ORBITER magazine blogger Marcelo Gleiser, a leading proponent of the view that science, philosophy, and spirituality are complementary expressions of humanity’s need to embrace mystery and the unknown, has won the prestigious 2019 Templeton Prize.
Gleiser, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, writes a weekly essay at ORBITER’s 13.8 blog, which explores the intersection of science, culture, and meaning. Today’s 13.8 post, titled “Embracing the Mystery,” epitomizes Gleiser’s passion for looking beneath the surface and digging into the deeper questions beyond.
Gleiser, the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, said the Templeton Prize and ORBITER “fit together perfectly, because so many of my essays really ask the big questions about existential science. My blogs are inspired by scientific research, but go way beyond that, looking for ways we can use science to illuminate the human condition.
“Writing for ORBITER helps me crystallize a lot of my thinking on this. It’s a wonderful platform, because there aren’t a lot of places where this conversation can happen consistently, week after week. ORBITER gives me a mind space to keep thinking about these things.”
ORBITER is produced by the Sword & Spoon Workshop, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. “The team at ORBITER couldn’t be more proud of our work with Dr. Gleiser, and we thank Templeton for this fitting recognition of his remarkable contributions,” said John Kingston, chairman of the Sword & Spoon Workshop. “Highlighting the work of scientists and scholars like Dr. Gleiser is the mission of Orbiter—to feature and focus those who help us understand our significance in the world—and we are very excited about working with him in the next chapter of his amazing journey.”
“We are so proud of Marcelo Gleiser,” added Mark Moring, ORBITER’s managing editor. “And we are big fans, not only of his writing, but of his vast contributions to the worlds of science and philosophy. He’s one of the smartest people I know, but his intelligence co-exists with a gentle humility and a curiosity that is always asking more questions.”
From NPR to ORBITER
ORBITER’s 13.8 blog grew out of the former 13.7: Cosmos & Culture blog at NPR, which he founded with astrophysicist Adam Frank. When NPR discontinued 13.7 in 2018, Gleiser and Frank brought the blog over to ORBITER, updating its name to 13.8 to reflect current knowledge about the age of the universe—13.8 billion years.
Frank is excited about his friend’s big news.
“Marcelo is the perfect recipient for the Templeton Prize because his work represents the intersection of knowledge and wisdom,” Frank said. “Ever since we started working together on the 13.7 blog for NPR, and now 13.8 for ORBITER, I’ve always been inspired by his enthusiasm for understanding the universe and his compassion for the human condition within it. All I can say is, Congratulations Marcelo. This is a well deserved honor.”
Gleiser, 60, 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.
A native of Brazil, where his books are bestsellers and his television series draw audiences in the millions, Gleiser becomes the first Latin American to be awarded the Templeton Prize.
For 35 years, his research has examined a wide array of topics, ranging from the behavior of quantum fields and elementary particles, to early-universe cosmology, the dynamics of phase transitions, astrobiology, and new fundamental measures of entropy and complexity based on information theory, with more than 100 peer- reviewed articles published to date.
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.
Engaging with the mysterious
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, 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. The announcement was made online at templetonprize.org today by the John Templeton Foundation, based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
Established in 1972 by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, the Prize is a cornerstone of the Foundation’s international efforts to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind. The Foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and emergence to creativity, forgiveness, and free will.
“Professor Gleiser embodies the values that inspired my grandfather to establish the Templeton Prize and to create the John Templeton Foundation,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Two values which were especially important for him, and the focus of various Foundation grants, are the pursuit of joy in all aspects of life, and the profound human experience of awe.”
“Undeniable joy of exploration”
“Professor Gleiser’s work displays an undeniable joy of exploration. He maintains the same sense of awe and wonderment that he first experienced as a child on the Copacabana beach, gazing at the horizon or the starry night sky, curious about what lies beyond,” Templeton Dill added. “As he writes in The Island of Knowledge, ‘Awe is the bridge between our past and present, taking us forward into the future as we keep on searching.’”
“The path to scientific understanding and scientific exploration is not just about the material part of the world,” said Professor Gleiser in his videotaped acceptance of the Prize at www.templetonprize.org. “My mission is to bring back to science, and to the people that are interested in science, this attachment to the mysterious, to make people understand that science is just one other way for us to engage with the mystery of who we are.”
In his letter endorsing Marcelo Gleiser’s nomination for the Prize, Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, noted: “His tireless efforts to bring a cohesive, just, and all-inclusive vision of humanity and its future are advancing human flourishing, bringing together people from different cultures and religious backgrounds into a global conversation on the importance of going beyond old stereotypes to celebrate the human condition and our role as planetary custodians.”
“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,” said Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon. “This award acknowledges his place among the scientists, theologians, writers, and others who have transformed the way we view the world.”
Marcelo Gleiser, Brazilian born and raised
Gleiser was born in Rio de Janeiro to an influential family in Rio’s Jewish community and received a conservative Hebrew school education. He began college majoring in chemical engineering but soon shifted to physics, receiving a Bachelor of Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in 1981. The next year, he earned a master’s in physics from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and, in 1986, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from King’s College London.
As a post-doctoral fellow, he wrote a series of papers on the cosmological consequences of theories with extra spatial dimensions, as proposed by models of unification, and one of the first papers examining superstring theory as it may relate to the Big Bang. Soon, his research branched into aspects of symmetry breaking, phase transitions, and the stability of physical systems, concepts that would influence his later critique of so- called “theories of everything.”
At 32, Gleiser was appointed assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth and full professor in 1998 at age 39. Over those years he distanced himself from unification theories and expanded his scientific views into a larger cultural context, resulting in his first book, The Dancing Universe. Conceived as a textbook for non-science majors at Dartmouth, this exploration of the philosophical and religious roots of scientific thinking and their influence from ancient to modern times marked Gleiser’s emergence as a public intellectual.
Four more English-language books followed, detailing his growing skepticism of the quest to find mathematical perfection in the universe, and calling instead to celebrate imperfection, asymmetry, and imbalance as joint creative powers in nature. He became a critic of blanket pronouncements about unknowable matters such as the inevitability of the unification of forces and the certainty that physics has solved the question of the universe’s origin. He also increasingly rejected the claims of fellow scientists who asserted the irrelevance of philosophy or religion.
An avowed non-atheist
While he describes himself as an agnostic, he is also an avowed non-atheist. “I see atheism as being inconsistent with the scientific method as it is, essentially, belief in nonbelief,” he noted in a 2018 interview in Scientific American. “You may not believe in God, but to affirm its nonexistence with certainty is not scientifically consistent.”
In 2016, Gleiser established the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth to advance and transform constructive dialogue between the sciences and the humanities in academia and in the public sphere, especially on fundamental questions where bringing together multidisciplinary insights is essential. The Institute, supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, sponsors dialogues and workshops in cities across the United States featuring scientists, humanists, and spiritual leaders.
Marcelo Gleiser and his wife, Kari Amber Gleiser, a trauma psychologist, are internationally competitive in Spartan races—long-distance obstacle races—and ultramarathons, which he describes as meditative integrations of mind and body into the vast world of nature. (He wrote about it here.) They live with their children in Hanover, New Hampshire.
He joins a group of 48 Prize recipients including 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 for his efforts to promote peace-affirming Islam and to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions. The 2017 Laureate was the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga, whose scholarship made theism a serious option within academia. Scientists who are previous Prize Laureates include Martin Rees (2011), John Barrow (2006), George Ellis (2004), Freeman Dyson (2000), and Paul Davies (1995).
Marcelo Gleiser will formally receive the Templeton Prize at a public ceremony in New York City on Wednesday, May 29. But you can meet him now in this announcement video from Templeton:
A press release from the Templeton Foundation contributed to this report. Image: Dartmouth College – Eli Burakian.
Explore some of Marcelo Gleiser’s blog posts at ORBITER: