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Alan Turing and Life’s Enigma and Turing’s Sunflowers

April 11, 2012

The latest exhibition at the Manchester Museum, is Alan Turing and his Life’s Enigma. It’s Inspired by 1950s design and combining Alan Turing’s notes with museum objects, this exhibition documents Turing’s investigation into one of the great mysteries of nature: how complex shapes and patterns arise from simple balls of cells.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century. Best known as a pioneer in the development of the computer and for helping crack the Enigma code during World War II, Alan Turing also made a single contribution to biology. From 1948 until his death in 1954, Turing worked on the early computers at The University of Manchester, working in the building next door to The Manchester Museum. At a time when people knew very little about genetics or DNA, Turing used the early computer to try to crack how a soup of cells and chemicals could transform itself and grow into complex natural shapes – a subject known as morphogenesis. In an incredible article published in 1952, Turing suggested that everything from the spots and stripes on animals to the arrangement of pine cones and flowers could be explained by the interactions between two chemicals. Turing’s work in this area is intimately connected with the timing of his trial and conviction for homosexuality, and his subsequent ‘treatment’ with a course of chemical injections.

Turing’s Sunflowers is a project led by Manchester Science Festival and MOSI (Museum of Science & Industry) for a mass planting of sunflowers as part of an experiment to solve the mathematical riddle that Turing worked on before his death in 1954. Families to the Manchester Museum over the Easter holidays have been planting sunflowers to grow at home. If you would like to participate in this mass experiment you can find out more by visiting the Manchester Science Festival website. People will be growing sunflowers in allotments, parks and gardens across Manchester. There will be on-line resources and events later in the year to help you count the spirals in the sunflower heads.

Here at the Manchester Museum we’ll be planting sunflowers in our allotment – hopefully there will be enough sun in the courtyard for them to grow tall.

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