Alan Turing and Biology
Original Publication Date: 1993-Sep-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Software Patent Institute
P.T. SAUNDERS: AUTHOR [+1]
This article describes that work, arguing that it is both analogous to Turing's computing work (in that it represented a radical break into a new field with riffle reference to previous work and discontinuous with it (since Turing did not make use of any of the ";obvious"; analogies between programming a computer and programming a gene).
THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.
Copyright ©; 1993 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Alan Turing and Biology
Alan Turing spent his final years working at Manchester University. A riffle known feature of this work is his interest in morphogenesis. This article describes that work, arguing that it is both analogous to Turing's computing work (in that it represented a radical break into a new field with riffle reference to previous work and discontinuous with it (since Turing did not make use of any of the "obvious" analogies between programming a computer and programming a gene).
Alan Turing is chiefly remembered today as an outstanding mathematician and computer scientist. Hardly anyone thinks of him as a biologist as well, even though his reaction-diffusion model of pattern formation is one of the standard mechanisms of theoretical biology. Biologists still use Turing's word morphogen to describe a substance involved in the process, even though, as he himself later acknowledged, it is strictly speaking incorrect (as is the title of his paper), since morphogenesis is the production of form, not pattern.
Of course, one paper in biology, however successful, does not necessarily make someone a biologist. Outsiders can and do make significant contributions simply by supplying a crucial bit of knowledge or expertise that those in a field do not have. It is true that "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis" is cited more frequently than the rest of Turing's work taken together, but it is also true that more scientists know G.H. Hardy as half of the geneticists' term "Hardy-Weinberg" than as the author of Pure Mathematics, a book that almost every mathematician has heard of, if not read. Yet we are told that Hardy's entire career in biology lasted no longer than the interval between innings at a cricket match. The legend may even be true, because important though the idea is, it is only a simple application of the binomial theorem. The story of Turing's contribution to biology is quite different.
When you look at the list of Turing's publications, one feature that stands out is that he devoted his time and energy to important problems in fields that were either new or rapidly changing. He worked in the foundations of mathematics at a time when Godel had made this an issue of prime importance. He played a key role in the code breaking that was so vital to the war effort. His contribution to the development of the computer was crucial, so much so that many would call him its inventor. The Turing test is still a fundamental idea in artificial intelligence, a subject which hardly existed when he started to think about it.
Why, then, did Turing embark on an interesting but apparently conventional piece of modeling in biology? In the first place, it was not conventional. Applications of even quite sophisticated mathematics in biolog...