LA VEGAS – Sprouted chia seeds in trays experimentally confirmed a mathematical model proposed by computer scientist and polymath Alan Turing decades ago. The pattern describes how patterns can emerge in desert vegetation, leopard spots and zebra stripes.
These and other speckled and striped features in nature are examples of what are called Turing models, so named because in 1952 Turing presented equations for how simple interactions between factors competitors can lead to surprisingly complex surface patterns. In the case of arid regions, competition for moisture among plants would result in the complex distribution of vegetation.
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But proving that the Turing model explains patterns in the real world was difficult (SN: 10/21/15). It was unclear whether Turing’s idea is really behind the natural distributions of vegetation. It could be that the idea is a mathematical story just like that that produces similar shapes in a computer, says physicist Flavio Fenton of Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
In research presented at the American Physical Society meeting, Brendan D’Aquino, who studied in Fenton’s lab during the summer of 2022, described an experiment that appears to confirm that The Turing Model Truly Underlies Vegetation Models.
The team grew chia seeds in even layers in trays, then adjusted the available humidity. Essentially, the researchers were experimentally tweaking the factors that appear in Turing’s equations. Indeed, patterns resembling those observed in natural environments have emerged. The models also strongly resembled computer simulations of the Turing model.
“In previous studies,” said D’Aquino, an undergraduate computer science student at Northeastern University, “people kind of retroactively fit models to observe the Turing patterns they found in the world. But here we were actually able to show that changing the relevant parameters in the model produces experimental results that we expected.
Although Turing models have been produced in some chemistry experiments and other artificial systems, the team believe this is the first time that experiments with living vegetation have verified Turing’s mathematical insight.