HANOVER — Studying physics as a young man in Rio de Janeiro, Professor Marcelo Gleiser never thought he would be recognized as advancing the knowledge of the ways science connects to human spirituality.
Gleiser, Dartmouth’s Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy, was announced Tuesday as the winner of the 2019 Templeton Prize. The prize was created by in 1972 by Sir John Templeton in order to “to identify ‘entrepreneurs of the spirit’ — outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality,” according to the Templeton Prize website.
Gleiser has been with Dartmouth since 1991, and turned 60 on Tuesday.
“It’s a funny birthday present,” he said.
Gleiser said the prize was created as an answer to the Nobel Prize, which honors scientific knowledge, literary achievements, but does not recognize spiritual progress.
Gleiser said his work in cosmology has been to connect science to bigger questions of existence.
“Cosmology is not just the study of the universe and cosmologies, but what is the universe and how did it come to be and who we are and where we are going,” Gleiser said. “These are questions that are much older than science.”
Gleiser’s work includes the 1994 co-discovery of oscillons, long-lived small energy lumps made of many particles. He continues to study oscillons and their properties. Recently, he has turned his attention to the origin of life on Earth, becoming an influential voice in the growing astrobiology community, according to a statement from Dartmouth. He has written five books in English, and nine in Portuguese.
“The more you know about the world, the more the boundaries of known and unknown grow,” Gleiser said in a prepared statement. “And the more questions you’re equipped to ask about what you do not know. In a sense, science is an endless pursuit.”
Gleiser found out in December he was winning the prize when he got a call from Heather Templeton Dill, president of the Templeton Foundation. He thought they were going to talk about a grant application he had before the foundation.
“I put down the phone and I thought, ‘Did I hallucinate all this? Is it really happening?’ “ he said.
In her announcement released Tuesday, Templeton Dill quotes Gleiser’s book, The Island of Knowledge.
“Awe is the bridge between our past and present, taking us forward into the future as we keep on searching,” she said. “Professor Gleiser embodies the values that inspired my grandfather to establish the Templeton Prize and to create 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.”
The prize, which comes with a $1.4 million award, has been won by theologians, philosophers and scientists, and prize winners include such luminaries as Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. Gleiser is the 49th recipient, and the first prize winner from Dartmouth.
“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 Phil Hanlon. “This award acknowledges his place among the scientists, theologians, writers, and others who have transformed the way we view the world.”
Gleiser received a bachelor’s of science degree from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, a master’s in physics from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from King’s College London. He joined Dartmouth’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1991, becoming a full professor in 1998.