the inspiration behind Helen Sedgwick’s short story, ‘Morphogenesis’
Alan Turing was always one of those mythical figures for me, like Mozart, Van Gogh, Franklin, Shelly, and Woolf; people whose achievements are renowned, and whose lives are now narrated to us with an element of personal tragedy. I doubt they would have wanted it that way – certainly not the scientists among them – but with all the films, novels, documentaries and biographies, it is inevitable that their private lives, and untimely deaths, capture the imagination. There is something fascinating about knowing all the details, but at the same time I don’t want those details to be more widely remembered than their work. Maybe that was why my first instinct was to write about Turing’s science, not his life.
My own research interests originated in chemical physics, and later morphed into bioelectronics. I liked the overlap of two subjects, and I liked using ideas from one field to bring fresh understanding to another. That is something I share with Turing. When he moved to Manchester in 1948 he worked on pattern formation and mathematical biology, using his computational approach to model biological and chemical process. It was revolutionary, and his predictions were only experimentally observed years after his death. The paper that I mention in my story, The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, describes how non-uniformity can arise naturally out of a uniform state. It was viewed with suspicion at the time – even scientists can be wary of change – but it’s now seen as a seminal precursor to the field of systems biology. It’s less famous than his work at Bletchley, but it’s the aspect of his work that is most closely related to my own.
I am being disingenuous, of course, because I am also a writer, and I can’t help but be interested in the personal story as well. I started writing about science, but inevitably ended up writing about people. Not Turing, though. I chose for my characters two modern day scientists working in fields he was fascinated in at the time of his death. I didn’t write directly about his life, but I made aspects of their lives mirror his own. Turing is only mentioned once by name, held up as a hero by my narrator. So I did return to the myth, in a way. I included passing references to his favourite film, his sexuality, and his broken engagement, because I wanted to acknowledge his life while focusing on the impact his research had on the future. The story, then, is a sort of collage, made up of computational models and biology, Snow White and the apple, motifs that keep Turing ever present in a story about how society has changed, and how his work remains.
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