The Six Epochs of Life — a mural by Nick Mayer inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near

February 21, 2012

The Six Epochs of Life mural was commissioned by Martine and Bina Rothblatt in the summer of 2008 to be painted on a bare concrete wall at Estate Marbina Abenaki’s Terasem Center of Critical Consciousness.

The primary wish that the Rothblatts had for the mural was that it illustrate the Six Epochs of Life described in chapter one of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near.

Use the viewer below to pan across and zoom in on the mural panorama. Select from the two images below: the actual mural in full color, and the artist’s sketch. Elements of the mural are annotated by Nick Mayer: match numbers in red to his descriptive tour below.

The wall seemed appropriate for a segmented depiction of six scenes since it was divided into sections by vertical lines from the precast concrete blocks from which the wall was made.

The Six Epochs of Life are Ray Kurzweil’s interpretation of evolution from the Big Bang to the Singularity and, like the subject matter, the mural itself evolved over time.

I found that I could not segment the mural into discreet epochs — evolution is a concatenation of interactions and I felt the mural had to flow, that the process of change from single celled organisms to nanobots needed to be a natural progression of increasing order in the humbling phenomenon of life. I needed to show that biology and technology were part of the same process.

I think that what is most unique about Kurzweil’s perspective on evolution and The Six Epochs of Life mural are that unlike virtually all other views of evolution they do not end at the present — they continue on far into the future. I began by laying in large areas of color gradients both beginning and ending with black, outer space, at the far left and far right.

I am a scientific illustrator and I found this process extremely liberating — painting huge blocks of color tens of feet in dimension with a roller instead of my normal near microscopic brush painting one pore at a time!

(credit: Nick Mayer)

I used large house painting brushes and big natural sponges to smear and blend the gradients. From that point on I pretty much worked in sequence beginning with the creation of the universe and working towards infinity.

I sketched out the elements using chalk and then laid in layers of paint with increasingly smaller brushes to get the level of detail I was shooting for. In this mural time progresses from the left to right, but it can be viewed in either direction.

It is made to be viewed both from afar and up close, however I would say the ideal viewing distance is about 10 feet away from the wall. There is a meandering path containing flashes of light that link the wonderous moments of evolution captured in the mural such as the fertilization of the ovum, the merging of technology and biology, etc.

This path and flashes of light are meant to represent the meandering path of Evolution and the life force that drives it forward. There are also twenty infinity symbols in the mural, some are obvious, others are very hidden.

The Six Epochs of Life mural was completed in the summer of 2011. It was painted with exterior grade acrylic paint and was coated with a UV blocking, graffiti-proof mural clear coat called Precita Eyes Sheercoat. With continued applica­tions of the clear coat it should last indefinitely.

Ray Kurzweil’s infographic outlining his theory of the six epochs of evolution (credit: Ray Kurzweil)

(credit: Nick Mayer)

EPOCH 1 | Physics and Chemistry: Information in Atomic Structures

At the far left side of the mural where it wraps around a corner on the eastern side of the house and triangulates into the peak of a roof, I depicted dense clusters of galaxies (1). At the beginning of time galaxies are hypothesized to have been closer together and were themselves also denser.

“We can trace our origins to a state that represents information in its basic structures: patterns of matter and energy.”(pg 14) The symbol of the spiral is carried throughout the mural.

Representing the fragility of order and life is a streaming comet (2) ever present, posing the threat of increased entropy. Representing the formation of planets are Saturn (3) and Jupiter (4). 

An exploding supernova (5) is also shown as a significant event in that it is the source of the building blocks of life: Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorous, and Sulfur. Glucose (C6H1206), Water (H20), Oxygen (02), and Methane (CH4) are also depicted here as basic molecules fundamental in life as we know it/ DNA.

EPOCH 2 | Biology: Information in DNA

Mural artist Nick Mayer (credit: Nick Mayer)

In this mural the miracle of life is directly linked to exploding supernovae — the explosion created the atoms fundamental in life and these building blocks formed the molecules that are the bread and butter of DNA. “Ultimately, biological systems evolved a precise digital mechanism (DNA) to store information describing a larger society of molecules.

This molecule and its supporting machinery of codons and ribosomes enabled a record to be kept of the evolutionary experiments of this second epoch.” (pg 16) The digital nature of DNA (5) with its four base code system is represented by a color scheme with each Nitrogenous Base represented by a different color — Adenine (Yellow) only bound to Thymine (Red) and Cytosine (Purple) only bound to Guanine (Mauve).

The rails of the DNA Double Helix are yellow (sugars) and green (phosphate groups). The process of Protein Synthesis is represented at area (6). Here the single messenger RNA (mRNA) strand can be distinguished from the DNA by its orange rail color. Also note that Thymine (Red) is no longer present and has been replaced by Uracil (Turquoise). The two lobed ribosome is attached to the mRNA strand and is reading the code.

Yellow transfer RNAs (tRNA) have filled the two bays of the ribosome by matching their three part anti codons to the mRNA codons and the ribosome is taking the tRNAs’ resulting sequence of Amino Acids (purple) and stringing them together into a bonded chain. The weak hydrogen bonds and Van der Waals forces resulting from this particular arrangement of Amino Acids causes a spontaneous conformational change in the structure of the chain, which in this case has formed a beautiful Alpha Helix.

It is the shape itself of these resulting proteins that determine their functionality and it is this functionality that makes all living things who they are. One’s eye color, toenail curvature, even behaviors are all a result of protein synthesis which is the link between code and trait. Single celled organisms such as Euglena gracilis (the protist link between plants and animals, note it has an animal-like flagellum and red eyespot, yet also contains chloroplasts) and amoeba sp. (7) are early results of the advent of DNA. Sexual reproduction (8) changed life forever allowing new ways of combining chromosomes, which allowed evolution to exponentially speed up. In area (8) sperm are shown racing towards the egg.

Only one sperm is successful and the fertilization envelope resulting from penetration blocks all the other sperm out. Deformed double tailed and crooked flagella sperm (top left) are also losers in the race. The large ovum is also a primitive sun background for flying Pteradons. The primitive wildflower, Trillium erectum (9), an EMA Infinity Trails favorite, is depicted as part of the miracle of pollination.

Another process that fueled speciation explosion—the success of the insects, Class Insecta, is represented by the cloud of honeybees, Apis florea. Also shown are their undersea counterparts, Phylum Arthropoda’s Northern Lobster, Homarus americanus.

EPOCH 3 | Brains: Information in Neural Patterns

“In the third epoch, DNA-guided evolution produced organisms that could detect information with their own sensory organs and process and store that information in their own brains and nervous systems.” (pg 16) One of the earliest and most successful manifestations of brain development was found in Phylum Cephalopoda (10) — Octopi, Squids, and Cuttlefish. The octopus, Octpus vulgaris, is symbolically touching the human brain as if in awe at the most complex and superior cerebral cortex evolved to date.

Accurately represented are the sulci (grooves) and gyri (ridges) of the human brain. The octopus is touching the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for higher mental functioning — essentially what makes us human. Representing the storage of information in biological form is the backdrop of root-like axons and dendrites.

DNA and other biological themes in the mural (credit: Nick Mayer)

EPOCH 4 | Technology: Information in Hardware and Software Design

Directly as a result of the advent of the miraculous human cerebral cortex, technology spontaneously generated. “This started out with simple mechanisms and developed into elaborate automata.

Ultimately, with sophisticated computational and communication devices, technology was itself capable sensing, storing, and evaluating elaborate patterns of information.” (pg 16) Along the top of the mural we see the process of evolution of flight.

Following the flying Pteradons, the bees, and dragonfly, at area (11) of the mural we see humans mimicking and ultimately surpassing the flight capabilities of nature. The Wright Brothers’ first flight is depicted just next to the NASA Space Shuttle success.

Further to the right is a solar powered satellite (15) similar to the satellites that made Sirius a world-changing phenomenon.

Exploding out of the Space Shuttle vapor trail are three-dimensional microchips. Representing the storage of information in technology is a background of connections at right angles to one another as opposed to the more organic structure of the neuronal connections.

EPOCH 5 | Merger of Technology and Human Intelligence

The methods of biology are integrated into the Human Technology Base “Looking ahead several decades, the Singularity will begin with the fifth epoch. It will result from the merger of the vast knowledge embedded in our own brains with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our technology.” (pg 20)

Human brain neurons grab and connect with the three dimensional microchips like octopi (12). This blended green glowing energy life force flows down the chimeric pathways, partly angular, partly organic. This hybrid technological-biological hand reaches out to welcome the world of robotics and androids (13).

Flowing out of the technological-biological wrist is a stream of increasingly magnified erythrocytes. To the left of the door, large concentrations of diseases represented by Sickle Cell Anemic erythrocytes weaken the blood.

To the right of the door, inspired by the insect explosion a swarm of translucent nanobots attach to the red blood cells, healing them and rejuvenating their vitality (14). The colonization of space is represented in area (16) with rotating space stations inspired by the visions and writings of Gerard O’Neill.

Also like insects, human transport pods dart between colonies allowing socialization and evolution to continue in space.

EPOCH 6 | The Universe Wakes Up

Patterns of matter and energy in the universe become saturated with intelligent processes and knowledge: “In the aftermath of the Singularity, intelligence, derived from its biological origins in human brains and its technological origins in human ingenuity, will begin to saturate the matter and energy in its midst.” (pg 21) The universe itself is now alive.

The nebulae once randomly formed and passively adrift now have the ability to understand and communicate. They have formed a symbol and are communicating that symbol back to us (17).

Galaxies that were once dense and tightly spiraled are now quite sparse and more relaxed in their rotation. We have ended were we began, in the cosmos.

Nick Mayer, artist
The Terasem Foundation
Martine Rothblatt
video | The six epochs of evolution from Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near