Alan Turing Chemistry

If you know the name Alan Turing, computers will immediately leap to mind. However, it turns out that Turing made some predictions about chemistry as well.

Many chemical reactions end up going to completion, with all the possible reactants doing their thing and producing a product that’s distributed uniformly within the reaction chamber. But under the right conditions, some chemical reactions don’t reach equilibrium. These reactions are what interested Turing, since they could generate complex patterns.

Turing’s paper on the topic focused on a reaction that could be controlled by the addition of two chemicals: an activator that promotes it and an inhibitor that slows it down. If you simply mix the two into a reaction, the outcome will simply depend on the balance between these two chemicals. But as Turing showed, interesting things can happen if you diffuse them into a reaction from different locations. And if the two chemicals diffuse at different rates, you can get complex patterns or reaction products like spots or tiger stripes.

Turing’s insight is that a combination of positive and negative feedback would result in complex patterns. This is basically an anticipation of Hector Sabelli’s bios theory.

The linked article is about the first practical application of Turing chemistry in the creation of a desalinization membrane. As simple physics is starting to reach the point of diminishing returns–resulting in a slowdown in technological innovations–we are needing to transition to complexity science and technology. This may be an important first step in that direction for the field of chemistry.

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