The astrophysicist who loves the things we cannot know

Marcelo Gleiser thinks we have the story of the universe all wrong. And that it’s time to restore Earth and humanity to the center of the cosmos. The Brazilian physicist, astronomer, and winner of the 2019 Templeton Prize thinks modern science has fallen prey to an increasingly bleak perspective—a view of Earth as an insignificant speck alone in a cold, dark universe.

Gleiser, a noted theoretical physicist who teaches at Dartmouth College, has published a string of books on high energy physics, cosmology, and the origins of the universe. In his latest, The Dawn of a Mindful Universe: A Manifesto for Humanity’s Future, he writes that ever since Copernicus, “the more we learn about the universe, the smaller and less important planet Earth seems.” It’s a toxic narrative, he thinks, that set the stage for reckless use and abuse of the planet’s resources. There aren’t that many writers who could make the story of the Big Bang, expansion of the universe, and galaxy formation relevant to fossil fuel consumption and the climate crisis. In Gleiser’s hands, the story of the universe becomes a call to action.

In a recent conversation with Anne Strainchamps, he seemed energized by the flood of new data raising questions about the current model of the universe—and by the very real possibility that humans will never truly understand the universe, a lesson he felt personally after a devastating loss in childhood.

A text version of this conversation ran in Nautilus Magazine. Here's an excerpt: 

Anne Strainchamps: You have argued that findings from the James Webb telescope are calling the story of our universe into question. What, specifically, makes you think cosmology may be due for a conceptual revolution?

Marcelo Gleiser: We always thought stars were made when the universe was about 100 million years old. So the usual narrative is that first you have a bunch of big, big stars. They collect, they form black holes, they attract more stars, and then you have galaxies. And this takes a while. The idea was that it would take about a billion years for you to have big galaxies.

But in comes the James Webb, and we find that, nope—there were huge galaxies right around the same time that the first stars were being formed. So somehow we have to find a way of increasing the speed at which galaxies form.

AS: So we’re surrounded by mystery.

MG: Absolutely. I wrote a book called The Island of Knowledge a few years ago, where I said that the island of knowledge is surrounded by the ocean of the unknown. And as the island grows, so does its periphery, which is the boundary between the known and the unknown. So the paradox of knowledge is that the more you learn, the more you discover that you don’t know.

Read the full version on the Nautilus website.