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Physicist Marcelo Gleiser wins 2019 Templeton Prize

9 April 2019

The physicist and popularizer of science is the first laureate from Latin America.

Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College, is the 2019 recipient of the Templeton Prize, which annually honors a living person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The prize, which by design exceeds the Nobel Prize purse, is valued this year at £1.1 million ($1.4 million).

Marcelo Gleiser
Credit: Eli Burakian

A native of Brazil, Gleiser earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there and then moved to King’s College London, where in 1986 he earned his PhD for work on string theory and cosmology. His current research focuses on early universe cosmology, complexity theory, and the origins of life—particularly the symmetry breaking that led to biomolecules being left-handed.

A longtime popularizer of science, Gleiser has appeared on television and radio and has written books, newspaper columns, and blogs, including a weekly column on science for National Public Radio from 2009 through 2018. Eight of his books have been best sellers in Brazil.

“I have always been interested in the big questions,” he says. “My mission is to bring back to science, and to the people that are interested in science, an attachment to the mysterious. I want to help people understand that science is just another way for us to engage with the mystery of who we are.”

In 2016 Gleiser established the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth. The institute, which is funded largely by the John Templeton Foundation, hosts online courses and public events that explore questions involving science, humanities, religion, and ethics. Topics of discussion have included climate change, being human in the digital age, and questions such as “Is there free will?” “How can science and technology redefine humanity?” and “Can science be a path toward increased spirituality?”

Science, philosophy, and religion are the three pillars that humans use to try to make sense of the world, says Gleiser. “They are different, but they all try to respond to existential anxiety.” The fundamental difference between science and religion, he adds, is that “with science, eventually we get data about the universe which helps us distinguish among the possibilities.”

The Templeton Prize was established in 1972, and the first recipient was Mother Teresa. About a quarter of the 49 laureates have been physicists, including Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson, Charles Townes, and Martin Rees. Gleiser is the first laureate from Latin America.

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