Marcelo Gleiser on the Never-Ending Pursuit of Knowledge

(Photo by Rob Strong '04)

 

This Focus on Faculty Q&A is one in a ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.

Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of physics and astronomy and the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy. The author of four books in the U.S. and many more in his native Brazil, including a historical novel based on the life of the German scientist Johannes Kepler, Professor Gleiser talks with Dartmouth Now about the nature of the universe, fly fishing in Iceland, and what he’d be doing if he weren’t a professor.

You have described yourself as a “scientist with a soul.” What do you mean by that?

I try to show people that scientists are human beings as well, you know? People forget that we are as passionate and as sensitive as everybody else, and that, in fact, a lot of our work is charged with this passion for knowledge, for pushing the boundaries of knowing about the world and about ourselves.

Did you take the title of your latest book, The Island of Knowledge, from pastor and educator Ralph Sockman’s quote: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder”?

No, but that is the message of my book, very much. That people have that sort of “science conquers all” kind of idea that we are going to go and find the answer to everything, and I think that’s complete nonsense. Sometimes I’m accused of being defeatist. But it’s precisely not knowing that makes you want to know more.

Will we ever know everything?

That’s absolutely impossible. And you know, “impossibility” is a word that scientists should not use lightly. But in this case, I’m pretty certain that there are fundamental limits to how we can acquire knowledge. And science needs to acquire information about the world in order to move forward. So because of those limitations, I think there is no end to knowledge.

There is no end.

Which is a wonderful thing, because that means that we will never rest, that this sort of human curiosity, this drive to understand, will never stop, and that is what makes me happy to wake up every morning.

In your latest book, you say science is limited by both our tools of exploration and the nature of the cosmos. Is that the bad news or the good news?

It’s just the news. (Laughs) I am trying to raise some sort of awareness that look, science is a very powerful—perhaps the most powerful—tool that we have to bring knowledge about the world, but it has its limitations. So let’s not sell it as the owner of truth, because truth is too much of a burden even for science to carry.

Are you working on a new book?

Yes, and it’s going to be completely different from my other books. I go around the world to these conferences, and I also love fly-fishing. So whenever I go to weird places, I like fly-fishing there, like in Iceland and Australia. And so the book is a travel journal of fly-fishing and natural philosophy mixed together. And the title is “The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected.”

Another great title.

I think it’s my best ever. It’s basically the idea that it’s really the little surprises, the things you cannot expect, that are the most beautiful things that can happen to you—like finding a new person in your life, or catching a big trout in a stream.

You’ve said you have a spiritual connection with nature.

I think there is spirituality in religion, but there is also spirituality that is not attached to any religion in particular. Something bigger than ourselves need not be something supernatural. That’s the point.

So you can have a spiritual connection with a higher power, or with all of nature.

Exactly. I love running on trails in the mountains, and I always tell my wife, you know, some people go to temple Sunday mornings or to the church, and I go to my temple, my church, these forests here in the mountains of New Hampshire.

I wouldn’t ask just anyone this, but you are a good candidate. What is the meaning of life?

Let me just think about that a second. So, the meaning of life is to find meaning in life.

You are clearly committed to bringing an understanding of science to people outside the scientific circle. Why is that?

I think that has something to do with being an educator. You shouldn’t really confine yourself to the classroom. You should really think of yourself as an educator to the world. So I don’t just talk to my students here about how wonderful science is. I want to tell everybody how wonderful science is because I’m so excited about it.

You’ve taught here since 1991. What drew you to Dartmouth?

I came here for an interview and I really loved the place. I started to look into what is the liberal arts curriculum, and I was fascinated. I thought that given my cross-disciplinary interests, it would be a good fit.

Has it been?

It has been wonderful. It could be a little warmer…

If you weren’t teaching here, what would you be doing?

Wow, that’s a tough question. I would like to be a full-time writer, actually. I have a lot of different ideas for books. I just don’t have time to write them all because of everything else.

What’s something most people don’t now about you?

The obstacle racing.

What’s that?

It’s basically you run on mountains, but you also jump over six-foot walls or eight-foot walls, and climb ropes, and go under barbed wire. Last year, my wife told me, “I just signed us up for this thing called the Spartan Beast,” and I’m like, the what? It turns out there is something called the Spartan Race: the Sprint, the Super, and the Beast. The Beast is a half-marathon, and this one was the World Championship, so it was supposed to be the hardest ever. And I said, this is no joke, but I’ll take it on. I started to work out like crazy. It took us eight hours and 54 minutes to finish. Four or five times up and down Mt. Killington, a couple of them carrying a 60-pound bag of cement on our backs up the mountain, and then 40 obstacles. It was crazy.

It sounds very challenging.

I made a promise to myself: If I finish this with some level of dignity, I will take this seriously.

And so …

So we are going to do at least six races this year. I’m going to have an Upper Valley club, so I’ve hired the guy who designs the courses and the obstacles to design a mini course at my home, where I have 14 acres of land. I talked to my students about it once when they asked why my fingers were taped … and half the cross-country team was in my class. And they said, we want to do it! We want to do this! So I’m talking to the owner of the company now to create a collegiate-level obstacle race. Can you imagine the Ivies competing on this, how awesome that will be?

Do you do anything halfway?

(Laughing) Absolutely never, no.

When are you happiest?

I would say two times. I am sometimes elated when I’m running, and the other time is when I’m free to think. I’m limiting my happiness to certain things, you know; there are many other ways. Being free to think about what I want to think about.

You’ve been interviewed many, many times. Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked?

One question that doesn’t come up very often is why science? You know, why this, right? I would say it is because it’s the best way I know to get to know the world and to get to know yourself in the world. And there’s nothing more privileged than spending a lifetime thinking about these questions.

The interview has been edited and condensed.