The Ann Erpino and Erik Winfree Science Series

Nature / Dreams / Zeitgeist

Portraits of Science, and of the Inner Spirit of Scientific Activities

Paintings in this series give a glimpse of the scientific life by blending scientific processes, theories, discoveries, and concepts with some of the personal attributes and interests of the scientists who pursue them. The series primarily examines the remarkable complexity, diversity, and engineerability of living processes, while also portraying a range of contemporary scientific concepts.

Each image was painted for a specific colleague, mentor, student, collaborator, or intellectual partner who enriched Dr. Erik Winfree’s scientific life. Each blends the science that an individual has advanced with some aspect of their character, or their interests and hobbies, a pet theory, or some anecdote from their time spent with Dr. Winfree.

The original series is currently on exhibit at Caltech.


Machines can be programmed and ‘grown’ to do useful things. They could one day have a kind of consciousness, an attention capacity of their own. As yet no machine or technology compares to the complexity, efficiency, cooling capacity, or elegance of a real brain.


Synthetic biologists can modify and ‘engineer’ the chemistry-based information coded within a cells’ DNA in order to affect the outcome of the cell’s function, and its interactions with other cells. Modern technology may yield information-based synthetic chemical systems with properties and capabilities comparable to those within biological systems.


Chemistry is the study of elements and compounds, their properties, composition, structure, and how energy is released or absorbed when they change.


Our analog brains, and the brains of many other organisms, have a higher computational capacity and efficiency than do computers. Pattern recognition, abstractions, algorithms and decomposition are four facets of our computational awareness and thought processes.


Vestiges and fundamental qualities of our earliest ancestors remain encoded within our cells today. Whether plant or animal, fungus or virus, each living thing culminates from a very long chain, bringing information from primordial times. All known life forms share a single common ancestor, a microbe believed to have embodied elementary predecessors for the machinery of modern life, still present in all cells, such as ribosomes and the genetic code. Mitochondrial DNA within human cells is the genetic signature passed from mother to child. Around 4 billion years ago Mitochondrial Eve spawned a creature whose progeny eventually became humanoid and then human.

Health and Medicine

Organisms are capable of self-healing to varying degrees. Science and technology can help organisms heal – sometimes a lot – and can diagnose, measure and monitor aspects of disease that are not normally observable by the organism.


Math is an ideal, a purity, useful for studying and hypothesizing messy physical realities. Good math is crucial to making controlled observations and discoveries. Objects (such as sets or functions) can be defined that are impossible to compute. In the absence of actual physical access to a problem, it can be guessed at, and even pinpointed using mathematical models. These impossible objects can provide insight and clarity about what’s possible or pragmatic.


Using rna structures in living cells as programmable sensors and controllers for cellular behavior, scientists can design and ‘grow’ molecules and molecular structures working together to perform functions, such as within a catalytic circuit, triggered assembly, autonomous locomotion, and more. Molecular programmers study the foundations and applications of programmable molecular machinery, from theoretical models of computation based on biochemistry to the experimental design and synthesis of complex devices and systems.


Organisms and individuals have many diverse ways of sensing, perceiving, and otherwise being aware of the world, depending upon their sensorium, be it ganglia, megnetorecepticism, echolocation, navigation, or cell memory. Humans’ nerves pervade and affect our every perception, function, response, development, and reflection. Branched protoplasmic extensions of nerve cells, dendrites, propagate electrochemical stimulation received from other neural cells, or soma.



Physicists study the properties of matter and energy in nature – heat, light and other radiation, electricity, magnetism, and the dynamics of microscopic and macroscopic particles.


Science is a discipline, an endeavor, an adventure into the bizarre and unusual. Generations of scientists have refined enduring thought paths across eons, developing and building upon what their predecessors discovered and invented. Generations of scientific thinking and research have led to today’s understanding of the world around us.


Nature tends to build dynamic systems by assembling micro into macro and macro into supermacro. Self assembly is a ubiquitous natural process at the molecular scale (crystals, viruses, cytoskeletons) and macroscopic scale (dust bunnies, sand dunes, stars).

  • DNA is highly ordered to avoid random tangling between DNA molecules. DNA is highly condensed to allow long linear DNA molecules to reside in a very tiny space, the nucleus.
  • When we're comfortable within a setting, particularly a natural one, our energies and attention may readily merge with the flow of energy, of events, and the order of things all around us, leading to great ideas and insights. Those with access to resources, liesure, and perhaps connections are best positioned to act on these energies and events.
  • People have long used biological materials -- skin, hair, bone, wood -- as the building material for crafting technological marvels -- leather boots, wool sweaters, ivory knives, sail boats. Today we're able to use biological polymers such as DNA, RNA, and protein to craft marvels at the molecular scale as well.
  • The nematode Caenorhabditis Elegans is mathematically unique in that wild-type individuals contain exactly 959 cells. The position of each cell is also precisely determined. C. Elegans is transparent, so cell function and lineage are easy to track.
  • When informational molecules such as DNA, RNA, and proteins fold from a floppy linear chain into a concrete shape, such as an enzyme or other nanomachine, the process is directed by subsequences along the chain that search for matching subsequences elsewhere in the chain, and then bind and lock up to stabilize the fold.
  • We can't know how life started on Earth or how it starts elsewhere, but exploring how simple chemicals assemble, react, and evolve in the laboratory gives scientists an enriched and more grounded imagination for what the first organisms may have been like — and has already led to interesting biotechnologies.
  • The Sierpinski gasket is a mathematical fractal constructed by repeatedly cutting the middle out of each triangle. Or, more akin to crystal growth, it may be generated by starting with a layer of 0′s with a single 1, then building new layers by placing a 0 above and between each pair of identical bits, while placing a 1 above and between each pair of differing bits.
  • Exposure at a young age to the joy of discovery can cause serious imprinting and make a life-long impression upon one’s curiosity factor.
  • At the human scale, a flat surface is a simple thing. But closer in, its incredible complexity becomes apparent. Molecular engineering can control some of that complexity, using self-assembly to coat the surface and place complex molecules in specific locations.
  • The principle of least action states that, of all possible paths a particle, such as a photon, could take, it will take the one with minimal integrated energy. Analogous optimization principles are used in software that finds the best route from place A to place B, finds the best price for a concert ticket, or finds the most likely interpretation of data.
  • Objects exchange molecules upon contact. Residue left by each can start a new growth pattern, such as crystallization, on its new host.
  • For everything that you see, there's more that you don't see.
  • Machines can learn, at least a little. With scientific advances they will continue to become smarter, and eventually may discover and perceive the world in their own way.
  • Biochemical experiments often require tiny volumes of liquid - microliters, or less…a fraction of a raindrop.
  • Control theory studies how feedback loops between sensors and actuators can be used to make robust responsive systems, from a car’s cruise control to robots in a factory, or biochemical circuits within a cell.
  • Throughout evolutionary history an astounding variety of life forms have been chanced upon, most of which would look alien and bizarre to us now. During the Cambrian era over 500 million years ago, many animals with very strange body plans and weird appendages (as strange and weird as ours might seem to them) evolved. Each of the life kingdoms that we know today -- the protists (single-celled eukaryotes), monera (prokaryotes), archaea, fungi, plants, and animals -- began with a unique distant ancestor.
  • Advanced medical therapies involve molecular robots programmed to 'crawl' around the outside of targeted cells (such as cancer cells) after recognizing diagnostic cell-surface markers that identify them as malign. As the molecule interacts with the cell membrane it effectively cuts it open, destroying the cell.
  • Some scientists believe that free-range, pre-life organic molecules spontaneously joined together to make the first organisms. Joining and scission can be seen in the laboratory when scientists create self-assembling nanotubes known as `living polymers.'
  • In an emulsion, water droplets become surrounded and separated by oil. Each water droplet can be filled with a different set of (perhaps random) molecules, whose behaviors can then be observed. Scientists can use these droplets to run millions of tiny experiments in parallel.
  • Vestiges and fundamental qualities of our earliest ancestors remain encoded within us today. Whether plant or animal, fungus or virus, each living thing culminates froma very long chain, bringing information from primordial times.
  • Chemical processes can create patterns similar to the spots on leopards, the patchwork on giraffes, the stripes on zebras. More complex patterns could be created if chemistry could be programmed.
  • In a short story by Stanislaw Lem, Mymosh accidentally came into being when a jettisoned object from a passing spaceship rattled a post-nuclear garbage dump, causing various objects to tumble, collide, and attach, forming a thinking being.
  • Computer chip technology is basically artificial geology. Lithography, the technique used to carve wires and transistors into a silicon chip, can build many layers of structures on a slab of silicon, but to truly master the art of turning inanimate rock into a thinking machine requires understanding the nature of the material. It will tell you what it can do; listen to the silicon.
  • Molecules, molecular systems, and materials can be simulated and designed on computers, allowing visionary scientists to imagine and create environments from atoms on up.
  • DNA microarray chips allow doctors and scientists to read the internal workings of a cell. A single chip can have hundreds of thousands of pixels, each of which can detect the presence of RNA for a specific gene, or a certain genetic mutation. This information can lead to novel discoveries and insightful diagnoses.
  • Life may have arisen from naturally occuring mineral crystals that replicated by spontaneous mineralogical processes, eventually providing the framework for, and stimulating the production of organic molecules which form the basis for modern organisms. (Also see ‘Terrestrial Matrix’)
  • Each of 100 trillion cells in your body has its own DNA, its own molecular factory for building proteins, and its own biochemical circuitry for making decisions. Though self-contained, these cells depend upon each other, and function together as a unified whole. Some species, such as slime molds, live as independent single-celled organisms in their early life, then unify with other slime mold cells into a multicellular organism for the latter part of their life. Roboticists may one day develop small robots that can similarly assemble themselves into a larger, unified meta-robot.
  • Interstellar travel could conceivably be managed by self-assembling spaceships, which would land on a convenient planet or meteor, assemble new parts from available raw materials, make repairs, and be on their way again.
  • A.G. Cairns Smith hypothesizes that clay crystals begat life. The crystalline latticework, as it grew and broke apart, provided scaffolding for new crystal growths. As these crystals incorporated more organic molecules into their structure, with reproductive advantage, the organic molecules eventually became sophisticated enough to co-opt their host’s matrix and float away, perhaps on the next tide, as autonomous life. (Also see ‘The Loss of Entropy’)
  • Behind a seemingly impenetrable barrier is often a calm place of quiet sustenance; getting there may be easier, if more circuitous, than one thinks.
  • A microfluidic chip is a network of tubes, valves, reaction chambers and sensors packed into a small device capable of making sophisticated medical diagnoses.
  • Those who have an instinct for assessing and doing what needs to be done, and for taking care of others' needs, lift the spirits and improve the lives of those around them.
  • Self-healing objects are capable of repairing damage to their structure. They range from simple (e.g. water) to complex (e.g. a salamander’s tail). In molecular biology, self-repairing fragments are good candidates for mutation, and therefore evolution. The process of mathematical discovery may itself be self-healing, as it balances the confusion caused by real-world paradoxes.
  • Nature builds powerful computers, your brain being a prime example. Molecular self-assembly allows scientists to create electrical circuits by growing them.
  • To power nanomachines, a molecular fuel must store energy in a stable form - stable until it's released.
  • Distributed molecular robots are herds of simple machines communicating with each other to accomplish collective tasks. Like ants, these robots can attach to each other to form chains or walk on top of one another to create collective superstructures.
  • In the brain, visual scenes are broken down into elementary pieces - edges, colors, corners, motion - from which more complex perceptions are derived - textures, shapes, actions - and eventually the important features of the scene are recognized. As with dreaming, a deeper look into the visual cortex reveals an even finer disintegration of each piece of a scene, pixelated and then reconstructed inside an observer’s head.
  • Nanotubes and Buckyballs (named after Buckminster Fuller) are atomic-scale, chicken-wire-like mesh cages, whose remarkable properties allow intriguing fundamental science and new technological applications. Found in the soot of burnt carbonaceous material they, like diamond, coal, and graphite, are formed by natural processes.
  • Intuition becomes stronger with use and nurture, and has a powerful way of breaking through the conventions and constrictions imposed by traditional approaches.
  • With the right insight and careful touch, DNA can Be programmed to assemble itself into incredibly complex nanoscale objects called 'DNA origami'.
  • Ever since Pythagorus and likely before, mathematicians have seen the world as being composed of numbers, which has led to great insights.
  • When listening to music, neurons in your ears encode the sounds into a sequence of electrical signals, called spike trains, that record the rhythm, tones, and texture of what you’re hearing. The spike trains are sent to your cortex, where the sounds are perceived, enjoyed, and interpreted.
  • At the core of each being is a self-contained informational unit awash in currents and forces, processing, deciphering, responding to its environment. Sentient immersion is more critical to wildlife than to industrialized beings.
  • The technological shift in electronics from analog to digital was paralleled by a paradigm shift in mathematics, with discrete and combinatorial maths replacing traditional continuous analytical maths. Continuous objects are now converted to discrete representations for processing on digital computers.
  • Intermingling matter on all levels, from neutrinos to the cosmos, necessarily exists in a container. The nestling importance of 'empty' space is often overlooked simply because it 'isn't there.'
  • In science, you can seldom directly see what you’re studying. Experimental results are colored by how a question is posed and what experimental apparatus is used. This issue is particularly prominent in quantum physics.
  • How, and whether, one perceives the unseen energetic worlds around and through us is a matter of ability and choice. To perceive, and perhaps channel vibrational inputs gives practitioners special access to wondrous and fascinating worlds.
  • Groups of cells (particularly in the nervous system) and groups of organisms, such as a flock of birds, a school of fish, or a colony of ants or fireflies, can work together in concerted, synchronized patterns, as if following signals perceived only by their group. Scientists may learn to observe and detect these signals.
  • It’s hard to catch a molecule; they’re too fast and too small. So scientists get others to catch them by making molecules to catch molecules. Then they can be studied and programmed.
  • Interdisciplinary science requires an ability to synthesize many strands of knowledge, to bind them together and test their strength, then extract pertinent information.
  • It’s a simple matter to tie a complex knot, or set a combination or code. It’s much harder to untie the knot or crack the code.
  • In the exploration of unknown frontiers, you never know what surprises will come up next. With persistent curiosity and careful thinking, clearly defined facts emerge from the chaos of multiple variables and experimental uncertainty.
  • Mathematical abstractions never look like the real thing, but they are often as powerful, and are frequently more conceptually illuminating, in an abstract way.
  • Mathematics studies perfect objects - the Platonic ideal - but often the proofs can be messy and confusing.
  • With determination, and great patience, the seeker is often rewarded with the discovery of unique and surpassing results.
  • Communication comes in a variety of forms. Some signs and signals, such as laughter, or a wave, or a sigh, are readily understood by just about anyone, and even by some animals. Others are esoteric, perhaps only understood by one or a few.
  • The elegance of simplicity is a coveted end in scientific communities across time, place, and field of research. "What can be done with less is done in vain with more." Willem of Occam
  • When a new lab gets started, it’s important to keep it fueled with enthusiasm, energy, and especially midnight snacks.
  • Scientists and artists become absorbed in their work, forgetting to eat, or losing track of time, place and (when it’s really good) even self.
  • Scientific investigation is never complete. From the vantage point of new experience and knowledge come new directions of pursuit.
  • Entire organisms - be they trees, whales, frogs, or humans - develop from a single cell. When cells divide, each half innately ‘knows’ which part of the organism it should become next.
  • Many great and inspired ideas have occurred to thinkers while completely disconnected from their mental task. A long sought-after idea or solution may spontaneously surface during a moment of relaxation and distraction, an “Aha!” moment.
  • When light bombards a molecule, a photon may be absorbed, in which case the extra energy causes the molecule's bonds to vibrate more vigorously. Some of that extra vibrational energy dissipates into the molecule's surroundings as heat. If the energy is not completely dissipated, the vibrations may align to create and emit a new photon with lower energy and a (usually) longer wavelength; that is, they fluoresce.
  • Organisms and their parts somehow 'know' when to stop growing. As computers count in an algorithmic, logarithmic or binary way, so does biology 'count' in its own biochemical way.
  • Self-assembly is a process that spontaneously creates order. At the molecular scale, self-assembling components don't ‘know’ where to go - but they get there. Particles combine and settle in so many ways, randomly fitting together, that eventually, bit by bit, they become complex and can build even further.
  • In our multifaceted lives, those things which anchor us to the earth, which ground us and provide a base, can allow our subtle minds to roam, to dream, and to visit faraway realms in our thoughts. Here thoughts and sensations travel faster than light.
  • In art and science, achieving a given outcome is one small part of a long process. Desired outcomes are there to be realized, and with discipline and perseverance, they'll eventually be attained.
  • The naturalist feels an affinity to the myriad products of nature in all their peculiarity and beauty. Each of us being unique, we're attracted to, or intrigued by a different set of textures, processes, functions, values, and colors of things. These things and combinations affect us in silent and invisible ways, shared across humanity.
  • Eventually, one must leave the safety of home and set out to make their way in the world, where one's eyes are opened by possibilities and dangers, by the edifices left behind by their predecessors, and by the wonders of life’s machinery.
  • The retina is a complex network of neural cells that detect light and immediately begin signal processing to reduce noise, increase sensitivity, and identify regions of contrast and motion. While the insect eye consists of a regular hexagonal grid of nearly identical cells, each with its own lens and neurons, a mammal’s eye has a single lens and many somewhat irregularly spaced photoreceptor neurons.
  • Material forms require an array of forces, weights, densities, and other qualities - qualities which are inherent to the object as a whole, and a similar array of forces, weights, and densities within each particle that comprises it.
  • If you draw a random squiggly line on paper and, at the intersections clarify which part goes over and which goes under, there is, imaginably, a surface contained within your squiggle. A thin wire bent into a twisted but closed curve and dipped into soapy water reveals such a surface.
  • Self-assembly is a ubiquitous process at the molecular scale (crystals, viruses, cytoskeletons) and macroscopic scale (dust bunnies, sand dunes, stars). Tree forms are also ubiquitous in nature and culture, and are self-organizing at many scales (rivers,carbohydrates, traffic patterns). These universal forms can be seen seemingly everywhere.
  • Preparing a sample for atomic force microscopy, complex self-assembled molecules settle onto a mica surface, where they will soon be imaged. (Also see “Wings.”)
  • Some structures are made from strings and struts, (like a suspension bridge, or the bones and tendons of living creatures) where every strut is separate, and every cable is pulled taut in such a manner that the structure doesn’t collapse. The tensional integrity of an object or system derived from the balance of tension members, as opposed to compression struts, is its tensegrity, aka: floating cohesion.
  • Occasionally someone’s life story may seem scripted or contrived to the point of being impossible - a series of extraordinary events, coincidences, great hardships and crucial choices leading to that person’s unique work and expertise, as if by recipe.
  • An individual is a self-organized collection of smaller individuals. There are often two parts: global interactions of roving elements (such as bees or blood cells) and local arrays of geometrically arranged elements (such as nests or brain cells).
  • Often the best scientific result is the simplest. A solution or discovery may, with hindsight, be so uncomplicated and obvious that it's surprising, or elegant. Yet to approach that simple truth may have required sophisticated instruments and complex methods to explore thousands of possibilities.
  • All material objects are made of just one thing: atoms. If you could separate the atoms in one object, and put them back together again with extreme precision, you could make another object.
  • Molecular engineers can design and synthesize complex polymers that grow in almost lifelike ways. Like a spider, an engineered molecule can trigger insertion of polymer subunits behind it, thus effectively "excreting" a thread to which it remains attached. As engineering frontiers expand, even more lifelike behaviors will be attainable.
  • Synthetic biology is the engineering and construction of molecular devices that work inside cells. The construction materials are restriction enzymes to cut DNA, polymerases to copy DNA and RNA, ribosomes to translate RNA into protein, and myriad chemical tricks for finishing touches.
  • Experiments conducted within a fluid medium with very tiny molecules present a unique impasse when the experiment relies upon those molecules coming into contact with each other – such as to bind together to form a larger functioning unit. The pieces are so tiny, and the drop of fluid so large that the molecules are unlikey to find each other, unless designed to attract each other.
  • Some of the most precious things in science - and in life – are the ability to learn for yourself, to tap into your own unique perspective and interests, and to do it with a sense of adventure.
  • A cell’s cytoskeleton consists of a network of molecular-scale "I beams" that hold the cell in its shape. Some engineered cells can crawl by growing their cytoskeleton on one side while dissolving it on the other side.
  • Crystals can grow in surprisingly complex ways. Synthetic bismuth crystals grow as square-angled spiral staircases. With the ability to design macromolecules, it’s now possible to create crystals with a programmed growth path, and which can “intelligently” respond to obstacles it encounters.
  • Computer programmers can be quite imaginative. The term “bug” itself is a fanciful metaphor. Some programmers have bugs in their programs; others have cuttlefish.
  • Thrill seekers love to probe the unknown. For some, it’s the fresh powder on the slope of an uncharted mountain. For others, it’s the unexpected terrain of a new scientific field. For a few, it’s both.
  • As intelligent beings who learn from their environment, we contain within ourselves mirrors of the world, and even mirrors of ourselves. One remarkable example is that if you look at the brain’s sensory and motor cortex and ask what part of the body it pertains to, you get a (distorted) map of the body.
  • Your brain hasn't always known that your arm is your arm. It may have learned it the same way that someone with a prosthetic limb learns to experience the artificial limb as part of their own body. Extensive tool-use (imagine a racquetball racket, violin, or even a mechanized prosthetic) can also lead to the sense of the tool or machine being a part of your body.
  • Chemical processes can create patterns similar to the spots on leopards, the patchwork on giraffes, the stripes on zebras. More complex patterns could be created if chemistry could be programmed.
  • In programming, instantiation is the creation of a real instance of an abstraction or template such as a class of objects or a computer process. In mathematics, objects (such as sets or functions) can be defined that are impossible to compute. Yet these impossible objects can provide insight that clarifies possibilities.