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Chia Seeds Sprout New Insights into Turing's Mathematical Patterns in Nature

2023

In a surprising twist of scientific exploration, chia seeds have played a crucial role in potentially confirming a mathematical model proposed by renowned British mathematician Alan Turing 71 years ago. Turing, celebrated for his role in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, may find posthumous validation in the growth patterns of these tiny seeds, shedding light on the chemistry behind nature's designs.

Turing's theory, introduced in 1952 while he was at the University of Manchester, suggested that patterns in nature result from chemical reactions between two homogeneous substances. These patterns, as described in his sole published paper, manifest across diverse plant and animal species, influencing the distinctive black-and-white stripes of a zebra or the unique ridges on a cactus.

Last summer, Brendan D'Aquino, a computer science undergrad at Northeastern University in Boston, collaborated with Flavio Fenton, a physics professor at Georgia Tech, to put Turing's theory to the test. Their innovative approach involved using chia seeds in a controlled laboratory setting, aiming to observe patterns reminiscent of those found in nature.

The experiment included distributing chia seeds evenly in eight trays using different planting methods and applying various growing parameters. These parameters involved adjusting the amount of water each tray received, manipulating evaporation levels with Saran Wrap, and utilizing different substrates, such as coconut fiber and paper towels, to influence water diffusion.

"We made sure that the seeds were spread everywhere in the trays, so it was completely homogeneous," explained Fenton, emphasizing the meticulous nature of their setup.

Within a week, the researchers began witnessing patterns resembling those observed in natural environments, mirroring computer simulations created using Turing's model, albeit focusing on vegetation.

"The patterns emerged because of this diffusion and growth," added Fenton, highlighting the pivotal role of these factors in shaping the observed patterns.

Brendan D'Aquino expressed the excitement of seeing Turing's theory materialize in a tangible manner. "To see it physically happen is really cool," he remarked, underscoring the significance of their experimental outcomes.

Natasha Ellison, a mathematical ecologist at Mississippi State University, commended the study, affirming the prevalence of Turing patterns in nature. "Turing patterns are seen in vegetation all over the world," Ellison noted, highlighting the global nature of these patterns.

The researchers, despite their findings not undergoing peer review, presented their results at the American Physical Society meeting in Las Vegas on March 7. With the aim of contributing to scientific understanding, the team plans to transform their experiment into a formal paper, further cementing the relevance of Turing's mathematical genius in unraveling the mysteries of the natural world.

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