A Biophysicist Who Studied the Thermodynamics of Pizza

DC Emergence // YouTube
DC Emergence // YouTube / DC Emergence // YouTube

Science and philosophy might not seem like kindred practices at first glance, but much of what a scientist does is about studying the “fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” Even less obvious is the intersection of science and humor, but biophysicist Harold Morowitz certainly brought a sense of humor to his job, and married these many elements into a life’s work.

Born in 1927 in Poughkeepsie, New York, Morowitz spent most of his academic career at Yale. He got his Bachelor of Science in—you guessed it—physics and philosophy, followed by an M.S. in physics, and a Ph.D. in biophysics, all from Yale, by the time he was 23 years old. After stints at the National Bureau of Standards and the National Heart Institute, he then became a professor at Yale until 1987, when he moved to George Mason University. Morowitz was also a prolific writer; he was the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Complexity, authored or co-authored 19 books, and wrote a popular science column for the magazine Hospital Practice.

Among his many books was 1968’s Energy Flow in Biology, which approached biology with a focus on thermodynamics, and put forth the theory that "the energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system,” a groundbreaking concept that proved to be his greatest legacy. As The New York Times reports, this idea extended beyond understanding the origins of life on Earth, and made the case for the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.

Morowitz’s multifaceted sense of curiosity was also apparent in the people who influenced him. The Times notes that he was inspired by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a somewhat controversial “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.”

A person is also defined by those they influence in turn, and Morowitz did pretty well in that regard: His student James E. Rothman won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2013, and wrote about Morowitz in his autobiograpy for the Nobel Prize website, describing his teacher as an intellectual with cutting-edge interests as well as "personal warmth and charm."

Elsewhere in his studies concerning heat energy, Morowitz took a look at The Thermodynamics of Pizza (1991)—specifically, how fast one gets cold in zero gravity. That wasn’t his only foray into the food world: A 1985 book was called Mayonnaise and The Origin of Life: Thoughts of Minds and Molecules.

Morowitz also served as a longtime consultant for NASA, working on everything from the Apollo missions to the moon to the Viking missions to Mars, and on projects such as Biosphere 2. In 1983, he appeared as a scientific expert in the McLean v. Arkansas case (sometimes called "Scopes II") and testified that creationism should not be taught in public schools, specifically for its misuses of the second law of thermodynamics.

Some also credit Morowitz with discovering a candidate for a fourth law of thermodynamics, called Morowitz’s cycling law, which states that “In the steady state systems, the flow of energy through the system from a source to a sink will lead to at least one cycle in the system."

Morowitz died in March at age 88. He worked until the very end of his life, and currently has a posthumous book coming out called The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth. In a commencement address, Morowitz once said, “Conformity is not necessarily a virtue. Hard work is almost never vice. Hopefulness is a moral imperative. And, a sense of humor helps.”