Exploring Alan Turing’s Fascination with Flowers

This is going to be a simple post for Valentine’s Day. I’ve been doing research into Alan Turing’s work in mathematical biology. I found his work on animal patterns interesting for sure. I think one of those questions we is how the Leopard got its spots. Turing had an answer for that.

Yet, what I find more fascinating is Alan Turing’s interest in the structure of flowers. There is a sketch of Turing as a child in a field with children playing hockey. He is standing on his own staring at a cluster of daises. This image was created by his mother Sarah. You can see it in this article, I didn’t want to re-post it here due to copyright issues.

What is in particular interesting is that I have discovered a paper published after Turing’s death that is all about the development of daisies. I’m still looking into it to understand the best that I can. But, in my headcanon, that image of Turing as a child is the genesis for this paper written later in his life. What a profound thought that childhood curiosity led to a mathematical solution for how daisies grow.

Daisies weren’t the only flower that Turing was interested in. He was conducting research in what is referred to as Fibonacci phyllotaxis. This is the observation that plant structures arrange themselves in patterns of Fibonacci numbers! Phyllotaxis refers to how leaves arrange themselves around the plant stem.

There was a great Numberphile video on this. To celebrate Alan Turing’s centennial birthday there was a celebration called Turing Year. As part of this, all people were encouraged to plant sunflowers. This is because the spiral of seeds of a sunflower tends to be a Fibonacci number. Turing thought studying this could lead to interesting insights into the development of plants.

YouTube player

I find this so endearing. In college, when my friends would have a bad day, I would give them sunflowers to cheer them up. I found it so hard to be sad when I see an image of a sunflower. Their yellow hue is so cheery. They are my second favorite flower after the stargazer lily.

I’m planning on writing something way more in-depth but I thought this was a great subject for the upcoming holiday.