How Alan Turing and a university in Yorkshire are helping inspire the next generation of mathematicians
Mathematician Alan Turing is known as the father of modern computing and as the codebreaker responsible for breaking the Germans’ ciphers in the 1940s.
But his talents also extended to a theory of using mathematics to explain biology – showing how animals get their distinctive markings.
Academics from the University of Sheffield are now launching a project to allow school pupils across the country the chance to explore how maths can be used to understand the world and nature, centred on Turing’s own theories.
Dr Natasha Ellison, who is based at the university and is leading the project, 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.”
The project, which has been developed in partnership with the Bank of England, is being launched to celebrate the new £50 note, which will feature an image of Turing.
His 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 nature’s patterns develop.
His pioneering research revealed that certain mathematical equations can explain the way these chemicals react and how the patterns form.
The high-level maths which Turing used can be broken down into thousands of smaller 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 team from the University of Sheffield will then collate all the answers submitted from each school, which will unlock the pattern of a pufferfish.
Sir Dermot Turing, the nephew of 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.”
Alan Turing worked for Britain’s code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire, during the Second World War.
He led a team who decrypted messages sent by the Germans using the Engima machine, helping hasten the end of the conflict.
He was charged with gross indecency in 1952, and he died aged 41 two years later in an apparent suicide.
He was granted a Royal pardon in 2013.
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