Regents' Professor Arthur Winfree Dies

Lori Stiles
Nov. 8, 2002

University of Arizona Regents' Professor Arthur T. Winfree, 60, died at his home in Tucson Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2002 after a seven-month battle with cancer.

The family is planning private services. No other memorial services are as yet planned.

Winfree joined the UA department of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) in 1986, and was a member of the UA's applied mathematics program. He was widely known for his studies of coupled nonlinear oscillations, generally known as biological rhythms. His work touched a wide array of research, including heart rhythms and arrhythmia, and circadian rhythms, or sleep patterns.

"Art was an uncommon and original man and a brilliant scientist," said EEB department head Richard Michod. "He was uncommon because he did not accept explanations lightly and certainly never on the basis of the pedigree of the explainer. He had to know and understand things for himself. He was original because this hunger for understanding drove him to ask all sorts of questions (that led to) whole new directions of research."

Winfree had the ability to look deeply into a physical, chemical or biological phenomenon and describe it mathematically. He is perhaps best known for discovering and describing the phenomenon of three-dimensional scroll waves in excitable media. These are waves which spiral out from an organizing backbone, like a vortex. Such structures have been often observed experimentally, for example, in dog and sheep hearts, and are widely believed to be intricately associated with cardiac fibrillation and arrhythmia in the human heart.

Winfree's book, "The Geometry of Biological Time," originally published in 1980 and re-published in 1990, has been recently published in a second edition.

The book demonstrates Winfree's "grand gift for bringing, in a simple manner, deep topological, geometrical and dynamical ideas into the realm of the natural," Michod said. Winfree developed the understanding of how the human biological clock could be synchronized and slightly reset, an idea that led to his designing a program by which travelers might avoid jet lag.

"He claimed great success for this method when he applied it to his own experiences, although, consistent with his usual modest self, he was also willing to entertain the notion that other factors, such as auto suggestion, might explain equally well his irritability and sleeplessness when he didn't follow his own recipe," Michod said.

Michod characterized Winfree as a natural teacher. Winfree wrote many science articles for popular consumption, and he taught a unique and popular UA course called "The Art of Scientific Discovery." The course was designed to challenge students to solve problems like scientists do. They learned how to recognize ignorance, pose questions, propose and reject possible answers, and learn from their own mistakes. "Art believe that mistakes are often the most valuable doors to discovery," Michod said.

Winfree earned his doctorate from Princeton University in 1970 and his bachelor's degree in engineering physics from Cornell University in 1965. Prior to joining the UA, he taught biological sciences at Purdue University (1972-86) and theoretical biology at the University of Chicago (1969-72). He became UA Regents' Professor in 1989.

His numerous honors also include the 2000 Norbert Wiener Prize from the American Mathematical Society and the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the 1989-1991 Einthoven Award for his contributions to cardiology, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship in 1984 - an award that Winfree's son, Erik, also received in 2000.

Winfree is survived by his wife, Ji-Yun; his daughter Rae, who is a member of Princeton University's department of ecology and evolutionary biology faculty; son Erik of the California Institute of Technology; his father, C. Van Winfree; a sister, Phyllis; and brothers Charles and Robert.