Remembering Harold Morowitz

Harold Morowitz was an advisor on our Teilhard de Chardin Project.  He was always generous with his time and insight and we will miss him.  He had a great sense of humor, as the titles of his books indicate.  Generally his books required more science that I had, but found his book The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex to be something we could appreciate.

We offer our sincere condolences to his wife and children.

From the New York Times:

Harold Morowitz

Harold Morowitz, 88, Biophysicist, Dies; Tackled Enigmas Big and Small

Harold J. Morowitz, a boundlessly curious biophysicist who tackled mind-boggling enigmas ranging from the origin of life to the thermodynamics of pizza, died on March 22 in Falls Church, Va. He was 88.

The cause was sepsis, his son Noah said.

Trained as a physicist and a philosopher, Professor Morowitz was inspired in his scholarly speculation by the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the mid-20th-century Jesuit paleontologist who developed the idea of the Omega Point, his term for a level of spiritual consciousness and material complexity toward which he believed the universe was evolving.

Professor Morowitz’s intellectual scope extended beyond the laboratory. He was a consultant to NASA on experiments conducted remotely on the surface of Mars and inside Biosphere 2, the world’s largest enclosed ecosystem.

He was best known for applying thermodynamic theory to biology, exploring how “the energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system.”

In his book “Energy Flow in Biology” (1968), Professor Morowitz examined how natural energy, in forms like lightning and heat, flowed through the antediluvian ocean’s primordial soup to create ecological systems that constituted life.

“All of biological process begins with the capture of solar photons and terminates with the flow of heat to the environment,” he wrote in 1970 in “Entropy for Biologists: An Introduction to Thermodynamics.” “Biology is at its roots a profoundly thermodynamic subject.”

Professor Morowitz argued that his theory on energy flow suggested that life, in some form, probably exists elsewhere in the universe.

“Harold Morowitz is one of the world’s seminal thinkers about the origin of life within the context of the physics of our universe,” said James L. Olds, assistant director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences of the National Science Foundation.

“Insomuch as we have stars with elements that go through life and death cycles of their own,” Dr. Olds said, “Harold would say those physics and chemistry inevitably produce life.”

Still, Professor Morowitz was more confident dismissing dogma, like creationism or intelligent design, than specifying how life originated on Earth.

In 1983, he testified in McLean v. Arkansas, a case that successfully challenged a state law mandating the teaching of “creation science” in Arkansas public schools. Professor Morowitz described creation science as “somewhat deceptive” and said its proponents “play rather fast and loose with the use of the second law of thermodynamics to indicate that the natural origin of life would not be possible.”

Generally, that law states that any natural process involving heat and temperature in an isolated system progresses in the direction of increasing disorder, or entropy, of the system. But Professor Morowitz stressed that the Earth is not an isolated system.

“Energy can create order,” Dr. Olds said, “and life, if anything, is order.”

Professor Morowitz compared the antediluvian primordial soup to a common condiment.

In his book “Mayonnaise and the Origin of Life: Thoughts of Minds and Molecules” (1985), he said the marriage of oil and vinegar wrought by egg yolk was a model for compounds that favor opposites, like fat at one end and water at the other. Those compounds form the boundaries of cells and tie molecules together, mirroring the self-replicating units of life.

Harold Joseph Morowitz was born on Dec. 4, 1927, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Philip Morowitz, a newspaper and magazine distributor, and the former Anna Levine.

He received a bachelor of science degree in physics and philosophy, a master’s in physics and a doctorate in biophysics (when he was 23), all from Yale University.

In addition to his son Noah, he is survived by his wife, the former Lucille Stein; three other sons, Eli, Joshua and Zachary; nine grandchildren; and two sisters, Iris Wiley and Bernice Regunberg.

After working as a physicist for the National Bureau of Standards and the National Heart Institute, Professor Morowitz taught molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale from 1955 to 1987 (he also served as the master of Pierson College), then biology and natural philosophy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

He was the founding director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason, the chairman emeritus of the science board of the Santa Fe Institute, founding editor of the journal Complexity, and the author or co-author of 19 books.

He could explore vast topics. A book he published in 2002 is titled “The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex.” And he could deprecate a United States Supreme Court opinion in a patent case that denied any distinction between animate and inanimate matter as “the ultimate in reducing life to physics.”

Virtually no topic was too trivial for him to tease a more profound meaning from. He studied the effect of a gravity-free environment in space on how fast a fresh pizza gets cold.

Once, when he received a birthday card that assessed a human body’s raw materials at only 97 cents, he recalculated the cost based on synthesized ingredients from a biochemical company catalog and re-evaluated his worth at more than $6 million.

“Information is much more expensive than matter,” he wrote in 1976. “We are led cent by dollar from a lowly pile of common materials to a grand philosophical conclusion, the infinite preciousness of every person.”

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