The Ann Erpino and Erik Winfree Science Series gives a glimpse of the scientific life by blending imagery of scientific processes, theories, discoveries, and concepts with the personal attributes 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 scientific concepts from math to neurobiology, from molecular programming to life’s mineral origins, reflecting a range and depth of scientific concepts.
The series was commissioned by Dr. Erik Winfree after he became tenured at CalTech. Each image is tailored to a specific colleague, mentor, student, collaborator, or intellectual partner who has enriched Dr. Winfree’s scientific life. Each painting portrays some aspect of their character, or their interests and hobbies, a pet theory, or some anecdote of their time spent with Dr. Winfree, while blending it with the science that that person has advanced.
Dr. Winfree tutored Ann in dozens of scientific concepts, told stories of his academic partners and heroes; artist and scientist then jointly conceptualized each painting, before Ann painted them with Dr Winfree’s oversight and input. The original paintings may be seen at Caltech (depending)
Descriptions written by Erik Winfree and Ann Erpino
The complete Ann Erpino and Erik Winfree Science Series:
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. A simple bacterium, only a micron in size, can find sustenance (say, sugar) by “smelling” its odor. It swims in a random direction and, if the smell gets stronger, it keeps going; if not, it tries a new direction, eventually reaching the source. Similarly, scientists may catch the glimpse of a higher truth from individual experiments, and blindly do the same. 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. Biochemical experiments often require tiny volumes of liquid – microliters, or less…a fraction of a raindrop. Molecules, molecular systems, and materials can be simulated and designed on computers, allowing visionary scientists to imagine and create environments from atoms on up. 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. Computational forms and functions stand alone or lock in with other forms and functions, each contributing their unique pattern to the whole. In programming, instantiation is the creation of a real instance or particular realization 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 a force of insight that clarifies what is possible and blazes the path toward manifesting it. Reality beyond our perception is an entangled logarithmic output of a computational universe. The principle of least action states that, of all the 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. 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’) 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’) Throughout evolutionary history, an astounding variety of life forms have been chanced upon. Given our narrow existential perspective, most of them would look alien and bizarre to us now. During the Cambrian explosion 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, were they here to observe) 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. 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.’ Vestiges and fundamental qualities of our earliest ancestors remain encoded within us today. Whether plant or animal, fungus or virus, each living thing culminates out of a very long chain, bringing information from primordial times. 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. 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. Objects exchange molecules upon contact. Residue left by each can start a new growth pattern, such as crystallization, on its new host. A microfluidic chip is a network of tubes, valves, reaction chambers and sensors packed into a small device capable of making sophisticated medical diagnoses. 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. 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. 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. For everything that you see, there’s more that you don’t see. Behind a seemingly impenetrable barrier is often a calm place of quiet sustenance; getting there may be easier, if more circuitous, than one thinks. 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. 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.’ 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. 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. Mathematics studies perfect objects – the Platonic ideal – but often the proofs can be messy and confusing. Ever since Pythagorus and likely before, mathematicians have seen the world as being composed of numbers, which has led to great insights. 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. Mathematical abstractions never look like the real thing, but they are often as powerful, and are frequently more conceptually illuminating, in an abstract way. With the right insight and careful touch, DNA can Be programmed to assemble itself into incredibly complex nanoscale objects called ‘DNA origami’. 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. To power nanomachines, a molecular fuel must store energy in a stable form – stable until it’s released. Nature builds powerful computers, your brain being a prime example. Molecular self-assembly allows scientists to create electrical circuits by growing them. 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. During sleep, neural activity becomes quite different from when you’re awake. Isolated from the outside world, the brain slips into a progression of rhythmic modes, and waves of activity sweep across brain structures, changing through each sleep and dream stage. As you wake, these rhythms reorganize to encounter your waking reality. 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. 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. Interdisciplinary science requires an ability to synthesize many strands of knowledge, to bind them together and test their strength, then extract pertinent information. 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. Intuition becomes stronger with use and nurture, and has a powerful way of breaking through the conventions and constrictions imposed by traditional approaches. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. String theorists posit that the fundamental elements of matter aren’t points, but strings, or even surfaces. 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. 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. Squeezed light (photons whose vibrations are constrained relative to normal light) can be manufactured in the laboratory. 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. Scientific investigation is never complete. From the vantage point of new experience and knowledge come new directions of pursuit. 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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.”) 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. 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. 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. 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. When a new lab gets started, it’s important to keep it fueled with enthusiasm, energy, and especially midnight snacks. 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. 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. 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. Computer programmers can be quite imaginative. The term “bug” itself is a fanciful metaphor. Some programmers have bugs in their programs; others have cuttlefish. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 when multiple molecules bind together to form a larger functioning unit. The pieces are so tiny, and the drop of fluid so large that the molecules are unlikely to find each other, unless they can be designed to be attracted to each other. The nematode Caenorhabditis Elegans is 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. 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.