Alan Turing is one of humanity's bonafide heroes. During World War II, he cracked the German Enigma code, a breakthrough which many historians believe won the war for the Allies. He also devised a test for determining artificial intelligence -- about 50 years before artificial intelligence even existed.
One of Turing's most fascinating achievements concerns his lifelong obsession with the relationship between mathematics and organic life. Turing wanted to create a theory that would explain why certain patterns recur over and over in the natural world -- the spiral pattern of petals on a flower, say, or the stripes on a zebra.
Specifically, he was interested in embryology and how a small, uniform batch of cells could morph into an infinity of complex forms. Turing was convinced that some mathematical principle was lurking deep within this mystery.
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And so, in 1952, Turing published a paper called "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis" in which he proposed a mathematical model called the reaction-diffusion system. He posited that substances called morphogens act upon an embryo throughout its development, causing cells around them to transform in a kind of biological cascade. That process ultimately creates those recurring patterns we see in nature: spots, stripes, whorls and especially spirals.
Tragically, Turing never got to finish his thoughts. He took his own life in 1954, following a conviction by British authorities for "gross indecency" -- the charge for being openly gay in an era of intolerance. For a long time, his work on morphogens was essentially forgotten.
In the sixty years since, however, empirical data has emerged that suggests Turing was, as usual, on to something. In particular, a 2012 study directly applied Turing's theory to the formation of mouse embryos, and found evidence of those elusive patterns and mathematical principles.
Turing was a mathematical genius who changed the very trajectory of the world -- and it turns out he's still teaching us things.
-- Glenn McDonald
Wired: Alan Turing's Patterns In Nature, And Beyond
Mosaic Science: How The Zebra Got Its Stripes, With Alan Turing
Imperial War Museums: How Alan Turing Cracked The Enigma Code