Turing's Sunflowers

Professor Swinton worked in collaboration with the University of Manchester’s School of Mathematics, to test the theory of Manchester-based computer pioneer Alan Turing, who died in 1954.

Measuring how tall a sunflower is growing is a fun maths activity for children, so when Professor Jonathan Swinton approached Manchester city’s Museum of Science and Industry, with his idea to record the patterns of growth of the seed heads, they agreed it was a perfect way to get the public involved in the city’s Science Festival. Volunteers round the world kept video diaries of their sunflowers' development. It was the largest ever research project into mathematical patterns in flowers and has proven a link between number sequences and nature. 

Swinton worked in collaboration with the University of Manchester’s School of Mathematics, to test the theory of Manchester-based computer pioneer Alan Turing, who died in 1954. The research has shown that most spirals of seeds in the flowers conformed to patterns and they are hoping to use the data to understand how the mathematical patterns observed and the plant’s growth are linked.

Biggest dataset

Professor Swinton specialises in developing mathematical tools to understand biology. His interest in Alan Turing began when he was an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, where Turing had been a fellow. He wanted to raise awareness of Turing’s mathematical biology and his work on Fibonacci numbers and sunflowers seemed the obvious route.

Swinton explains, ‘there were only two previous data sets, one from the nineteenth century and one from the beginning of the twentieth century, so the scientific goal was to collect as many sunflower heads as they could. We ended up with about 500. In the Manchester data set, we found that 80% of the time you get these Fibonacci patterns.’

More research needed

Swinton explains that the project was about the public doing the counting – most people had never heard of this fact about Fibonacci numbers, or didn’t know where to look for it. He thinks other festivals could run this project and it would be very valuable and they would add an extra little piece to the scientific wall of the datasets.  

While they found good evidence for the Fibonacci patterns in sunflowers, Swinton points out that there are other number sequences such as Lucas numbers to investigate and to find out how heritable these patterns are. He hopes other researchers will be inspired to find out why these mathematical sequences occur in nature.

Learn English Science Activities

Why not do a language activity based on this cubed story, Turing's Sunflowers