David Morrison (astrophysicist)

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David Morrison
David Morrison SkeptiCal.jpg
Lectures at SkeptiCal - April 21, 2012 - "This is the year the world will end - or is it?"
Born June 26, 1940 (1940-06-26) (age 78)
Danville, Illinois
Residence United States
Nationality American
Alma mater Harvard University
Known for astrobiology, planetary exploration, search for extraterrestrial life, Near-Earth object detection, defense against asteroids, scientific skepticism
Awards Dryden Medal, Sagan Medal, Presidential Meritorious Senior Professional
Scientific career
Fields Planetary science, astrobiology
Institutions NASA Ames Research Center, SETI Institute, NASA Lunar Science Institute, Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute

David Morrison (born 26 June 1940) is an American astronomer, a senior scientist at the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Morrison is the former director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute and of the NASA Lunar Science Institute .[1] He is the past Director of Space at NASA Ames. Morrison is credited as the founder of the multi-disciplinary field of astrobiology. Morrison is best known for his work in risk assessment of near Earth objects such as asteroids and comets.[2] Asteroid 2410 Morrison was named in his honor for his work on the subject since 1991. Morrison is also known for his "Ask an Astrobiologist" series on NASA's website where he provides answers to questions submitted by the public about a variety of topics, such as 2012 doomsday hoaxes, planetary habitability, and the discovery of planets outside the Solar System.[3] He has published 12 books and over 150 papers primarily on Planetary Science, Astrobiology and Near Earth Object subjects.[4]


Morrison earned his PhD in astronomy from Harvard University. He served as a science investigator on Mariner, Voyager and Galileo space science mission. Morrison received the Dryden Medal for research of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Carl Sagan Medal of the American Astronomical Society for public Communication, and the Klumpke-Roberts Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for his contributions to science education. NASA has also awarded him Outstanding Leadership medals twice as well as the Presidential Meritorious Rank.[4]

David Morrison has held a variety of senior science management positions at NASA Headquarters in Washington and at Ames Research Center in California. In Washington he was the first Program Scientist for the Galileo mission to Jupiter, where he was responsible for defining the mission objectives and recommending the instruments and science investigations that were selected for this mission. He also served as Deputy Associate Administrator for what is now called the NASA Science Mission Directorate, which is responsible for all NASA space science and flight missions.[4] At NASA Ames, he has been Chief of the Space Science Division, Director Space, and most recently the founding Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute. His responsibilities included the major NASA missions Lunar Pathfinder, Kepler, and SOFIA. Morrison has served as Councilor of the American Astronomical Society, Chair of the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Society, President of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Chair of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and both President of Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites) and of the Working Group on Near Earth Objects of the International Astronomical Union.[4]

Before going to NASA, Morrison was an academic research scientist working in planetary science and space missions. He was Professor of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, where he also directed the 3-meter NASA Infrared Telescope Facility of Mauna Kea Observatory[5] and served for two years as University Vice Chancellor for Research. His research accomplishments include demonstration of the uniform high surface temperature of Venus,[6] the discovery that Neptune has a large internal heat source while its “twin” planet Uranus does not,[7] determination of the surface composition of Pluto,[8] first ground-based measurements of the heat flow from Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io,[9] discovery of the fundamental division of the asteroids into dark (primitive) and light (stony) classes,[10] and the first quantitative estimate of the cosmic impact hazard.[11] As a founder of the multidisciplinary field of astrobiology, Morrison was also co-chair of the first NASA Astrobiology Roadmap workshop and report.[12]

Morrison has also made many contributions to teaching astronomy and space science, including authorship of leading college undergraduate texts in astronomy and planetary science. He is a popular public writer and lecturer, promoting a scientific and fact-based perspective about such topics as Emmanuel Velikovsky’s pseudocosmology,[13] the evolution-creationist conflict,[14] climate change denialism,[15] and the 2012 doomsday hoax.[16] As a science communicator, he frequently debunks myths of mystery planets. In interviews in 2011 and 2017, Morrison explained that he receives five emails a day about the Nibiru cataclysm, which he initially expected to be a short-lived phenomenon but which "keeps popping up" and is the subject of an estimated two million websites.[17][18][19]

In 2015, David Morrison received the American Astronomical Society's (AAS) Education Prize in recognition for his outstanding contributions to the education of the public, students and future astronomers.[20]


David Morrison was born in Danville IL on June 26, 1940. He attended elementary and high school in Danville and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1962 with high distinction in physics. He studied astronomy at Harvard University and received the Ph.D in 1969, with Carl Sagan as thesis advisor. He was on the faculty of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii-Manoa from 1969 until 1988, when he joined the senior management staff of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. While on the faculty of the University of Hawaii, Morrison spent two sabbaticals at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona in Tucson, and two assignments in space science management at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.

Morrison is married to Janet Lee Morrison, retired medical information specialist, and lives near San Jose, CA. In addition to scientific research and management, he has a strong commitment to science education and promoting science literacy and critical thinking. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of the California Academy of Sciences, and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry; also a supporter of the National Center for Science Education and a Scientist Trustee of the California Academy of Science. Morrison is an avid traveler and photographer, who has visited and photographed in some 60 countries on all the continents, ranging from the Arctic to the Antarctic, all across North America, Europe, and North Africa, and extensively in South and South-East Asia. He launched a YouTube video about the 2012 hoax telling the public that they have nothing to worry about. The video was briefly featured in the opening credits of the movie based on the novel, World War Z.


  1. ^ "David Morrison Joins SETI Institute". Space.com. 
  2. ^ "The Spaceguard Survey: Report of the NASA International Near-Earth-Object Detection Workshop". Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Bibcode:1992STIN...9234245M. 
  3. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions :: Ask an Astrobiologist :: NASA Astrobiology". NASA. Archived from the original on 2013-02-18. 
  4. ^ a b c d "David Morrison Biography". NASA. 
  5. ^ "Evaluation of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, as an Observatory Site," Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 85: 255 267, 1973
  6. ^ "Venus: Absence of a Phase Effect at a 2 centimeter Wavelength," Science 163: 815 817, 1969
  7. ^ "Temperatures of Uranus and Neptune at 24 Microns," Astrophysical Journal 179: 329 331, 1973
  8. ^ "Pluto: Evidence for Methane Frost," Science 194: 835 837, 1976
  9. ^ "lo: Observational Constraints on Internal Energy and Thermophysics of the Surface," Icarus 44: 226 233, 1980
  10. ^ "Surface Properties of Asteroids: A Synthesis of Polarimetry, Radiometry, and Spectrophotometry," Icarus 25: 104 130, 1975
  11. ^ "Impacts on the Earth by Asteroids and Comets: Assessing the Hazard” Nature 367: 33-40, 1994
  12. ^ "The NASA Astrobiology Program.” Astrobiology 1: 3-13, 2001
  13. ^ "Velikovsky at 50” Skeptic Magazine 9, 2001
  14. ^ "Only a Theory: Framing the Evolution-Creation Debate”, Skeptical Inquirer Nov-Dec 2005
  15. ^ Disinformation about Global Warming”, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.2, March / April 2010
  16. ^ "Doomsday 2012, Nibiru, and Cosmophobia”"Doomsday". Astronomy Beat. 
  17. ^ Wolchover, Nathalie. "Believers In Mysterious Planet Nibiru Await Earth's End". Space.com. Life's Little Mysteries. Retrieved 11 January 2017. 
  18. ^ Guarino, Ben. "Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October? No". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 January 2017. 
  19. ^ Selk, Avi. "Please stop annoying this NASA scientist with your ridiculous Planet X doomsday theories". The Washington Post. The Washington Post. Retrieved 18 December 2017. 
  20. ^ "David Morrison Honored with AAS Education Award” Skeptical Inquirer Magazine Vol 9. N03, page 11,May/June 2015

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