Friday, 16 March 2012

The wonder of maths in nature

Last week we were lucky enough to be joined by Jonathan Swinton, a Professor in Systems Biology who conceived of the Turing's Sunflower project for this year's festival.

Over several coffees in the MOSI cafe, Jonathan explained the mathematical concepts behind his idea to do a mass participatory experiment to build on the final work of Alan Turing in his centenary year.

World famous for his code-breaking skills and contributions to computing, Turing was also fascinated with the mathematical patterns found in plant stems, leaves and seeds, a study know as phyllotaxis. This was a key element to his research when he came to The University of Manchester.

Turing noticed, for example, that the number of spirals in the seed patterns of sunflower heads (and pine cones as Jonathan shows MOSI's marketing team in the picture) often conform to a number that appears in the mathematical sequence called the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…). Turing set out to explain how this might help us to understand the growth of plants. Sadly, he died before his work was complete and since then scientists have continued his work, but to properly test these hypotheses we need lots of data… and sunflowers are perfect for the job, so long as we can grow enough of them!

And that is the challenge... join us this spring to Grow a Turing Sunflower to celebrate his centenary and build on Turing's legacy to Manchester and indeed the world!

Up for the challenge? Sign up here.

  • To read up on Turing,  Jonathan recommends Andrew Hodges 'Enigma', recently republished to mark the centenary year.
  • Watch the ONE SHOW's take on the project featuring Jonathan and those all important spirals. Available on iplayer for a week (UK viewers only)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The wonder of the simple sunflower

We've been reminiscing a little in the festival team, remembering back to growing sunflowers as kids in our back gardens. The memory of these magnificent yellow flowers towering over the garden fence is etched into our minds. Recently we've been rediscovering the wonder of the simple sunflower as part of the Turing's Sunflower project and have been amazed at the facts that we've uncovered en route.

We were pretty amazed to discover that there is a guerilla gardening day on the 1st of May devoted internationally to growing sunflowers. An event that could prove timely to this project!

We've also discovered some pretty incredible facts about sunflowers... here's our top five so far in now particular order.

1. The seeds make a tasty and healthy snack. You can eat them (and feed birds with them too) and cook with the oil pressed from them. Indeed the sunflower is the symbol of the vegan society and licensed for the sale of sustainable products.

2. You can create other useful and sustainable products including biodiesel as an alternative to petrol.

3. Sunflowers are a great learning resource to teach maths, biology and science. Baby sunflowers apparently track the motion of the sun across the sky, a phenomenon known as heliotropism. Further, the seeds grow in a spiral pattern in the sunflower head and if you count the spirals you will, more often than not, find that the number of spirals corresponds to numbers found in a mathematical sequence called the fibonacci sequence.

4. Sunflowers can be used to extract toxic chemicals from soil, including lead, arsenic and uranium, a process called phytoremediation. Through this process plants can naturally help alleviate environmental problems. Sunflowers were apparently grown to help reduce toxins after the Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster.

5. Sunflowers are part of a rich cultural and artistic heritage with many artworks and cultural practices associated with sunflowers. Van Gogh's Sunflowers is perhaps the most obvious example but more recently Chinese Artist, Ai Wei Wei's sunflower seed installation has been in the news recently with Tate Modern buying 8 million of the 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds produced as part of the artwork. Bring the conversation back to food, we also discovered recently as the Manchester Histories Festival that sunflower seeds are handed out as a snack to celebrate Chinese new year.

To share and discover more about these amazing plants, including how to grow them, join us on an incredible and hopefully memorable challenge as part of the festival to Grow a Turing Sunflower (or 2 or 3 or 5 or 8 or 13 or more!)...

Monday, 5 March 2012

Turing's Sunflowers

You may remember that back in December we were on the hunt for a dynamic project manager to deliver a mass-participatory experiment across the whole of Manchester following in the steps of Alan Turing to raise awareness of maths in nature? Well, we're pleased to announce the search is over and Dr Erinma Ochu, ex-Manchester Beacon director has recently joined the Manchester Science Festival team to bring you Turing's Sunflowers

More info, including how to get involved in the biggest city-wide research experiment, coming very soon. Can't wait that long? Erinma will be talking briefly about the project at Social Media Cafe Manchester (SMC_MCR) tomorrow night in the Northern Quarter. 

Welcome on board Erinma!

Related info:

SMC_MCR takes place: 6pm – 9pm, Tuesday 6 March 2012.
Venue: Matt & Phreds, 64 Tib Street, Manchester, M4 1LW

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Celebrate World Book Day!

Today is World Book Day, a world-wide celebration of reading and books. We've been pondering a few of favourite science and sci-fi books in the office today. 

Emma, Education and Interpretation Officer at MOSI loves World War Z by MaxBrooks, and she likes how some of the descriptions of the zombie war are quite realistic and remind you of real wars that have occurred. 

Nicola, Science Communication Officer has two favourites: 
Jamie, a presenter at the museum recently discovered The Sky's Dark Labyrinth and thought it was brilliant. He also heard the author speaking at a Festival in the south, and was really inspired. 

I love Genome, as I read this during my studies at Newcastle University and it inspired me to do the kind of job I do now. I also knew author Matt Ridley when I worked at the Centre for Life and found him really inspiring. Carbon Diaries is a modern sci-fi classic for young people which I have really enjoyed in the last few years and had a brilliant event with author Saci Lloyd at MSF 11. That really is a favourite. 

We'd love to hear your favourites too, but also, what better way to celebrate World Book Day than to get writing!

Why not enter our writing competition Future Manchester. There are only a few days left to enter, so now's the time to get your stories in! The competition is for 12 - 16 year olds and we want people to write a short story about their vision for a future Manchester. 

We've had lots of inspiration from local scientists who have written about their work and ideas for the future of their field. These have been great starting points for our young writers and are on our website. 

So, get writing today and submit your entries by 5 March! Find out more and how to enter here.

Natalie, Festival Director