Turing: The Final Years
August 7, 2006 12:00 AM   Subscribe

Among his collected works, in the few, short years before mathematician Alan Turing was driven to suicide, he published "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis", theorizing how a standing wave-like distribution of "cannibal" and "missionary" chemicals might explain how plants and animals develop their shape and pigmentation. Blogger Jonathan Swinton focuses on this more obscure aspect of Turing's research, and reviews some of his posthumous and unpublished efforts — including one of the earliest known examples of digital computation applied to the field of biology.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (10 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
That's some great stuff to read. The patterns generated by reaction-diffusion patterns are nicely illustrated in Ian Stewart's What shape is a snowflake? Some pretty examples here.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 3:10 AM on August 7, 2006

Oooh, this is very good. But start sixth link: "this more obscure aspect".
posted by orthogonality at 3:17 AM on August 7, 2006

In a strange coincidence, I'd just downloaded a paper on this very topic James Murray's How the leopard got its spots from Scientific American in 1988 -- PDF
posted by jamespake at 3:39 AM on August 7, 2006

If time travel were possible, the first thing I would do would be to go back and save Alan Turing. That poor brilliant man.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:18 AM on August 7, 2006

I remember using these systems in my master thesis (Dutch PDF but it has some moderately nice pictures), which was about using cellular automata to synthesize textures directly on meshes, inspired by Greg Turk's work. Fun stuff.
posted by Runkst at 5:05 AM on August 7, 2006

We often use Turing even in (especially in?) the humanities side of computing and sometimes note his sexual orientation.

How is it that society can still officially repress gays? The ubiquity of the computer not to mention the entire Enigma project stand as testament to Turing's brilliance and I pledge to make more prominent note of Turing's biography if for no other reason than to increase acceptance and in some small way atone for the atrocious treatment society affords the "other."
posted by beelzbubba at 5:08 AM on August 7, 2006

If time travel were possible, the first thing I would do would be to go back and save Alan Turing.

Bring him forward to a fun time, maybe the last half of 1970s, but leave him with a lot of current (2006, or later if you have a time machine) computer science papers. Then let him work during the day on new problems. He gets rich and famous, has a great time at night singing and dancing to "I Will Survive" with his boyfriends, and computer science lurches forward 30+ years.

(Also, you can tell him who shot JR and everyone will think he's a genius.)
posted by pracowity at 6:01 AM on August 7, 2006

Matmos recently did a Turing-inspired music/installation piece. Some video of it here
posted by HellKatonWheelz at 6:31 AM on August 7, 2006

A year or two ago I presented a paper to our research group to convince them that patterning could happen and gradients can form in traditional 2D tissue culture. Of course, they all dismissed the paper as too abstract to be applicable at the time, then six months later "knew it all along", but that's another story. Still, I never expected to see Turing cited in a cell biology paper. See citation #4. The author of the paper cited is studying the application of his work in preventing cardiac arrhythmias.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:40 AM on August 7, 2006

When I read Hodges' The Enigma, which I still consider the best scientific biography I have yet encountered, I thought Hodges had left it an open question whether Turing had committed suicide or had been assassinated by some branch of Britain's intelligence apparatus or the CIA. I would even have said Hodges came down on the assassination side, although he did not explicitly say so.

But I found no support for this conclusion in the reviews I was able to read, notably Douglas Hofstadter's, and I still wonder if my perception is purely idiosyncratic or widely shared.

A search of The Alan Turing Home Page, maintained by Hodges, using the term 'assassination,' yields no results.
posted by jamjam at 1:57 PM on August 7, 2006

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