Alan Turing’s Little-Known Contributions to Biology and His Mesmerizing Hand-Drawn Diagrams of Dappling Patterns
What the Fibonacci fascinations of daisies have to do with Kandinsky and mid-century graphic design.
By Maria Popova
Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) is celebrated as the godfather of modern computing, but what remains practically unknown is his seminal contribution to an obscure branch of biology: Turing dedicated a significant portion of his life to the study of morphogenesis — the biological process by which organisms take their shape. Fascinated by the presence of Fibonacci numbers in the leaf arrangements of plants and the color patterns of animals, he developed some of the earliest mathematical models of how biological shapes emerge — a pioneering effort to crack the algorithmic code of nature, correctly predicting the diffusion of chemical signals that determine the patterns of shape-development. All of this he did at a time before Cartwright, Watson, and Crick discovered the molecular structure of DNA — the dawn of molecular biology and biochemistry as we know them today.
As scholar Jonathan Swinton explains in Alan Turing: His Work and Impact (public library), this fascination began in Turing’s childhood. As a boy, he had been so entranced by daisies that his mother, railway engineer Sara Turing, once drew a sketch of little Alan gazing at the daisies instead of paying attention to his hockey game.
In his tragically curtailed lifetime, Turing published only one paper on the morphogenesis two years before his death. Some of his remaining work on the subject was published posthumously in the hefty third volume of his collected works and much remains tucked away in the archives of King’s College in Cambridge, with a portion available in the Turing Digital Archive.
Among the materials, donated in 1960 by Turing’s mother and later digitized by P.N. Furbank at the Archive, is a set of Turing’s hand-drawn, hand-colored morphogenesis diagrams — eerily beautiful visual explorations of dappling patterns, leaf arrangements, and daisy rings, somehow reminiscent of Kandinsky and mid-century graphic design.
Published March 1, 2016