Monday, October 24, 2011

Turing and Morphogenesis

Yesterday I was privileged to take part in an event held as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. Many months ago I was invited by Ra Page of Comma Press to suggest "Eureka" moments in science, one of which might act as inspiration for a short story to be written by an established author. One of my suggestions was Alan Turing's theory of morphogenesis; while this idea has proved to be a "slow burn" rather than a phase transition in science, it marked the beginning of a new mathematical and computational era in biology. I was delighted that Jane Rogers picked up the idea, and she produced a marvellous story for the Litmus collection (Independent review). I supplied a short afterword to the story as part of the collection, which formed the basis for my notes for yesterday's event.

It was an absolute pleasure to work with Jane; we met only once before the story was written, but she produced a wonderfully humane depiction of Turing, as well as an accurate rendition of the science. It was great to meet up with her again yesterday; I'm sure the past few months were a bit of a blur for Jane after she was long-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize.

The event was held at the MadLab, which I know well from our partnership on the Manchester DIYbio project. Although there were only 40 or 50 seats available, we sold out, which made for a nice atmosphere. Craig Pay took some photos, which are available here.

Jane read an edited (for length) version of her story, and then I offered a brief commentary, before Ra asked some questions and then opened up the discussion to the floor. Ra was kind enough to pre-warn us of the questions, so I made some notes (below) ahead of time (of course, I ended up ad-libbing quite a lot, but I wanted to ensure that I didn't miss out any important details).

Martyn: Do you think the myth&mystery that surrounds Turing's life (and death) has helped or hindered his legacy as a scientist?

I think Turing’s legacy is clear and unambiguous from a scientific perspective; he’s rightfully acknowledged as one of the fathers of computer science. Every time we use anything with a processor chip in it we owe a debt of gratitude to Turing for his foundational work. Leads onto the more general issue of what we, as a society, owe him, and I think he’s been incredibly badly-served in terms of his general legacy. I think this is partly to do with institutional/societal squeamishness about his sexuality and the way in which he was treated as a result of it, although Gordon Brown did make some steps a few years ago to begin to address this. Hopefully the 2012 Centenary celebrations will help to address this. I also believe that Leonardo di Caprio is rumoured to play Turing in a forthcoming biopic, so we'll wait and see what effect that might have...

Martyn: When you say the morphogenesis theory has only recently been corroborated, could you explain how it has exactly, and why has it taken so long?

At first, his work was largely ignored by experimentalists, because they thought that it relied on a number of unproven hypotheses. Very soon, though, the existence of “natural Turing patterns” was demonstrated by Belousov and Zhabotinsky (B-Z reaction), who showed that one could obtain a number of patterns (spots, spirals, rings, etc.) in a dish simply by mixing several chemicals. Again, though, its sceptical response led to Belousov effectively resigning his commission from science. Only recently has work in fish, chicks and mice lent experimental support to Turing’s idea, but the real contribution was to show how order can arise spontaneously from disorder. It gave us a whole new way of looking at natural systems.

Martyn: Carrying on from this, how typical or atypical is Turing as a figure/personality in the many wider fields he influenced (computer science/AI, chaos theory & synthetic biology)?

I think that we are lucky if we get one Turing in every generation. If there exist common features between some of the leading figures in my field and Turing, it’s the fact that they connect. Len Adleman, who founded my own field of molecular computing, is a leading mathematician (he received a share of the Turing Award for his co-invention of the RSA encryption scheme) came up with the idea for DNA-based algorithms while reading James Watson's The Molecular Biology of the Gene. Erik Winfree's father was Art Winfree, another pioneer of computational biology. They are the only father and son team to hold MacArthur "genius grants", and Erik now looks at computational properties of biochemical systems.

Martyn: Is this a common feature in the biographies of great scientific pioneers - the need for a counter-argument, a listener, a foil, or an adversary - whether real or imaginary?

I think what readers of biographies or popular science have in common with those of fiction is the need for a good narrative. Quite often popular science tries to present the work outside of its human context, which I think is a mistake.

Other characters or institutions can serve to bring out the human characteristics, frailties, etc. of scientists. Richard Feynman is often portrayed as a robust character, but his heartbreaking letter to his dead wife shows a tenderness that we don’t get from pictures of him playing the bongos.

People also love a race - it gives a story a natural energy and drive. Rivalries or counter-arguments also serve to shed light onto the scientific process itself - not just the investigation, but the politics and history of it (eg. Watson and Crick versus Rosalind Franklin).