“A Flirt with the Unknown”

Upon receiving the 2019 Templeton Prize Wednesday night in New York City, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser, who blogs here at ORBITER, talked about how science, “a flirt with the unknown,” is a sacred endeavor to be approached with wonder and humility.

Gleiser receives the Prize from Heather Templeton Gill

“Science is a flirt with the unknown, a recognition that we know little of the world around us, which we can perceive only imperfectly,” Gleiser said, addressing a crowd at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. “Yet, as it embraces the quest for knowledge, it lifts the human spirit and brings, through the joy of discovery, a touch of the magical in our lives.”

Gleiser, 60, is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He was announced as the 2019 Templeton Prize Laureate in March.

A native of Brazil and the first Latin American to win the Templeton Prize, Gleiser writes for ORBITER’s 13.8 blog. On the eve of receiving the Prize, Gleiser wrote about his life’s journey, saying its ups and downs have “taught me to look at the world with great respect and humility. We know so little and yet have learned so much, including that we can never know it all, that the mystery will never go away. To engage in this quest for knowledge, to share it with others, imbues me with a sense of meaning and of mission.”

Astrophysicist Adam Frank, who also blogs at 13.8, was also in attendance at Wednesday’s ceremony, celebrating with his longtime friend.

A spiritual quest

Gleiser is a leading proponent of the view that science, philosophy, and spirituality are complementary expressions of humanity’s need to embrace mystery and the unknown. He has earned international acclaim through his books, essays, blogs, TV documentaries, and conferences that present science as a spiritual quest to understand the origins of the universe and of life on Earth.

“Even in the face of the enduring unknown, Marcelo displays an undeniable joy of exploration,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, on Wednesday night. “He has found a way to create a constructive engagement between the sciences and the humanities, and to propose a unifying vision rooted in an appreciation for humankind’s uniqueness in the cosmos.”

Speakers at the ceremony included Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, the author of Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and Lila.

“Marcelo Gleiser very agreeably calls himself a ‘natural philosopher,’ a term used by scientists to describe themselves before the great schism,” said Dr. Robinson. “He proposes and demonstrates a reintegration of primal joy and attentiveness into science as it is practiced now, to acknowledge the old fascination, itself unaccountable, that has made humankind a race of profound inquirers.”

Gleiser is a prominent voice among scientists, past and present, who reject the notion that science alone can lead to ultimate truths about the nature of reality. Instead, in his parallel career as a public intellectual, he reveals the historical, philosophical, and cultural links between science, the humanities, and spirituality, and argues for a complementary approach to knowledge, especially on questions where science cannot provide a final answer.

He often describes science as an “engagement with the mysterious,” inseparable from humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Gleiser’s writings propose that modern science has brought humankind back to the metaphorical center of creation—his doctrine of “humancentrism”—by revealing the improbable uniqueness of our planet, and the exceptional rarity of humans as intelligent beings capable of understanding the importance of being alive. This inversion of Copernicanism, he argues, prompts the need for a new cosmic morality where the sacredness of life is extended to the planet and all living beings.

The Templeton Prize, valued at 1.1 million British pounds (about $1.4 million), is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards and honors a person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.

Previous Prize winners include Mother Teresa, who received the inaugural award in 1973, the Dalai Lama (2012), and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2013). Last year’s Templeton Prize was awarded to His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan. Scientists who have won include Martin Rees (2011), John Barrow (2006), Charles Townes (2005), George Ellis (2004), Freeman Dyson (2000), and Paul Davies (1995).

(adapted from a press released from the Nolan/Lehr Group)



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