Colleagues, friends, and family of Harold Morowitz gather at SFI. Image courtesy Scott Wagner.

In August, a two-day symposium at SFI honored the life and influential career of Harold Morowitz. The event drew family members, patrons of the arts, scientific program managers, and collaborators in fields ranging from biology and physics to computer science, neuroscience, and quantitative social science.

“There were contemporaries of Harold, and also his academic grandchildren,” says SFI External Professor Eric Smith who facilitated the symposium. Despite the range of disciplines and ages, he says the participants shared an unusual intellectual courage and generous spirit. “Those were the kinds of people Harold liked to have as colleagues and who stayed with him over the decades.”

During the first day of the symposium, several of Morowitz’s collaborators described how his thinking had shifted at specific points in his work and how he had contributed to major new directions in science. During his nearly seven-decade-long career, Morowitz helped develop the fields of biophysics and genetics, nurture new generations of scientists, and shape policy as he explored the origins of life on earth. 

“There aren’t enough new ideas on the things we are stuck on. This is where Harold’s career always went and what we wanted the meeting to do,” says Smith.

The symposium’s second day dove deeper into the current trajectories of biophysics, metabolism, and science policy. Panels described ongoing work to understand, and reproduce, how cells aggregate; discussed foundations of computational theory to understand biology; continued conversations about the chemical and physical markers that might help identify life elsewhere in the universe; and proposed questions of a senescing biosphere.

“We tend to tell heroic stories about how one person changed the trajectory of science,” says Smith. “In some cases that’s true.” While Morowitz clearly had a major influence on many people and on the trajectories of some important ideas, it wasn’t through a single heroic or decisive move. Rather, it was a consistent chipping away at challenging problems; a lot of calm, hard work in the face of uncertainty; and a dedication to communication and to the arts. “It’s an interesting model for how to live a good, and consequential, scientific life,” says Smith.

Read SFI’s 2016 tribute to Morowitz

Read more about the Harold Morowitz Symposium