How Alive Are We? Alan Turing, Trees, and the Wonder of Life

Light circulation on soap bubble from an 19th-century French science textbook. Offered as a print and as a face mask.The young Turing was mesmerized by Brewsters playful examples and his elegantly reasoned expositions of biological truths, worded so simply as to surround on the poetic. How the chicken gets in the egg, why we grow and grow old, what plants understand– these marvels of life impressed the young boys imagination with a long-lasting enthusiasm: Unbeknownst to most, the daddy of modern computing committed a substantial part of his mind to an unknown branch of the biology of life called morphogenesis– the process by which living organisms take their shape– which he highlighted in a series of hauntingly lovely hand-drawn diagrams.

When the young Alan Turing (June 23, 1912– June 7, 1954) lost the love of his life, Christopher, to a bacterium contracted from cows milk, the grief-savaged future father of computing comforted his cherisheds grief-savaged mom by telling her that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and utilize.” For the remainder of his life, he continued contemplating this binary code of body and spirit– a preoccupation fanned by this leveling loss in young their adult years, but sparked in youth, by a book he had actually been given at age ten, a book he later informed his own mom was what opened his mind and heart to science.

(Turing Digital Archive) Published the year Turing was born, impishly explained by its author as being “mostly about things that you do not discover in school,” Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know (public library) by Edwin Tinney Brewster invited young minds to step through the website of science and ponder not why life is– the domain of Sunday school faith– but what life is and how it came to be that way. Born in the middle of the nineteenth century, only a generation after the person for whom the word scientist was created– the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville– Brewster dedicated his life to aiding humankinds excellent migration from the date of religion to the date of truth.

Alan Turings little-known diagrams of morphogenesis.( Turing Digital Archive) The books most fascinating chapter, titled “How Much of United States Is Alive,” explores not the existential perplexity of the concern– that is finest left to the poets and the artists of life– but the science, the counterintuitive and incredible truth, of aliveness. Brewster composes:

How much of a tree is alive? The brand-new wood is alive, and the new bark. At least half of every living tree is already dead; while the bigger and longer lived a tree is, the smaller percentage of it is alive at one time.

What is real of trees, Brewster observes, is true of us. We exert huge parts of our distressed imaginative energy on devising remedies to our essential fear of death– some mightier than others– and yet much of the bodies we live in is not, strictly speaking, alive at all:

Our hair and nails are not alive at all, and that our outer skin, the thin skin, that is, which we detach when we bark our shins, is fully alive just on the inside. Our “bark” in fact, is really like a trees. Each has a soft, thin, living layer on the within, which grows, solidifies, dies, forms a water-tight layer over the rest of the body, cracks into scales, and drops off. Where one types cork, the other types horn. The cork stoppers of our bottles are made from absolutely nothing more than an especially thick corky bark of a particular kind of oak, like the homy and specifically thick soles of all bare-footed savages and some bare-footed little young boys.

With an eye to the biological fallacy at the heart of the popular biblical mentor that the life of every animal is its blood– refashioned in Bram Stokers renowned line from Dracula, “The blood is the life!”– Brewster counters:

The blood itself is dead. The watery part is simply soup; water and salt and fat and jelly. The minute, coin-like, red blood corpuscles bring the oxygen of the air from the lungs all over the body. There are similar oxygen-carriers, also dead, in bottles in the drug-stores. The corpuscles are dead cells alive as soon as, and like the hard skin cells, a terrific deal more useful dead than alive.

After marking how the very same is true of our teeth and the rest of our bones, Brewster draws out his analogy of cells as “living bricks”– with the caveat that even living cells are not completely alive, for the jelly of water and salt rushing through them is “simply water and salt”– and adds:

The image of the “living bricks” particularly interested the young Turing, however it also struck him as somehow insufficient. Something was missing there, something didnt add up to the secret of consciousness, the marvel of what we are. The victory of history is tracing the roots– alive and ancient– of our present condition in the world.

We are, then, developed of living bricks, but of living bricks embeded in dead mortar. We saw that the great trees, complex and long lived, have more wood and bark and other dead compounds in them than the shrubs, herbs, and turf. These in turn are less alive than the lowly water plants and yeasts and molds which have no wood or bark at all. The very same is real of animals. The jelly-fishes and infusoria have neither skin, hair, bones, nails, nor blood, and are pretty much all alive. The more an animals life is worth, the less of it is alive.

Alan Turing as a young male

(Turing Digital Archive) Published the year Turing was born, impishly explained by its author as being “mostly about things that you do not discover in school,” Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know (public library) by Edwin Tinney Brewster invited young minds to step through the website of science and ponder not why life is– the domain of Sunday school theology– but what life is and how it came to be that method.( Turing Digital Archive) The books most fascinating chapter, titled “How Much of United States Is Alive,” checks out not the existential wonder of the question– that is best left to the poets and the artists of life– but the science, the counterproductive and staggering truth, of aliveness. Our hair and nails are not alive at all, and that our external skin, the thin skin, that is, which we tear off when we bark our shins, is completely alive just on the within. The corpuscles are dead cells alive when, and like the difficult skin cells, a fantastic deal more helpful dead than alive.

The more an animals life is worth, the less of it is alive.