small logo Remembering:

Phylis Morrison
by H. Paul Shuch

I am deeply saddened to report the passing in July of award-winning author and educator Phylis Morrison. Best known to our members as the wife of SETI patriarch Prof. Philip Morrison, Phylis was a staunch SETI League supporter. Shortly after we made Phil an honorary member in recognition of his having co-authored the first modern SETI article, Phylis sent us a check in the mail, explaining that she wanted to be a SETI League member in her own right.

Phylis Morrison was a teacher of art and science in grades K through 9. But her true gift was teaching other teachers how to teach. The two Morrisons were collaborators for over thirty-five years, having served together on the Commission on College Physics, work which has had a profound effect on the teaching of physics ever since. They subsequently co-authored many books, worked closely on education reform initiatives, narrated and scripted films, and appeared widely on science programs for the BBC, Canadian Broadcasting and American televisionís NOVA series on PBS. The Morrisons became widely recognized for their presentation of a six-part PBS series, "The Ring of Truth," aired in 1987. They also coauthored and collaborated on a book and its film adaptation, "Powers of Ten," which present compelling visual images of the world around us, from the most minute objects to the unimaginably vast.

As a longtime reviewer of children's science books, Phylis Morrison was on every publisher's distribution list. As a consequence, her small Cambridge flat was overflowing with thousands of volumes, which she gave away to neighborhood children every Halloween in lieu of candy. On one visit to the Morrison's home in early November, my wife Muriel saw the stacks of books, said the magic words "Trick or treat," and went home with two suitcases full of leftovers. It was, Muriel told Phylis, like having Halloween, Christmas and the Easter Bunny all rolled together.

In May of 2000, Phylis Morrison was honored, along with her husband, with the National Science Board's Public Service Award. Of the Morrisons, NSB awards chair Michael Ambrosino said: "their ability is to see things whole, not from a single perspective. They focus on teaching freshmen courses that empower students to learn through experimentation. Their reviews of childrens' science books and their giveaways of these books to children each year are all indicative of how special they are," The Morrisons, he added, maintained a vast interest in international education, especially in India and Africa.

Throughout her life, Phylis Morrison maintained a childlike sense of wonder at the universe around her. She proudly wore a massive, angular magnetite ring, hewn out of a meteorite fragment that she and her husband found on one of their trips.

Phylis Morrison was decidedly a techie. I remember watching her standing in a courtyard at Pompeii a few years back. She and Harvard grad student Darren Leigh were both holding portable GPS receivers and arguing about their respective units' relative accuracy. Phylis frequently browsed The SETI League's website, and used an early digital camera to take several of the photos posted there. But she also voiced strong concerns about the rightful role of technology in education.

"Passive learning, where a child sits still, with little activity except that of the ear and the eye and perhaps the hand marking the paper, is not wrong," Phylis Morrison said in a presentation to the National Academy of Sciences in the late 1980s. "Video, video tape, video games, computers-all are easily operated and produce interesting results with a modest amount of activity. But how much better if children learn how to make them behave. How much better if they learn that in order to find something out about a system, they must inquire of it, and that the best kind of evidence comes from scientific experiments and their confirmation."

Our deepest sympathies are extended to Phil Morrison on the loss of his lifelong partner.


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