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Harold J. Morowitz’s recently published The Kindly Dr. Guillotin and Other Essays on Science and Life is the fifth compendium of Morowitz’s scientific writings, joining Mayonnaise and the Origin of Life and The Thermodynamics of Pizza, among other volumes. One might think that such a prolific writer would size up his science-essay competitorsbut one would be mistaken.
“For the last 20 years, I have tended not to read scientific essayists because I didn’t want to be influenced by them…,” he says. “I guess I read them all occasionally, but I’ve tried to avoid becoming a regular reader. For all those years, I wanted to have my own fresh view of things.”
Morowitz certainly has hard-science credentials. A longtime molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor at Yale, for the past five years he has headed George Mason University’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study. But despite his background, Morowitz pursues the humanities with equal passion, regularly teaching courses such as “Biological Themes in Literature” in George Mason’s English department. As Morowitz describes in one of the essays in Guillotin, his students digest a motley literary selection, including Frankenstein, Cannery Row, and D.H. Lawrence’s poems on how animals mate.
As for his writing career, Morowitz notes that “some people give an arm and a leg to become published writers. I was literally drafted.” Though he had little popular writing experience, the editor of an obscure trade publication called Hospital Practice asked him back in the 1970s to do a monthly column on science and society. Though Morowitz terms Hospital Practice “a giveaway magazine to hospital staff physicians” and describes his output as “a bit of comic relief in the midst of a lot of drug company ads,” he loyally wrote for the magazine for over two decades.
Writing monthly essays forced Morowitz to look at almost everything he experienced as a possible essay subject: the differences between the St. Nicholases he saw in the Netherlands and American ones, the origin of the term “ivory tower,” etc. For Morowitz, each of these spur-of-the-moment queries led to quirky essays that were later reprinted in Guillotin. (Dr. Guillotin was “kindly,” incidentally, because he suggested decapitating the condemned only as an alternative to crueler methods.)
Since the corporate buyout of Hospital Practice a few years ago, Morowitz has concentrated his writing in a thrice-yearly column in Complexity, a chaos-and-complexity bimonthly he co-edits. And though Morowitz’s essay volumes have proved consistently decent sellers, they’re hardly blockbusters. “I don’t think I write for a huge public,” he says. “When I make it to the paperback stage, the publishers are happy. But I have no aspirations to be a best-seller. I write because I enjoy writing. I never find it painful.”