Alan Turing is well known for his Enigma Code, but lesser known for his fascination with phyllotaxis—patterns found in leaves, stems and seeds. The spiral patterns of seeds on sunflower heads in Turing’s own garden set the stage for his Fibonacci curiosity, and after his death, the University of Manchester continued his work. They invited people to grow sunflowers and to photograph patterns, counting the spirals. This month marks the publication of this important study and Manchester 1824 explains the ramifications of the research.
This experiment enabled the study authors, Professor Jonathan Swinton and Dr Erinma Ochu, to analyse sunflower heads to test the extent to which they follow the Fibonacci rule. The findings back up the work that Turing carried out before his death. However, this citizen science experiment also builds upon his work, as the data submitted by growers reveals other types of patterns in the sunflower spirals that are not Fibonacci.
Whoa! So yes, most were Fibonacci, but the real work now starts in understanding the other renegade spirals. It sounds like the scientists and mathematicians have new exciting ground to cover. What is really wonderful is the way in which the research was carried out; over 500 sunflowers were analyzed, including those from citizen scientists around the world. The team at University of Manchester is encouraging people to check out the white paper and thanking participants for the photos.
If you missed out on this experiment you can always start examining plants yourself. What material would you choose? If you would like to focus on leaves, it can be fun taking some macro photographs with our USB Microscope. Just plug it into your computer and this illuminated camera will allow you to upload some amazing images of nature. It’s got 220X magnification and is the same one used by Lady Ada on the Ask an Engineer show. I’ve got one at home that I’ve used for a cool biosensor project, too, and have been very happy with it. So, consider this little cam for some decent documentation of your next project.