Marcelo Gleiser

Let's face it: Vegetarians are a strict minority of the U.S. population.

The numbers seem to be increasing, though data from various surveys vary widely.

Sometimes, I veer off my beloved scientific topics to explore another of my passions — human endurance.

Today we address the composition of the universe, in the final essay of our trilogy on cosmic questions.

As the great German astronomer Johannes Kepler once wrote in the early 17th century: "When the storm rages and the shipwreck of the state threatens, we can do nothing more worthy than to sink the anchor of our peaceful studies into the ground of eternity."

This is the "big question" — the one that has been with us in one way or another since the beginning of history.

Every culture that we have a record of has asked the very same question: How did the world come to be? How did people and life come to be? Taken within this broader cultural context, it's no surprise that modern-day scientists are as fascinated with the question of origins as were the shamans of our distant ancestors.

I often get asked what an "expanding universe" really means.

It's confusing, and for very good reasons. So, if you are perplexed by this, don't feel bad. We all are, although cosmologists — physicists that work on the properties of the universe — have figured out ways to make sense of it. In what follows, I'll try to explain how to picture this.

In the next few weeks, we will address other bizarre cosmic questions, such as the meaning of the Big Bang and the future and material composition of the universe.

When it comes to particle physics — the branch of physics that tries to find nature's fundamental building blocks of matter — it's all about energy and momentum. Moving (or kinetic) energy, to be precise.

The higher the speeds of the particles, the more violent their collisions.

Why all the violence?

Well, we are trying to "see" things that are millions of times smaller than atomic nuclei. And we can't just keep cutting matter down to find its smallest pieces.

If you are going to watch The Lost City of Z expecting some sort of Indiana Jones sequel, don't bother.

In the midst of the current debate about fabricated facts, the former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer launched a new website, USAFacts.org, where people can go to check the numbers for themselves.

The site is mainly devoted to government spending and revenue, offering a wealth of data on many fronts, including analysis on the effectiveness of different programs.

Our Choking Seas

Apr 29, 2017

I spent last week's Spring break with my family in a remote spot on the Northeastern coast of Brazil.

It's so remote, in fact, that there are no access roads to speak of: To get there, you drive about 200 miles from Fortaleza, the capital of Ceará state, and then tackle the last 25 miles or so on very rough, sand roads. Only dune buggies and very sturdy 4x4s can get there. Or the local donkeys. We chose to take the "beach road," which meant some 50-plus miles of spectacular, coast-front driving. On the way, only remote fishing villages and many river crossings.

We humans have this uncanny ability to tell time and create schemes to measure its passage.

Time is our greatest ally and our greatest enemy.

The idea that neuroscience is rediscovering the soul is, to most scientists and philosophers, nothing short of outrageous. Of course it is not.

What follows is an allegory in which blogger Marcelo Gleiser imagines a conversation between a geneticist, a Buddhist, a physicist, a psychologist, and a theologian about life and the future of humanity.

At an undisclosed location, a geneticist, a Buddhist, a physicist, a psychologist, and a theologian sat waiting for dinner. The idea was to engage in the almost lost art of conversation, where a group of people exchange opinions with an open mind, eager to put forward their views but also with the shared goal of learning from one another.

Picture this: You are in the bathroom, doing your usual thing after breakfast, when you notice blood in the water sitting in your white, porcelain toilet.

Scared, you schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist, who recommends a colonoscopy and a biopsy. It could be cancer, it could be a harmless colitis. But there you are, confronted, perhaps for the first time of your life, with your own mortality.

(Spoiler Alert: If you haven't watched the movie Logan and are planning to, you may want to read this essay only after you do.)

In generic heroic sagas, the hero leaves home to face numerous tribulations in a pilgrimage of the self.

The obstacles along the way are tests of the hero's strength, molding his/her character through pain and suffering. Glory, when achieved, is bittersweet, as it comes heavy with loss, usually of loved ones, family or companions. In tragic sagas, the hero pays with his/her life in the end so that others may be free.

Last week, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker published a satirical essay, in which he wondered whether the strange reality we live in could be some kind of computer game played by an advanced intelligence (us in the future or alien).

A group of astronomers announced Wednesday that seven Earth-size planets orbit a small, red, dwarf star 40 light-years away.

The findings were published in the journal Nature. Observations indicate that at least three of the planets may be at temperate zones where liquid water may exist.

The alliance between science and state is ancient.

Archimedes, the great Greek mathematician and inventor, designed weapons to protect the city of Syracuse from attacking Roman fleets. For thousands of years, blacksmiths developed new, more powerful alloys to make arrows and swords for their king's army.

To go to space we need math. Lots of it.

Most of us look in awe at the towering rocket ship strapped to the launching platform and forget the tremendous amount of work it took for it to get there — and, from there, to get into Earth's orbit and beyond. Engineering, math, physics, chemistry, computer science: It's all there, waiting for blast-off.

Some physicists, mind you, not many of them, are physicist-poets.

They see the world or, more adequately, physical reality, as a lyrical narrative written in some hidden code that the human mind can decipher.

Nearly everyone has had weird experiences, things that happen in life that seem to defy any sort of rational explanation.

It could be strange sightings, events that apparently challenge the laws of nature, that evoke the supernatural, or feelings of being possessed by some kind of universal awe, that elicit a connectedness with something grander, timeless.

What are these events — and what are they trying to tell us, if anything?

A mere two years after completing his daring General Theory of Relativity in 1915 — where gravity is interpreted as resulting from the curvature of space and time around a massive body — Albert Einstein wrote a daring article, taking on the whole universe under his new lens.

When we see actors like Helen Mirren, Will Smith, Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley starring in the same movie — and with a theme centered in how to re-find yourself after a terrible personal tragedy — the expectations are understandably high.

In these closing days of the year, a year where so much controversy and distrust bubbled up in the U.S. and abroad, it is a relief — and I'd say even therapeutic — to look at the reliability of science as a harbor, a place to anchor our expectations for the future.

Around this time of year, we often pause and take stock of where we are on many levels: emotionally, financially, professionally, politically and, at least here at 13.7, cosmically.

Where do things stand these days, when it comes to the universe?

Judging from the deluge of recent movies featuring aliens of all sorts — Dr. Strange, Arrival, the upcoming Star Wars movie Rogue One — we can't help but be fascinated with these imaginary creatures.

They live deep in our collective unconscious, mirroring the good and evil we are capable of. In a real sense, the aliens are us. They reflect what we know of the world and ourselves, our expectations and fears, our hopes and despair.

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman, the president and the director of the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF), respectively, explain why the organization decided to divest its holdings on fossil fuel companies.

Although the divesting decision is broad-ranging, they single out ExxonMobil for its "morally reprehensible conduct."

Spoiler alert: This post refers to key elements of the movie.

The audience around me was stunned silent at the end of Arrival, the new movie about a visit from advanced extraterrestrial beings based on Ted Chiang's short story.

Growing up in a reasonably affluent family in Brazil, I have no doubt that my life changed forever when, as a 10-year-old, I watched the moon landing on live TV.

(*Spoiler alert: This post refers to key elements of the movie.)

"It is not about you," says the Ancient One, marvelously played by Tilda Swinton in the movie Doctor Strange — based on the Marvel comic — released in theaters last Friday.

She is talking to Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is at a crossroads: either return to his previous life as a superstar-conceited neurosurgeon, or use his newly acquired mystic powers to save the world.

Pages