Morrison, Philip (1915–2005)

Philip Morrison is a theoretical astrophysicist and Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who played a significant role in advocating SETI for several decades. In 1959, while at Cornell University, he and Cocconi were the first scientists to call upon the professional community to carry out a coordinated search for intelligent extraterrestrial signals (see Morrison-Cocconi Conjecture). Morrison recalled the genesis of this movement:1


During a chamber music performance in the Cornell Student Center I began to think of the possibilities of gamma-ray astronomy. By the end of 1958, I had published a summary of what might be learned from gamma-ray astronomy... the paper was challenging, and a few months later, in the spring of 1959, Guiseppe Cocconi came into my office. We were thinking about gamma-rays of natural origin when we realized that we knew how to make them, too. We were making lots of them downstairs at the Cornell synchrotron. So Cocconi asked whether they could be used for communicating between the stars. It was plain that they would work, but they weren't very easy to use. My reply was enthusiastic but cautious. Shouldn't we look through the whole electromagnetic spectrum to find the best wavelength for any such communication? That was the germ of the idea.


Philip Morrison


Morrison received his B.S. from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (1936) and Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of California, Berkeley (1940), under the supervision of J. Robert Oppenheimer. From 1942–46 he worked on the Manhattan Project, then joined the physics faculty of Cornell. From 1965 he was on on the faculty at MIT. Aside from his role in instigating the modern SETI movement, Morrison was a leader in organizing and chairing conferences on the subject, including those at Byurakan (1971) (see Byurakan SETI conferences) and Boston University (1973), various NASA symposia on SETI, and the IAU meetings on SETI (1980 and 1984).



1. Swift, David. Seti Pioneers: Scientists Talk About Their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Tucson: University of Arizona Press (1990).