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Skin colour patterns in animals arise from microscopic interactions among coloured cells that obey equations discovered by the mathematician Alan Turing. Researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, and SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics reported in the journal Nature that a southwestern European lizard slowly acquires its intricate adult skin colour by changing the colour of individual skin scales using an esoteric computational system invented in 1948 by another mathematician: John von Neumann.

The researchers, followed individual lizards during 4 years of their development from hatchlings crawling out of the egg to fully mature animals. For multiple time points, they reconstructed the geometry and colour of the network of scales by using a very high resolution robotic system.

Then the same researchers saw that the brown juvenile scales changed to green or black and then continued flipping colour (between green and black) during the life of the animal. This very strange observation prompted Milinkovitch (professor at the Department of Genetics and Evolution of the UNIGE Faculty of Science, Switzerland and Group Leader at the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics) to suggest that the skin scale network forms a so-called ‘cellular automaton’. This esoteric computing system was invented in 1948 by the mathematician John von Neumann. Cellular automata are lattices of elements in which each element changes its state (here, its colour, green or black) depending on the states of neighbouring elements. The elements are called “cells” but are not necessarily biological cells; in the case of the lizards, they correspond to individual skin scales. This seems to be the first case of a genuine 2D automaton appearing in a living organism: the scales were flipping colour depending of the colours of their neighbour scales.

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How could the interactions among pigment cells, described by Turing equations, generate a von Neumann automaton exactly superposed to the skin scales? The solution could be in the variation of skin thickness which could impact on the Turing’s mechanism, according to the researchers. (1)

An automaton created in nature.

But a human mind thought of the automaton.

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So how could it not be part of nature?

How can anything we think of, NOT be part of nature?

In general, the weird discovery would be to find something we thought about that is not in nature in any way or form. It is a sort of tautology to think about that, but what isn’t one? From mathematics to consciousness, from philosophy and scientific models and to existence itself, tautology is the only thing which is actually true in the full sense of the word.

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I think of something = Something exists.

Something exists = I think of something.

Watch scales changing colour.

Neumann thought about the pattern they follow.

But it was you who actually created them…

(or did they create “you”? – Leibnitz talked in his work “About Metaphysics” about how we all “contain” all the things which relate to us and will relate to us in all our lives)

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