25 March 2021

Alan Turing’s theory of biology is helping next generation of mathematicians crack the code

Mathematicians from the University of Sheffield are helping school children across the UK crack the code using Alan Turing’s theory of biology, to celebrate the new £50 note.

  • Leading mathematicians from the University of Sheffield are helping to inspire schoolchildren across the UK to learn about Alan Turing’s theory of biology
  • Despite famously being known as a codebreaker and the father of modern computing, Turing’s work was also key in helping us to better understand biology and nature
  • Schools will work with university researchers to complete calculations based on Turing’s ideas
  • The innovative project is in collaboration with the Bank of England to celebrate the new £50 note

Mathematicians from the University of Sheffield are helping school children across the UK crack the code using Alan Turing’s theory of biology, to celebrate the new £50 note.

The innovative project, led by the University of Sheffield and the Bank of England, will introduce youngsters to the famous code breaker’s theory of using mathematics to explain biology, that shows how certain animals get their unique patterns.

Schools across the country will work together in virtual lessons to explore how maths can be used to understand the world and nature. Pupils will then submit their work to the University of Sheffield researchers.

Dr Natasha Ellison, Lead of the Project from the University of Sheffield, said: “I noticed as a teacher that lots of children develop anxiety around maths in primary school and aren’t aware of what maths can lead them to, or of any real life applications of maths.

“Although Alan Turing is well known as a codebreaker, his mathematical theories of biology are a great example to show children how maths can explain the natural world around us.

We want to inspire the next generation of mathematicians, showing them that by solving basic maths problems, based on Turing’s ideas, we can see that maths is actually all around us, in patterns, animals and nature."

Dr Natasha Ellison

University of Sheffield's School of Mathematics and Statistics

Alan Turing is famously known as being the father of modern computing and for working on decoding messages that helped Britain win WW2. However, Turing’s work was also key in understanding biology, he used mathematics to formulate a theory of biology which describes many of the beautiful patterns which we see throughout the natural world.

Turing’s ideas show how patterns on animals, such as leopards, zebras and pufferfish, can be described using numbers. Turing imagined that there are two chemicals inside an animal's body and that their concentrations show where patterns form on the animal. His pioneering research showed that certain mathematical equations can explain the way these chemicals react and how the patterns form.

The high level maths Turing used can be broken down into thousands of small bitesize calculations using the methods of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. As part of the lessons children will complete calculations - cracking various codes - before submitting their answers to the next school to perform the next set of calculations.

The Sheffield team will then pull together all the answers submitted from every school which will unlock the pattern of a pufferfish.

The project is in collaboration with the Bank of England who this year will release a new £50 note that celebrates Turing’s life and achievements.

The project provides optional additional lessons that cover Alan Turing’s life and history as well as LGBT+ rights.

Sir Dermot Turing, nephew of Alan Turing, said: “I’m certain that Alan Turing would have been delighted to see his work on patterns in living things being used to inspire young students with the potential of mathematics. It’s marvellous that this part of Alan Turing’s work is becoming better known. The University of Sheffield project is a great initiative and a fitting addition to Alan Turing’s legacy for the 21st century.”

Additional information

The Turing Pattern Project

The University of Sheffield project team includes project lead, Dr Natasha Ellison, mathematical biologists Dr Alexander Fletcher and Professor Nick Monk, teaching and learning advocate Dr Fionntan Roukema and software developer Aidan Hughes.

Sir Dermot Turing is the nephew of Alan Turing. His book Reflections of Alan Turing, which discusses the legacy of Alan Turing in light of the launch of the £50 Bank of England note, will be published by The History Press on 22 April 2021.


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