Santa Fe Institute

In memoriam: Harold Morowitz

March 30, 2016 9:27 p.m.

Harold Morowitz, a leading figure in shaping the scientific and popular understanding of the chemical origins of life on Earth, passed away March 22 in Fairfax, Va.

At the time of his passing Morowitz, 88, was the Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy at George Mason University and Science Board Chair Emeritus of the Santa Fe Institute.

Read the obituary in the New York Times (April 3, 2016)

A longtime advocate for the science of complex systems, he was among the prominent scientists whose presence bolstered the Institute’s scientific credibility and research during the formative years after the Institute’s founding. He remained an SFI ally and collaborator for 30 years, attracting a number of younger scientists to the Institute and helping firm its programs in biophysics.

“Harold was a key figure and friend in the development and maturation of the Santa Fe Institute – one of those figures who personifies the Institute’s ambition and mission,” says SFI President David Krakauer. “He is greatly missed.”

Morowitz’s career focus was on applying the principles of thermodynamics to the study of living systems, and his talent in describing the important insights at the forefront of biophysics for nearly seven decades influenced generations of scientists who followed him, says longtime friend and collaborator D. Eric Smith, an SFI external professor.

His voice, at once scientifically reasoned and popularly accessible, played a significant role in identifying and isolating promising hypotheses about life’s origins, says Smith. His “continuous out-of-left-field originality” often pointed to unlikely solutions and nudged his colleagues in promising new directions, he adds.

“Harold wasn’t the originator of the most important theories he was interested in,” Smith says. “But he was instrumental in changing people’s minds and in shifting the way they think.”

Morowitz, a child prodigy, began undergraduate school at Yale at the age of 16. Many years later he often told his own undergraduate students the story of his switch from physics to biology. In a freshman physics lab, Morowitz said, he had been paired with another child prodigy, the 15-year-old physics student Murray Gell-Mann.

The two were competitive, with Gell-Mann usually outperforming his lab partner. (Once, Morowitz said, he outscored Gell-Mann on a test by a couple of points, an event he later realized was to be his greatest achievement in physics.) The young Morowitz decided that if that Gell-Mann was a typical physicist, he should change fields. Gell-Mann, another major figure in the Institute’s founding and history, received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969.

With his unique background, Morowitz the physicist-turned-biologist zeroed in on a key issue at the intersection of the two fields. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics calls for increasing entropy (disorder) in a closed system, but living systems seem to evolve continually toward ever-increasing order. He joined other biophysicists in noting that patches of increasing order may form within a large closed system – in this case, the universe – without violating the 2nd Law.

He began to focus on how energy pathways might provide the necessary direction for chemical networks to evolve into self-replicating chemical systems and, eventually, living systems. In particular, he resonated with hypotheses that a buildup of energy in a chemical system might drive energy-dissipating pathways that equalize such energy imbalances – in essence, chemical lightning bolts that distributed stored chemical energy more evenly across the system.

His 1968 book Energy Flow in Biology was influential on both the scientific and popular fronts. Its key idea – "the energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system” – was quoted on the inside front cover of Stewart Brand’s magazine The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Some leading biophysicists, among them Eric D. Schneider, have suggested that Morowitz may have discovered a "fourth law of thermodynamics" in proposing that in a steady state system, the flow of energy through the system from a source to a sink will lead to at least one cycle in the system.

Much later, in the 1990s, Morowitz became an advocate of the hypothesis that given early Earth’s mineralogy and energy sources, such dissipative energy pathways could have driven the self-organization of a citric acid cycle – the chemical process of metabolism – but in reverse. In particular, he suggested that the chemical, energy, and temperature conditions near deep-sea hydrothermal vents might have been adequate to jump start the earliest self-replicating biological systems.

Morowitz writings played a significant role in the emergence of the second of two distinct, but both incomplete, candidate explanations for life’s origins: known as “metabolism first” and “RNA world.” These hypotheses became the nuclei of two outspoken scientific tribes, a division that has persisted for decades – although more recent insights and a contemporary focus on common problems may begin to reconcile the scientific differences between the two camps, notes Smith.

SFI External Professor Walter Fontana recalls that Morowitz was spellbound by the idea that the emergence of new phenomena from interactions at any level of description was a “channeling of the infinite possibilities collectively enabled by these interactions into a select few.” This process of disciplining the infinite into the finite Morowitz referred to as “pruning.”

“He therefore sought the pruning law that would get you from the infinite possibilities opened up by chemistry [of the early Earth] to the finite types of self-maintaining chemical networks that catapult the physical world into a pre-Darwinian trajectory of selective chemical accretion and extension until the first appearance of stable reproducing individuality ignites Darwinian selection as we know it,” Fontana says. “Harold believed that the core cycle of present-day metabolism is the only possible outcome of this pre-Darwinian pruning in the space of early-Earth chemistry.”

Morowitz spent most of his career at Yale University, where he was professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and served for five years as master of Pierson College. He joined George Mason University in 1988 and was among the founding faculty of the Robinson Professors program, which recruits distinguished faculty from senior positions at other institutions and brings them to GMU to focus on undergraduate teaching.

He helped established the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at GMU and served as its founding director from 1993 to 1998.

Morowitz authored or co-authored hundreds of papers in biophysics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. He served as the founding editor of the journal Complexity.

He also is author of numerous books. Among his titles are The Foundations of Bioenergetics, The Facts of Life, Mayonnaise and the Origins of Life, Cosmic Joy and Local Pain, The Beginnings of Cellular Life, The Thermodynamics of Pizza, Entropy and the Magic Flute, The Kindly Dr. Guillotin, and The Emergence of Everything.

His most recent book co-authored with Smith, The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere, is due out in May from Cambridge University Press. It explores the origin of life as a planetary process, combining principles from geology, geochemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, evolution, and statistical physics to develop the argument that the emergence of life was a necessary cascade of nonequilibrium phase transitions that opened new channels for chemical energy flow on Earth.

Fontana calls the book Morowitz’s “grand opus,” and in an online review states it is “the most significant book on the origin of life hitherto written.”

Morowitz’s view that life on earth emerged deterministically from the laws of chemistry and physics led him to the conclusion that it is highly probable that life exists widely in the universe.

He was a longtime consultant for NASA and served on the committees that planned the quarantine procedures for Apollo 11 and the biology experiments the Viking probe carried to the surface of Mars. He was a member of the science advisory committee for Biosphere 2.

In 1981 he testified in "McLean v. Arkansas" that creationism should not be taught as science in public schools. Based in part on his testimony, the court ruled that creation science is not science, an outcome that has influenced subsequent rulings around the country on the teaching of creationism in classrooms.

In 1987 at SFI, he organized a summer workshop on the “Matrix of Biological Knowledge.” The workshop was influential in catalyzing what became the field of biological informatics and in fueling some of the Institute’s emerging research threads in origins of life, artificial life, and autocatalytic loops, to name a few.

In the mid 2000s, Morowitz was principal investigator on the multi-institution NSF-funded grant “From Geochemistry to the Genetic Code,” nucleated at the Santa Fe Institute. As part of the grant, a sweeping exhibit on life’s origins was developed by students at New Mexico Highlands University in partnership with the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. The exhibit is on display at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque.

During his seven-decade career, Morowitz influenced the thinking of many scientists. Tom Knight, a pioneer in synthetic biology, for example, credits Morowitz’s writings for convincing him that the mysteries of biology could be unraveled in the service of human technology.

Carnegie Institution geologist Robert Hazen has noted that a naive question Morowitz asked him during a 2006 cocktail party changed Hazen’s thinking about early earth’s mineralogy, leading to important new ideas about the co-evolution of minerals and biological systems.

Morowitz’s book Foundations of Bioenergetics played a major role in helping biologists writ large understand relevant issues in basic physics, says Smith.

But Morowitz’s greatest impact, notes Smith, might have been convincing generations of scientists that questions about the origins of life are worthy of their careers. Many SFI scientists, directly and indirectly, benefited from Morowitz’s deep thinking at the intersection of biology and physics, among them Stuart Kauffman, Chris Langton, Walter Fontana, Andreas Wagner, Steen Rasmussen, David Krakauer, Eric Smith, Rogier Braakman, and others.

“Harold’s books and his way of talking about science made him a voice to an enormous wider world that science was friendly,” says Smith. “This, I think, attracted a whole generation of young scientists to science and to biophysics.”

The Santa Fe Institute invites friends and colleagues of Harold Morowitz to share memories of his life and career in the comments below (moderated).

Read GMU President Angel Cabrera’s eulogy to Morowitz (March 29, 2016)

Read the obituary in Yale Daily News (April 11, 2016)

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Comments - post a comment

Mimi Roberts - March 30, 2016, 10:50 p.m.

Harold was best known as a scientist, of course, but I knew him primarily as a museum exhibit developer. It was my good fortune to meet Harold in 2006 through an introduction from Ginger Richardson shortly after a partnership had been cemented between the Media Arts Program at New Mexico Highlands University and the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, where I work. He and Eric Smith, his co-PI on the NSF-funded research project “From Geochemistry to the Genetic Code,” were looking for a creative and meaningful way to fulfill the education and outreach mandate of the grant, and they enthusiastically embraced the idea of having Highlands students produce a small traveling exhibition. Their confidence in the students to serve as interpreters of their ongoing scientific research validated our nascent program to train media arts majors as science interpreters and exhibit designers. Their advocacy was in large part responsible for the success of the program, which is still going strong today. The complete lack of hesitation and total devotion to the students was also quintessentially Harold. The exhibit "Emergence: A New View of Life's Origin" has undergone several iterations since the beginning, thanks to supplemental funding from NSF and the ongoing support of Harold and the other members of the research team, who followed his example in their generous contributions of time and expertise. The version of the exhibition that is currently on view at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque will serve as the inspiration and prototype for future exhibitions that incorporate his research and that of other SFI researchers in the years to come. We will miss Harold, our mentor, our collaborator, and our friend, and we are eternally grateful for the opportunities he created for NMHU students.

Stuart Kauffman - March 31, 2016, 9:38 a.m.

I was deeply fond of and admired Harold very much. I guess I had known Harold for about 30 years through SFI. He taught me more biophysics than anyone I have met. He was, of course, an outstanding biophysicist at Yale and then George Mason. The two scientific themes that I remember best were his experimental work on the reverse TCA cycle, which, run in reverse, is autocatalytic, making a second copy of one of the members of that cycle. More, Harold was able to run the cycle backward without enzymes, unless I have forgotten. Here the hope was part of a metabolism first view of the origin of life, hoping for webs of autocatalytic chemical reaction cycles. Others have adopted this view, which was also put forward by Timor Ganti in 1971, as an origin of metabolism. The second, a dream, was Harold's hope to find an analogue of the Pauli Exclusion Principle that would narrow biotic chemistry from the vast maze of possible reactions and molecules towards known metabolism. Harold may yet be right.

Personally, he was always warm, caring, charming, thoughtful, and gentle. He did not have to earn the fondness of others for him, he was just "Harold" and so many of us loved him. Stuart Kauffman

david pines - March 31, 2016, 11:20 a.m.

In addition to being a first-rate scientist, Harold was a first-rate human being, warm and friendly, always courteous, generous and modest. He recognized very early on the potential that SFI offered to non-resident faculty-a perhaps unique way to extend one’s scientific horizons and scientific impact—and acted on this recognition by organizing one of our very first workshops, The Matrix of Biological Knowledge. His report on that seminal workshop may be found at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236521854_Report_of_the_Matrix_of_Biological_Knowledge_Workshop

martin Shubik - March 31, 2016, 11:57 a.m.

Along with many other distinguished scientists Harold has gone to collect the 41st chair at the French Academy. Some years ago I was trying to get several members of SFI elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I called Harold and asked him to support the nomination. There was a slight silence and then he noted that he was not a member. I tried to rectify this, but I failed.
I do not pretend to appreciate the detailed technical aspects of Harold's chemistry, but I believe that I understood the intellectual honesty, originality and dedication that characterized his life.

Rogier Braakman - March 31, 2016, 2:25 p.m.

Harold was like a guru to me. We never wrote any papers together, but his presence looms large in everything I do. Reading several of his books during graduate school inspired me as I was plotting my own transition into biology. I first met Harold in person in the summer of 2008, when I visited SFI to participate in a month-long group discussion about the origin of life. I was immediately struck by his kindness and generosity. As we sat around discussing an incredibly wide range of topics, from geochemistry to molecular biology and thermodynamics, I struggled to keep up. His patient encouragement as I asked naïve questions gave me the confidence to continue the struggle of learning things very new to me. Those discussions, and that same basic dynamic, continued over the years and helped me formulate what has become the core of my research program.

Harold also opened my eyes to both the importance and excitement of scientifically engaging the general audience by including me in several projects he helped spearhead. Participating in an origin of life workshop for high school teachers, and particularly helping provide support in the development of the origin of life exhibit at the NM museum of natural history remain some of the most satisfying experiences of my academic career.

What made perhaps the biggest impression on me was Harold’s unending optimism about science, that with time even the biggest questions could be tackled. I will never forget the image of him, as we were discussing some aspect of the origin of life, waving his finger at me and with a twinkle in his eye saying “You know Rogier, I really think there is something here”. I feel very fortunate for having known Harold, and will miss him.

Tim Taylor - March 31, 2016, 5:57 p.m.

I can't speak to Harold as a scientist, but he once made the time to take SFI's assistant librarian to lunch in order to discuss Chekhov and Dostoevsky. It was a resonant hour-and-a-half for me, and I felt as if I'd been in the presence of a contemporary and lively Father Zossima.

Paul Mazzuca - April 2, 2016, 9:39 p.m.

Harold was my mentor, friend and inspiration. First discussions on the US Catholic Conference of Bishops letter on nuclear weapons led me to an Independent Study course for my Biology degree comparing patterns in an early microorganism, a chemolithoautotroph, that grows on undersea sulfur vents, Aquifex. We used KEGG to compare possibly redundant biochemical pathways in an examination of the original life.

I was an older student returning to school after struggling for a few decades and not an "A" perfect student. Conversations with Harold gave me dignity and honor and helped me to dare to think and act differently. Now I wish I had taken more time off to attend those Krasnow and Mind Guild seminars. Thank you, Harold.

Dave Deamer - April 16, 2016, 11:11 p.m.

My first memory of Harold was a startlingly clear talk he gave at a Gordon Conference in the early 1980s, in which he argued that pyrophosphate would be a plausible energy source for primitive forms of life. A few years later we began to share ideas, and through our friendship I had the good fortune to visit Harold and Lucille in Hawaii where they maintained a small yacht in Lahaina Harbor, Maui. Lucille had just earned her 'six-pack' license to take up to six passengers sailing around the islands and I may have been one of her first customers. Although Harold loved Hawaii and featured it in the biology textbook he and Lucille co-authored, he was definitely not enamored of sailing, once commenting that it resembled military service: 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror. Besides learning so much from Harold about the way that thermodynamics informs biology, we also discussed his early work on membrane biophysics, particularly studies of certain Mycoplasma species which cannot synthesize their own fatty acids but instead must obtain them as nutrients. During these conversations, we realized that the first forms of life could not have had the biosynthetic machinery to make fatty acids, in which case amphiphilic compounds must have been present in the prebiotic environment. These would undergo spontaneous self-assembly into the essential compartments required for the 'beginnings of cellular life', the title of one of Harold's best known books.

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