Philip Morrison, 1915-2005

Contributed by
Apr 26, 2005
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I just heard yesterday that Philip Morrison died. Maybe you've never heard of him. But you've heard him.

He was a brilliant physicist. He played a major role in the Manhattan Project in WWII, and went on to do all sorts of great work, including pioneering the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

I knew his work two ways. One was through his great articles for Scientific American which I read as a kid (when I was much younger I used to wait for my dad to read the magazine, then I would grab it; I could hardly understand much of it, but I was laying the groundwork for my own life's work). I just searched on Morrison's name at the SciAm website and got 209 results!

But to me, and to a lot of people around my age, he will always be known as the hobbit-like voice narrating one of the best short documentaries of all time: Charles and Ray Eames' Powers of Ten. You know the one: it starts with a guy snoozing on a picnic blanket, then zooms out, showing first Chicago, then Illinois, then the Earth, then the solar system, planet rushing by, the great void between stars, then stars, the galaxies, the Universe... then it zooms back in. When we get back to the sleeping man's hand, we don't stop there. We go in, zooming in more and more, past cells, chromosomes, DNA, carbon atoms, and finally passing through a proton made of quarks, vibrating madly.

All the while, Philip Morrison's trademark voice was narrating this, telling us how far we've traveled, teaching us the powers of ten and scientific notation. It's one of the greatest teaching tools of all time. It played on a loop at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and my class went there for field trips practically every school year when I was a kid. I must have seen the film dozens of times (given the topic, maybe I should say tens of times), listening to that weird voice going over the science of the journey. I would sit in the small darkened room, no bigger than an office worker's cubicle, and stare in fascination. I loved the astronomy, of course, but there was something about zooming in, descending down into space until there was literally no matter to see, wondering what happened if you got yet even smaller... I was like a bird in front of a snake, fascinated despite the chill I felt.

That film was one thread in an tapestry of people and events that makes me who I am today: a scientist, a skeptic, a critical thinker. I never knew Philip Morrison, and that saddens me. But he was a part of my life despite that, and a part of a generation's life. He showed us the whole Universe, from the impossibly large to the incredibly small, and for that I thank him.