*As if on cue, via CX Digest, mathematics and underlying patterns.*

# How the Father of Computer Science Decoded Nature’s Mysterious Patterns

In research shortly before his death in 1954, Alan Turing used mathematics to explore how forms emerge, yielding insights that are now being applied to problems like desalination.

By JoAnna Klein

Many have heard of Alan Turing, the mathematician and logician who invented modern computing in 1935. They know Turing, the cryptologist who cracked the Nazi Enigma code, helped win World War II. And they remember Turing as a martyr for gay rights who, after being prosecuted and sentenced to chemical castration, committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide in 1954.

But few have heard of Turing, the naturalist who explained patterns in nature with math. Nearly half a century after publishing his final paper in 1952, chemists and biological mathematicians came to appreciate the power of his late work to explain problems they were solving, like how zebrafish get their stripes or cheetahs get spots. And even now, scientists are finding new insights from Turing’s legacy.

Most recently, in a paper published Thursday in Science, chemical engineers in China used pattern generation described by Turing to explain a more efficient process for water desalination, which is increasingly being used to provide freshwater for drinking and irrigation in arid places.

Turing’s 1952 paper did not explicitly address the filtering of saltwater through membranes to produce freshwater. Instead, he used chemistry to explain how undifferentiated balls of cells generated form in organisms.

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It’s unclear why this interested the early computer scientist, but Turing had told a friend that he wanted to defeat Argument From Design, the idea that for complex patterns to exist in nature, something supernatural, like God, had to create them.

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A keen natural observer since childhood, Turing noticed that many plants contained clues that math might be involved. Some plant traits emerged as Fibonacci numbers. These were part of a series: Each number equals the sum of the two preceding numbers. Daisies, for example, had 34, 55 or 89 petals.

“He certainly was no militant atheist,” said Jonathan Swinton, a computational biologist and visiting professor at the University of Oxford who has researched Turing’s later work and life. “He just thought mathematics was very powerful, and you could use it to explain lots and lots of things — and you should try.”

And try, Turing did.

*Continues in source, which the NY Times has somehow cleverly put in a box a the top…*