Department Mourns Professor Margaret C. Morrison

Published: January 11, 2021

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It is with great sadness that we report the death of our revered colleague Margaret (“Margie”) C. Morrison. She passed away on Saturday, January 9, after a long battle with cancer.

Morrison joined our department in 1989, after teaching at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. She had earned her PhD in 1987 from the University of Western Ontario. In 1992 she received tenure, gaining promotion to the rank of full professor in 1998. She retired in 2019. Margie Morrison was one of the world’s most distinguished philosophers of science,  best known for her work on models in science (both in physics and biology) and for her work on unification in physics.

Her first book, Unifying Scientific Theories: Physical Concepts and Mathematical Structures (Cambridge University Press, 2000)  provides a fully articulated account of the way in which mathematical structures contribute to the notion of unity in science. Developing an account of the role of mathematical modeling in unification, she showed that unification does not increase the explanatory power of a theory. In 1995-96 she was an elected fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

Her work on the role of simulation in scientific research represents an entirely new direction in thinking about computer simulation, one that links simulation to experiment via the role of models in each activity. Morrison’s central insight noted computer simulation as a form of experimentation. Largely thanks to her, this controversial view is gaining acceptance, and will come to have a significant impact on what counts as genuine empirical evidence. The approach enabled Morrison to make a groundbreaking contribution to understanding the means by which the famous Higgs boson particle was discovered by physicists at the Large Hadron Collider; among other things she demonstrated the ineliminable role of simulation in the discovery of the particle. In addition to her rigour and originality, Morrison stood apart as a scholar of unparalleled academic integrity: when the Higgs boson was discovered,  her book Reconstructing Reality: Models, Mathematics, and Simulations (Oxford University Press, 2015), was in production; she delayed publication to take proper account of it.

Practicing scientists are not always interested in the reflections of philosophers on their activities; Morrison’s work stands out in attracting the attention of leading physicists. In 2004 she was elected to the Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Sciences, and in 2015, to the Royal Society of Canada. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017.

Margie Morrison was a hugely popular teacher of both philosophy of science and the history of modern philosophy, inspiring generations of students. She also supervised many graduate students and was an outstanding mentor to younger scholars in her field. She will be missed immensely.

A longer memorial notice will be published shortly.

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