Mason Students Have Access to One of the World’s Foremost Researchers on the Origins of Life

Posted: August 14, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Harold Morowitz
Author of many books on the thermodynamics of living systems, as well as popular topics in science, Harold Morowitz is currently the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to study the molecular processes of how life emerged on Earth.

At many universities, the most distinguished professors teach only graduate students. But at George Mason, thanks to the vision and generosity of the late Clarence J. Robinson, undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are recruited to George Mason from senior positions at prestigious institutions, including Princeton, Harvard and Yale.

The mission of these educators, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors, is to enrich the academic experiences of undergraduate students while continuing their scholarly pursuits on broad and fundamental intellectual issues.

The first cohort of Robinson Professors arrived after the university started receiving income in 1984 through an historic bequest from Robinson. A leading businessman and civic leader in Northern Virginia, Robinson was prominent among a group of Northern Virginia citizens who sought to establish an institution of higher education in the region.

From 1964 to 1970, he chaired the advisory committee appointed by the governor to oversee the development of George Mason College as a branch campus of the University of Virginia. Later, in preparing his will, Robinson advanced his belief that if his bequest were spent on people rather than bricks and mortar, the effect would be much more profound for the young college.

Currently, there are 12 Robinson Professors. Collectively, the Robinson Professors have received numerous distinguished awards, including Guggenheim fellowships, the Pulitzer Prize and George Foster Peabody Awards. They have published countless academic articles as well as books, plays, films and documentaries.

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea, Shaul Bakhash, and Roger Wilkins were previously profiled.

Harold Morowitz

By Rey C. Banks

Harold Morowitz is on a lifelong quest to discover the very origins of life. Not many can say their life’s work has potential to shape man’s understandings of his beginnings, but to Morowitz it is all in a day’s work.

The Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy and the first director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, which was established to expand understanding of the human mind, is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to study the molecular processes of how life emerged on Earth.

Harold Morowitz
Harold Morowitz
Creative Services photos

“The Emergence of Life: From Geochemistry to the Genetic Code,” is a five-year project being conducted in conjunction with the Santa Fe Institute, Krasnow’s sister institute in New Mexico. Morowitz hopes it will “provide a coherent account of the evolution of metabolism and the development of modern genetic code.”

When talking with Morowitz about the origins of life, the discussion inevitably takes a religious turn. He calls himself a pantheist in the tradition of Spinoza, a 17th century philosopher who espoused the belief that God is nature.

“Who I am and what I do is the same thing,” says Morowitz, who was raised in a Jewish tradition. Like many young scholars, he found answers to questions about religion in the halls of academia, under the microscope and through research.

“Life is too intricate to have random origins,” he says. “There are laws of physics and chemistry at work that governed the process. We may not yet know all of the hows, but for a scientist, answering these questions is a continuum of discoveries.”

Morowitz was “baptized by fire” in his beliefs on science in 1982 while testifying in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, a revisitation of the Scopes Monkey trials of 1925. The Scopes Monkey trials centered on whether evolution could be taught in schools.

Morowitz was designated an expert in biophysics and biochemistry and tasked with demonstrating that the origins of life did not violate the laws of thermodynamics. Suddenly, this quiet intellectual, who describes himself as aspiring to be a humble scientist, found himself on the world stage, with his every word and gesture assiduously recorded.

Building an Institution

After a long career of teaching and research at Yale University as professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and serving for five years as master of Pierson College, Morowitz found himself lured to George Mason University in 1988 by its charismatic president at the time, George Johnson, who had a vision of “building an institution.”

Shortly afterward, the university received the endowment from Shelley Krasnow that led to the establishment of the Krasnow Institute.

“Harold Morowitz is one of the world’s seminal thinkers about the origin of life within the context of the physics of our universe,” says Jim Olds, director of Krasnow. “He is also one of this country’s foremost biophysicists. When he was successfully recruited from Yale, Mason took a giant step in its transition to its current status as Virginia’s largest research university.”

In his career, Morowitz has written extensively on the thermodynamics of living systems, as well as popular topics in science. His books include “The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex,” “Mayonnaise and the Origins of Life,” “Cosmic Joy and Local Pain,” “The Thermodynamics of Pizza” and “Entropy and the Magic Flute.”

Settled in his office and ready for fall classes to begin, Morowitz reflects on those things that have given him the greatest joys in life: discovering the smallest living cell; starting the Krasnow Institute; uncovering the chemistry of life’s origin; and interacting with the other Robinson professors with whom he shares a great camaraderie.

And he gets a “special kick” out of hearing from his many former students’ whose lives he has touched along the way. “I enjoy hearing from them,” he says. “What they’re doing, where they’re working and what they’re working on. It is very exciting.”

This fall, Morowitz will teach CHEM 579 Origins of Biochemistry.

Write to at