The Science of How Alive You Really Are: Alan Turing, Trees, and the Wonder of Life

When the young Alan Turing (June 23, 1912– June 7, 1954) lost the love of his life, Christopher, to a germs contracted from cows milk, the grief-savaged future father of computing comforted his beloveds grief-savaged mother by telling her that “the body offers something for the spirit to take care of and utilize.” For the remainder of his life, he never stopped considering this binary code of body and spirit– a preoccupation fanned by this leveling loss in young the adult years, but sparked in childhood, by a book he had actually been given at age 10, a book he later told his own mother 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 portal of science and consider 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 19th century, just a generation after the person for whom the word scientist was coined– the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville– Brewster committed his life to aiding humankinds great migration from the epoch of religious beliefs to the date of truth.

Light distribution on soap bubble from an 19th-century French science textbook. Readily available as a print and as a face mask.The young Turing was captivated by Brewsters playful examples and his elegantly reasoned expositions of biological truths, worded so simply regarding verge on the poetic. How the chicken gets in the egg, why we grow and age, what plants know– these wonders of life impressed the kids creativity with a lifelong passion: Unbeknownst to most, the daddy of modern computing dedicated a significant part of his mind to an unknown branch of the biology of life called morphogenesis– the procedure by which living organisms take their shape– which he illustrated in a series of hauntingly gorgeous hand-drawn diagrams.

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

Just how much of a tree is alive? Definitely not the outer bark. That falls off in dry scales, or can be removed down to the white layers within, and the tree be none the even worse. Certainly not the wood. One typically encounters old trees that have lost limbs or been thoughtlessly pruned, which are completely decomposed out on the within, so that nothing is left but a thin shell next the bark. These trees grow as intensely as ever, and bear leaves and fruit like a strong tree. The bark is dead; and the wood is dead. In between the 2 is a thin layer, perhaps a quarter inch thru, which is alive. On one side, it is changing into dead wood. On the other side, it is becoming dead bark. The new wood is alive, and the brand-new bark. In between them is something neither wood nor bark, however simply living tree-stuff. The green leaves likewise live, and the green branches, and the blooms, and the growing buds. But at least half of every living tree is already dead; while the larger and longer lived a tree is, the smaller proportion of it is alive at one time.

What is true of trees, Brewster observes, is true of us. We put in huge portions of our nervous innovative energy on devising antidotes to our elemental worry 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 tear off when we bark our shins, is completely alive just on the inside. Our “bark” in truth, is very like a trees. Each has a soft, thin, living layer on the within, which grows, hardens, dies, forms a water-tight layer over the remainder of the body, cracks into scales, and drops off. Where one types cork, the other forms horn. The cork stoppers of our bottles are made from nothing more than an especially thick corky bark of a specific kind of oak, like the particularly thick and homy soles of all bare-footed savages and some bare-footed little young boys.

With an eye to the biological misconception at the heart of the famous scriptural 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 corpuscles are dead cells alive as soon as, and like the tough skin cells, an excellent deal more useful dead than alive.

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

We are, then, developed of living bricks, however of living bricks embeded in dead mortar. We saw that the excellent trees, complex and long lived, have more wood and bark and other dead compounds in them than the shrubs, herbs, and grass. These in turn are less alive than the lowly water plants and yeasts and molds which have no wood or bark at all. The exact same holds true of animals. The jelly-fishes and infusoria have neither skin, hair, bones, nails, nor blood, and are practically all alive. So the more an animals life deserves, the less of it is alive.

The image of the “living bricks” especially fascinated the young Turing, however it likewise struck him as somehow incomplete. Something was missing there, something didnt amount to the secret of consciousness, the wonder of what we are. In the mortar of his uncommon creativity, this incompleteness leavened the rise of modern-day computing. It is impossible to envisage a Turing maker– that advanced mathematical progenitor of artificial intelligence– without brushing up against such elemental concerns about the nature of aliveness, as Turing himself did when he gently tossed his famous and formidable gauntlet of a test, asking whether a computer system could ever “enjoy strawberries and cream, make someone fall for it, discover from experience, usage words appropriately, be the subject of its own idea [or] do something really new.” The victory of history is tracing the roots– ancient and alive– of our present condition worldwide. The victory of self-understanding is tracing the roots of the developmental impacts that make us who we are, that shape individuals who shape the world.

Alan Turing as a boy

(Turing Digital Archive) Published the year Turing was born, impishly described by its author as being “mostly about things that you do not find out in school,” Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know (public library) by Edwin Tinney Brewster welcomed young minds to step through the portal of science and contemplate not why life is– the domain of Sunday school faith– however what life is and how it came to be that method.( Turing Digital Archive) The books most captivating chapter, entitled “How Much of United States Is Alive,” explores not the existential perplexity of the question– that is finest left to the poets and the artists of life– however the science, the counterintuitive and staggering truth, of aliveness. Our hair and nails are not alive at all, and that our outer skin, the thin skin, that is, which we tear off when we bark our shins, is completely alive only on the inside. The corpuscles are dead cells alive when, and like the difficult skin cells, an excellent offer more helpful dead than alive.

The more a creatures life is worth, the less of it is alive.