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In Memoriam: Robinson Professor Harold Morowitz

March 24, 2016   /   by Colleen Kearney Rich

Harold Morowitz, Krasnow Professor, Robinson Professor. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

George Mason University is saddened by the passing of Robinson Professor Harold Morowitz. Morowitz died on Tuesday, March 22. He was 88.

A noted biophysicist, Morowitz joined Mason in 1988 as Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy after a long career of teaching and research at Yale University, where he was professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and served for five years as Master of Pierson College.

Morowitz was one of the first faculty to join Mason’s Robinson Professor program, which recruits distinguished faculty from senior positions at other institutions and brings them to the university to focus on undergraduate teaching. Morowitz was teaching an Honors course, Reading the Arts: Biological Themes in Literature, this semester.

"Dr. Morowitz was an extraordinary intellectual, devoted teacher, and very good friend to the Honors College," said Dean Zofia Burr. "Students were inspired by the depth of his knowledge and experience, and especially by his understanding of the interconnectedness of art and science.  We will miss him very much."

Morowitz helped established the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason and served as its founding director from 1993 to 1998. He was also closely associated with the Santa Fe Institute, where he was chairman emeritus of the Science Board. He also served as the founding editor of the journal Complexity.

The author of several books, Morowitz wrote extensively on the thermodynamics of living systems, as well as on popular topics in science. His titles include Mayonnaise and the Origins of Life, Cosmic Joy and Local Pain, The Thermodynamics of Pizza, Entropy and the Magic Flute, and The Kindly Dr. Guillotin. His latest book is The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere, written with Eric Smith, is due out in May from Cambridge University Press.

Denise Napoliello, Robinson Professor program coordinator, said she will miss Morowitz's kind spirit and positive outlook. 

"He had high principles and would not let anything get in his way," she said. "He could always find something good to make out of any situation. That is what I loved about him the most."

In his research, Morowitz focused on the origins of life and the interface of biology and information sciences, and was principal investigator on the multi-institutional grant “From Geochemistry to the Origin of Life,” which is centered at the Santa Fe Institute and includes George Mason University and four other research centers.

"It seemed to me that Dr. Morowitz was enlightened: he was almost always present and compassionate when engaging with others in the Mason community, especially his beloved students," said Kevin Stoy, Director of External Partnerships for the Honors College. "He truly embodied and modeled lifelong learning for them."

Stoy is co-teaching Morowitz's course with Jim Trefil the remainder of the semester. "(The students)  were as engaged as I've ever seen a group, and had such thoughtful questions and comments to share about 'unintended consequences,' one of Dr. Morowitz's favorite topics to complicate. That I believe is no small tribute to him."

Morowitz is survived by his wife of 67 years and their four sons. 

A tribute to Morowitz’s life and scholarship is planned for later this year.