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A Spherically Curious Mind
by Kosta Tsipis

"If one is no Plato how can he write about Socrates?" was my first thought when asked to write about Phil Morrison, the intellectually protean, omniscient polymath MIT Institute Professor who died at home a few months before completing his ninth decade of life. He remained to the end a moral reference point to generations of peace advocates, opponents of nuclear weapons, and younger physicists alike. Only he, who carried himself the plutonium pit for the test bomb from Los Alamos to Alamogordo, assembled the Nagasaki bomb on Tinian island, flew over the devastated city three days later, and then was the first scientist to grasp first-hand the uniformly leveling effect of a nuclear explosion on human habitat, had the undisputable moral stature to fight for "no third bomb," a cause he pursued with passion the rest of his life.

Shortly after the end of the war, the last day of August 1945, Morrison became one of the founding members of the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (ALAS) that advocated international control of atomic energy. (Incidentally, with the accent on the first A ALAS means salt in Greek, but when accented on the second A the word becomes the commonplace plaintive exclamation, a word play that did not escape Morrison!)

A short time later, in December of that year, Morrison wrote the draft of the aims of the newly established Federation of American Scientists (FAS) : "...to safeguard the spirit of free inquiry ... without which science cannot flourish" and then served as its first President until 1949. During these years Morrison was an active "insider" testifying repeatedly before the US Senate on legislation to insure civilian control of atomic energy.

In 1946 he joined the Physics Department at Cornell University where he received tenure in 1948. There he remained until 1964 when he came to MIT. Early in the 1950’s Morrison experienced a period of turbulence at Cornell caused by his passionate advocacy for Peace, a decidedly un-American activity according to the anticommunist storm troopers of the McCarthy era, who had yielded the cause of Peace to the Soviet Union and branded peace advocates as traitors. By 1954 Morrison had curtailed his public political activities and became "a political outsider, more academic and more dissident" in his own words. His advocacy for arms control and his opposition to the US military hypertrophy nurtured by the Cold War, found expression in books that he published with colleagues: The Price of Defense, The Nuclear Almanac, and most recently Reason Enough to Hope. He remained a convincing critic of resolving international conflict by combat.

Much more widely known and enjoyed were Morrison’s efforts to make science more accessible and appreciated by a broader interested public: His six-part PBS series The ring of Truth, the long-legged Powers of Ten that covered 25 orders of magnitude of size from the proton to the galaxies, and the less known Nothing is too Wonderful Not to Be True. The all managed to resolve the tension between truth and clarity, a permanent dilemma for those that attempt to explain natural phenomena to lay audiences.

Morrison’s mastery of the language has been legendary: An internationally famous Pakistani nuclear physicist and arms controller who studied at MIT confessed recently that "taking Professor Morrison’s course in classical mechanics in 1970 inspired me to switch from Electrical Engineering to Physics." That same year a student (now a Physics professor at Cornell) burst into my office and exclaimed: "Professor Tsipis, you must go listen to Professor Morrison teach classical mechanics, it is like poetry." Anyone who can make classical mechanics inspirational to Sophomores belongs with Homer and Dante in his power of phraseology. Listen to Morrison describe the first nuclear explosion in Alamogordo: "... after the explosive lenses were initiated the chain reaction proceeded to its fateful maturity."

The most widely appreciated literary contribution of Morrison were his book reviews for Scientific American, almost 1500 of them, several shared with his wife, children's educator, Phylis. In 1965 Jerry Piel the publisher of Scientific American asked Morrison to become book reviewer for the journal. Morrison wondered if he could receive some sample books before he would accept. Promptly about two-dozen books arrived at Morrison’s cramped house in Cambridge . Early on a Sunday morning Morrison piled the books on a table placed on the sidewalk in front of his house and observed discretely the developing scene from an upstairs window. Within two hours passers-by had removed all the books. "Yes, I will do the book reviews" he informed Piel as the threat of a book cataclysm receded convincingly.

Many colleagues have wondered why Morrison abandoned nuclear physics in favour of astrophysics and high-energy gamma-ray phenomena. There are possibly several contributing factors among them the resonance between the physical beauty of the Universe as we humans experience it and Morrison's aesthetic proclivity, then his conviction that nuclear physics, and its readily foreshadowed sequel, high energy particle physics, would depend on Governments' largesse to fund accelerators and ever more colossal equipment, a largesse that would feature bureaucratic strings attached, political, ideological, intellectual even. Outer Space suited his political temperament and aesthetic taste.

What inspired him to propose SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) was both a sense of humility that eschwed human uniqueness, his somatic conviction of the invariance of physical Law across the Universe, and an impish sense of adventure: to be the first to detect reason across the vastness of the Galaxy. But even without having achieved that feat Morrison remains an iconic presence for all who love science, crave peace, and admire the eloquent voice of reason and empathy of his spherically curious mind.

Prof. Tsipis is the retired director of MIT's Program in Science and Technology for International Security. This remembrance first appeared in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; it is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.


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