size in 48 hours.

From around September, the end of the flowering season, participants will be asked to document or drop-off their flower heads at collection points. Mathematicians at the University of Manchester will then analyse the results to test the extent to which sunflowers follow the Fibonacci code, and try to explain why it occurs and the reasons why sometimes it doesn't.

The results, as well as a documentary about this inspiring mass-participation project put together with the BBC Outreach program, will be presented during the Manchester Science Festival from 27 October - 4 November 2012.