Prizewinner Marcelo Gleiser Bridges Science and Spirituality | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Prizewinner Marcelo Gleiser Bridges Science and Spirituality

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Marcelo Gleiser - COURTESY OF ELI BURAKIAN
  • Courtesy Of Eli Burakian
  • Marcelo Gleiser

Marcelo Gleiser, professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, has been awarded the Templeton Prize, valued at 1.1 million British pounds, or about $1.4 million. The Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation gives the prize annually to "a person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works."

Gleiser, 60, is in eminent company. First awarded to Mother Teresa in 1973, the Templeton Prize has been given in recent years to the Dalai Lama (2012), Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2013) and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (2016). Born in Brazil, Gleiser is the first Latin American recipient.

"Professor Gleiser embodies the values that inspired my grandfather to establish the Templeton Prize," said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the prize-sponsoring foundation, in a public statement. "Two values which were especially important for him ... are the pursuit of joy in all aspects of life and the profound human experience of awe. Professor Gleiser's work displays an undeniable joy of exploration."

In a press release, Dartmouth president Philip J. Hanlon emphasized the importance of the prize for the recipient and for his college. "This is an extraordinary first for Dartmouth, and we could not be prouder of Marcelo, whose work goes to the heart of humanity's place in the cosmos and explores the biggest questions about our existence."

Gleiser came to Dartmouth in 1991. His work has been multifaceted as he has engaged in pioneering research in the behavior of quantum fields and elementary particles, early-universe cosmology, the dynamics of phase transitions, astrobiology, and new measures of entropy and complexity based on information theory. He's also authored 14 books, all best sellers in Portuguese, and five have been published in the U.S., either translated (by Gleiser, who is fluent) or written in English. He has also been a commentator on numerous TV programs, including "Fantástico," Brazil's most popular variety show.

Additionally, Gleiser has somehow found the time to post more than 400 entries on NPR's 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog and to write more than 900 weekly columns in Folha de São Paulo, Brazil's largest newspaper, as well as 100-plus peer-reviewed articles for scientific journals.

Gleiser's most recent book, written in English, is titled The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. It's both a personal memoir and a beguiling introduction to cosmology for everyday readers. The book combines — in varied modes, from whimsical to melancholy — reflections on his rediscovery of a youthful love of fishing with lucid explanations of key principles of astrophysics. The adult narrator keeps encountering his childhood self, which prompts meditations on learning over time.

Seven Days met up with Gleiser in his Dartmouth office and asked him about his determination to bring the most complex scientific issues to nonspecialist students and diverse audiences.

"When you think about the important questions of today — climate change, or vaccines — these have a scientific anchor, but they also have philosophical, ethical, social, economic implications," he replied. "I always felt that to isolate science as a cold-blooded, materialistic way of thinking about reality was just wrong, and dangerous."

Key to Gleiser's role as disrupter and gadfly in scientific circles has been his avowed skepticism about "perfection." He has challenged his professional peers to abandon the search for an absolutely rational, all-encompassing model of existence and instead to celebrate imperfection and flux. For years, Gleiser has argued that the purism of conventional theoretical physics distances the discipline from day-to-day Earthly (and cosmic) experience.

"We've been dominated by the Platonic ideal of 'beauty is truth,' and in physics beauty means symmetry and mathematical perfection," he said.

And yet, as Gleiser keeps insisting, existence is messy, unpredictable, asymmetrical and fragmentary. Every crucial transformation — for an individual or for all life on an evolutionary scale — occurs in states of precarious imbalance, not a smooth, hypothetical progression.

Gleiser believes that science is impoverished if scientists hold themselves aloof from the humanities and other forms of inquiry. "I see this paradox about being human: At once we are animals, and we are also capable of contemplating the sublime and infinity," he said. "Science offers one way of looking into the world, especially when it's complemented by other ways of looking, like poetry, music, philosophy, religion."

In recent years, Gleiser's writing and teaching have drawn larger and larger audiences. Has he felt less like a maverick?

"No, I'm definitely still an outlier and totally willing to be," he said. "This is exactly the conversation the pre-Socratics had 2,500 years ago: the famous fight between the philosophy of being and the philosophy of becoming. It's about what is permanent or what is impermanent.

"People criticize me, saying that's very defeatist: to give up the search for a final 'theory of everything,'" Gleiser continued. "But it's much worse to contemplate that knowledge may have an end than to embrace the fact that there is no end, there is mystery always, and so the search keeps going."

Almost three decades of living in a small town in northern New England has evidently been auspicious for Gleiser in terms of productivity. He mentors graduate and postdoctoral candidates and now teaches just one undergraduate course a year at Dartmouth: "Understanding the Universe: From Atoms to the Big Bang," a survey for nonmajors known around campus as "Physics for Poets."

"I learned very early that teaching is not just for the students, it's for the professors, too," Gleiser said. "We all grow. I enjoy teaching courses closer to the humanities; you get this more humanistic interaction with students in discussions, which in a very technical course you wouldn't. They come out of this experience somewhat in awe of the universe, and of science, in ways I don't think they could have anticipated."

Gleiser is also a runner who trains for ultramarathons. "The races can take 11 or 12 hours, and the training runs are four or five hours," he said. Does he think about his work while running?

"In waves, sometimes I do think a little, not just about my technical work but my next book and how I'm going to explain an idea," Gleiser said. "The thoughts come in; they flow, and I greet them.

"Long-distance endurance running on trails is not just a form of moving meditation, but it's really a form of worship," he added. "The deeper I go into the woods, I feel I am getting lost in a realm much bigger than I am."

In 2016, Gleiser founded the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, which had an initial three-year grant (from the Templeton Foundation, not part of his recent award) that expires in June. The institute has hosted public dialogues among scientists, journalists and scholars in other fields; a Fellows program to allow for sustained independent research; and MOOCs (massive online open courses), including a bilingual course — in Portuguese and English — with more than 20,000 participants from 120 countries.

Gleiser hopes that the new light directed on his work by the Templeton Prize will allow him to secure long-term funding for the institute, which he considers "the very heart of the liberal arts."

"I feel like the classroom need not be my several dozen Dartmouth students," Gleiser said, "but could actually be the whole world."

From The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected

What does a physicist actually do?

The essential task of a physicist is to uncover the fundamental laws of Nature. We do this by investigating the behavior and properties of all physical systems, from subatomic particles and different materials to fluids, stars, and the Universe as a whole. Most of us teach, as lecturers or mentoring graduate students; the majority work at applied research, in the computer and aerospace industry, developing new technologies and materials, or in consulting and finance, developing mathematical models for risk management and hedge funds ... Some work for national labs making bombs, others for different areas of the defense sector. There are many applied jobs for physicists, some blurring the lines between physics and engineering. But as a teenager, these were not the kinds of physics jobs I had in mind. I was thinking of Einstein, Bohr, Newton — the pioneers, the visionary geniuses that essentially defined the way we think about the world and, through the applied spin-offs of their basic research, how we live our lives. That was the kind of physics that impressed me: theory, the fundamental questions, the science that unveiled Nature's hidden secrets, that engaged with the mystery of existence.

My father was quick to burst my bubble.

"Are you insane? Do you even know a real physicist?" he yelled when, at seventeen, I solemnly announced I wanted to get a physics degree. "And who is going to pay you to count stars?"

The original print version of this article was headlined "Cosmic Connections | Dartmouth College physicist Marcelo Gleiser wins million-dollar award for bridging science and spirituality"