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, 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.
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?
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.
So we’re surrounded by mystery.
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.
That sounds like a profoundly depressing realization for a scientist.
If you’re a card-carrying “reason will solve everything and science is truth,” person, then maybe. But in my case, I think it’s inspiring because it means there is no end to the quest; we humans will always have a limited grasp of what reality is. And what could be more fascinating than being surrounded by mystery?
If you’re someone who likes mystery. I think we humans tend to have a contentious relationship with the unknown.
Yeah, you know, in my other life, where I do all these extreme sports like endurance running, we have this saying—“you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I think that applies here too—you have to be comfortable with the fact that we will never know everything, that there are questions that have no answers, and that’s not a bad thing.
The paradox of knowledge is that the more you learn, the more you discover that you don’t know.
As a theoretical physicist, you’ve been working with big questions and mysteries for most of your career, but what drew you in that direction to begin with? I know your mother died when you were very young. Do you think that helped shape you as someone who was drawn to those questions?
Yes, absolutely, I have no doubt about that. I was 6 when my mother died, and it was a time of darkness in my life. There was just this void, the emotional void of not having a mom, you know? All your friends have moms, who come and pick them up from school and hold their hands. My dad sometimes came by, but he was a busy man. So what do you do with that kind of loss?
Did you have any kind of faith tradition to help explain it?
My family is Jewish—and I had a pretty traditional Jewish education—with traditions, but not so much belief in all of the details of the Old Testament. But there’s an element of the supernatural in all the big monotheistic religions, and I tried to connect with that. I was obsessed by supernatural stories and supernatural beings. When I was about 11 years old, vampires in particular were fascinating to me because they were both living and non-living, they had a foot in the world of the dead and a foot in the world of the living. So I said, “Hey, maybe if I became a vampire, I could go and connect with my mom!”
And you were growing up in Rio de Janeiro, which must have been filled with stories of the supernatural?
Oh, big time. There were spirits everywhere, according to my nannies. My dad was superstitious too. Every Monday was Souls’ Day, so people would go to the crossroads and light up candles and leave offerings for the spirits. Yeah, in Rio, you can’t avoid the other dimension.
Did you ever feel like you were able to be in touch with your mother?
Many times. In fact, if you had asked me when I was 9, I would have sworn that I could see her sometimes hovering in the big, long corridor of my house. I was desperate for that connection.
But then I started to transition from that to nature and to being in the natural world by myself. That’s when I began to fish. I was 12, and I would go all by myself to Copacabana Beach and spend hours alone fishing. I mean, what kid does that? I was surrounded by all these retired men, who were always like, “what is this kid doing here?” And I was just there, hanging out, looking at the horizon for 2 or 3 hours, you know, three or four times a week. For years, I did that. It was really trying to connect with, I don’t know what, the vagueness of the horizon? Because it is a weird place, the horizon, when you think about it—where the earth and the heavens join. The line of connection between one world—ours—and another world, which is up there.
I can see you feeling drawn to that—as though you yourself, in your life, were hovering there, stuck on the horizon in a way, because your mother’s death propelled you into this in-between place?
Exactly. And then I discovered Einstein. And that changed everything because I realized that some of these questions about space, about time, about duration, about the origins of everything, were actually also scientific questions.
How do you go from being a boy who thinks maybe he could see his mother’s ghost and who believes in spirits, to being a scientist working in the materialist paradigm?
Well you can see that I didn’t choose to work on superconductors or lasers or bacteria! I chose to work on the nature of space and time and the Big Bang and the origin of life. These are really boundary questions between scientific and philosophical or religious thinking. So I think I found a way to be what you could possibly call a rational mystic.
You have to be comfortable with the fact that we will never know everything.
Did that ever create problems for you in the scientific community, among other scientists?
No, simply because I never told them. Like—and I’m not comparing myself to Einstein—but I’m sure that Einstein also didn’t talk about his Spinoza notion that God is everywhere.
That’s what he thought?
He had a very wonderful—and I would say mystical—way of relating to this intelligence that he found embedded in nature, which was some sort of divine presence. He didn’t associate it with a Jewish God or anything like that, but there was something and he thought that science was a portal to connecting with this kind of intelligence.
That’s way more mystical than I thought Einstein was. I mean, there’s his famous remark, “God does not play dice with the universe.”
Yeah, but that was a joke. He had a much deeper connection, what I would call truly a mystic connection to the natural world, and to this kind of hidden intelligence in the depths of nature that we can never quite understand, but which is there. He has this famous quote that I love, which is: “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” I mean, who would write that? Krishnamurti, yes—but that was Einstein!
So we’re circling around the subject of storytelling. Lately you’ve been saying that we need a new story of the universe, that ever since Copernicus, science has been telling the story of cosmological history wrong. That’s a pretty big rewrite.
I’m saying we have to rethink the story of who we are and how we relate to the planet. A little bit of deep time history here: Homo sapiens have been here on this planet 300,000 years, more or less. Of that time, about 95 percent, almost all of it, we were hunter gatherers moving about the planet. And we had a completely different relationship to the world than the agrarian civilizations did. For the hunter gatherers, the world was sacred. They understood that there were powers in nature that were beyond themselves, that they were not above nature.
But that was 10,000 years ago, so how do we know? Are you extrapolating from what current Indigenous cultures and traditions have to say?
No, we have anthropological evidence of how earlier hunter-gatherers congregated and how and what they ate. It’s amazing that we can tell that story. And of course, there is a dark side, and maybe overhunting was what caused the extinction of the mastodon and other mammals. But yes, I think current Indigenous cultures carry that tradition of coexisting with the natural world and respecting the sacredness of a place. Agrarian societies ushered in a complete phase transition: “look, we can actually control nature. We can tame the plants and animals to serve our purposes, and we can be the masters of the world.” No wonder the monotheistic religions say God created the world for humans.
And suddenly we get stories of paradise. Gardens of Eden given to us.
And most importantly, look what happened to the gods. Once, they were part of the trees, the rivers, the waterfalls, the winds, the volcanoes. Now, the gods are way up there, far away from the world. The world is not divine anymore. It becomes an object.
We carry the whole history of the universe in ourselves.
And this is the precursor to the revolutionary moment when Copernicus says Earth is also not the center of the universe?
Right. And then when Copernicus says, “Look, the Earth is not even the center of everything, the sun is,” then the Earth became not the center of creation, but just another world. Which further disrupted the vertical hierarchy of us here on Earth and the gods up in the skies. Now that Earth is revolving around the sun, it becomes less important. And we become less important too, because immediately after Copernicus, people started to speculate: “Wait a second. If there are other worlds, why should life only be here?”
Really, right afterward?
Very, very quickly. Copernicus published his book in 1543. In the 1580s, Giordano Bruno was saying, look, the stars are just like the sun, so they should also have planets moving around them, and those planets should have life, just like here. In the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler, who came up with the mathematical laws of planetary motion, wrote a fictional story about a trip to the moon.
So people were already beginning to think about escaping the Earth and heading to other planets.
It was all over the place. In 1686, one year before Newton published his famous book that changed the world, a French philosopher, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, published a book called Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. And then as science advanced, we learned more about stars and galaxies and the expansion of the universe. But within the framework of the Copernican narrative, the more we learned about the universe, the less important we and this planet became.
And today we talk about multiverses.
Yeah, that’s the final insult, right? “Hey, there’s not just our universe, there are countless universes! Ours is just one.”
There’s this thing people talk about in astronomy, the principle of mediocrity—meaning we are not important at all. I think this is just completely wrong. Because there is a fundamental element missing in this whole story: We have no clue what life is or how it emerged on this planet. I mean, we don’t even know how to define life very well. We have an operational definition: a biochemical network system that is capable of metabolism and of Darwinian evolution. But that’s what life does—it doesn’t tell me anything about what life is.
In the meantime, there’s a lot of money going into looking for exoplanets that might support life. Elon Musk thinks we can terraform Mars. There’s the whole narrative of “when we’ve wrecked this planet, we’ll head to another.” You’re pushing back on all that?
Okay, let’s qualify. Searching for other planets, and in particular searching for biosignatures, meaning the signs of life, is essential research right now. I work on this. But Elon Musk and terraforming Mars? That’s just silly stuff. Our problem right now is the next few decades on this planet—not if, in 500 years, we’re going to have a colony on Mars. I mean, that’s useless.
Then why even bother looking for exoplanets? Why not focus our attention on this one?
Because that’s how we advance knowledge, by asking profound questions about the universe and matter. Looking for life on other planets is essential because for now, as far as we know, Earth is the only planet that has life. The post-Copernican narrative decreased the value of our world, and we constructed a whole civilization based on the idea that we can use and abuse it. We built giant cities and industries by essentially consuming the entrails of our planet. Oil, gas, and coal—the insides of the planet—fed our technologies, and it all worked until it didn’t.
Without our voice, the universe itself would have no memory.
At this point, it almost seems like the problems are too big to do anything about.
So what can we do? Well, we can tell a different story. First of all, when you look at the evolution of life, you realize that it’s completely dependent on the history of the planet. If you change or tweak something that happened here on our planet a long time ago, life would be different, which means we wouldn’t be here.
The most famous example is 66 million years ago, the big asteroid hits the Yucatan Peninsula. It wipes out the dinosaurs and a bunch of other creatures, with the exception, maybe, of the birds and some little mammals. It completely changed the evolution of life on the planet. And it was a cosmic accident.
So your point is, it’s not about counting up the number of planets that could possibly support life because they’ve got the right chemistry and the right mass. It’s that there were so many little contingencies without which you could never get this form of life again. Although, you might get a better one.
What I’m trying to say is that instead of thinking of the Earth as just another planet and life as ubiquitous in the universe, the truth is that Earth is not just another planet. The Earth is a very rare oasis that has supported life for at least three and a half billion years, which allowed for life to change and adapt to different environments that coincidentally and completely randomly evolved to generate a species that is able to reconstruct this entire story and to tell it. And without our voice, the universe itself would have no story, would have no memory. It would be a dead universe. So it’s not just that we are we are stardust, as Carl Sagan used to say—we are how the universe is telling its own story.
I think this is only possible because of this incredibly spectacular and rare planet that we live on. Look at Mars, a horrible frozen desert. Look at Venus, a boiling soup of sulfuric acid. Other planets, you can’t even stand on them because they’re gas giants. So this is not just another world; it’s a rare gem in the universe. And yes, there could be other planets with life on them, maybe. But probably very simple life—single celled organisms. Never or very rarely complex organisms.
The other thing I was thinking about is James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory and the suggestion that at some point the universe would develop consciousness. It sounds like you’re saying it already has—in the form of humans.
That’s the beauty of this whole story. We carry the whole history of the universe in ourselves. The atoms in your body—the iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones—came from stars that exploded 5 billion years ago. They traveled gazillions of light-years to fall four and a half billion years ago into this nebula that was collapsing to become the sun and the planets. And then in one of these planets, which happens to have water and carbon and magnesium and phosphorus, molecules organized themselves and became alive—and then began to evolve, three and a half billion years ago, into a species that is telling this story. That is not something that is going to be happening all over the universe!
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful concept called “interbeing,” which he described this way. He said: Let’s say you’re reading a poem, and the poem is printed on a sheet of paper. Well, that paper came from a tree. The tree only grew because there is water and there is sunlight. But the sun is a star, and the star is shining because there is a universe that developed stars. So every time you look at a piece of paper, you are connected to the rest of the universe.
And that’s what I’m talking about: the re-sacralization of the planet.
Do you think doing science can be sacred?
Absolutely. Not everybody will agree with me, but that’s how I wake up every day—to go do my calculations and write my papers and try to figure out if there is life on another planet. To me, that’s a sacred engagement with the universe. And I know I’m in very good company saying that, because Einstein used to say the same thing.
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