Marcelo Gleiser

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

Gleiser is the author of the books The Prophet and the Astronomer (Norton & Company, 2003); The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang (Dartmouth, 2005); A Tear at the Edge of Creation (Free Press, 2010); and The Island of Knowledge (Basic Books, 2014). He is a frequent presence in TV documentaries and writes often for magazines, blogs and newspapers on various aspects of science and culture.

He has authored over 100 refereed articles, is a Fellow and General Councilor of the American Physical Society and a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and the National Science Foundation.

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.

As Americans are getting ready to cast their votes for the next occupant of the White House, let's step back from the heated political debate to focus on an issue that should — even if it doesn't — bring people together: the state of our planet.

I was in Rio de Janeiro last week, site of this year's Olympics. I grew up there, and was immensely proud of the spectacular success of the games. Despite the extreme negativity of media reports, the city came through and offered quite a show for the world to enjoy.

The ancient Greek and Indian philosophers who first conjectured that matter was made of tiny little bits of stuff would not believe that now, more than 25 centuries later, we can actually see them.

Granted, modern atoms are quite different from their old counterparts, given that they are actually not indivisible but, instead, made of electrons orbiting a positively-charged nucleus. Still, visualizing such tiny structures has remained a challenge since the idea took hold in modern times, during the turn of the 20th century.

In his 1936 classic Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin alerts society to the dangers of excessive automation.

There is a famous scene where the Little Tramp is put to work on an assembly line and, after tightening screws for a long time, can't stop repeating the turning motion.

The movie's point is that modern industry is all about efficiency and output, with little concern for the workers. Chaplin saw rapid industrialization turning us into robots, triggering a massive dehumanization of society.

Imagine this: You enter a car with no steering wheel, no brake or accelerator pedals. Under a voice-activated command, you say an address.

"The fastest route will take us 15.3 minutes. Should I take it?"

You say "yes" and are on your way. The car responds and starts moving all by itself. All you have to do is kick back and relax, presumably watching the news on a screen mounted in front of you, or surfing the Internet.

I start with a remarkable quote:

"I believe the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups ..."

So wrote the British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow in his famous "The Two Cultures" Rede Lecture delivered at Cambridge University in 1959.

There's no question that running changes your heart.

The issue is whether these changes are good or bad. I don't mean the occasional 3 miles once or twice a week, although even this minimal amount of exercise seems to have positive health benefits.

On Aug. 15, the news broke that a Russian radio telescope detected strong signals from outer space.

Opinions may diverge initially — but once we start to think about it, no question is harder than figuring out the origin of everything.

The more popular phrasings go something like, "Where did the world come from?" or "Why is there something rather than nothing?" This is the question of creation, of how the universe and everything in it came to be. And, although we've made great progress towards understanding the universe and its history, we are still far from understanding its origin.

Sounds like the usual narrative of sports events: the long hours of training and complete devotion, the expectation of results that may define new records or new ways of looking ahead, the excitement preceding the meet. Then, when the time comes, it can be total frustration or glory. Equipment failure, miscalculations, human error; or triumph, new heights achieved, new horizons revealed, old records broken.

There is a herolike narrative in science that, perhaps surprisingly, is not that far from a sports narrative.

Sometimes things seem to happen for a reason. Some people call these events happy coincidences, others call them the work of God, or of many gods, while yet others see them as manifestations of one's karma.

This is the fourth in a series of essays concerning our collective future. The goal is to bring forth some of the main issues humanity faces today, as we move forward to uncertain times. In an effort to be as thorough as possible, we will consider two kinds of threats: those due to natural disasters and those that are man-made. The idea is to expose some of the dangers and possible mechanisms that have been proposed to deal with these issues. My intention is not to offer a detailed analysis for each threat — but to invite reflection and, hopefully, action.

This is the third in a series of essays concerning our collective future. The goal is to bring forth some of the main issues humanity faces today, as we move forward to uncertain times. In an effort to be as thorough as possible, we will consider two kinds of threats: those due to natural disasters and those that are man-made. The idea is to expose some of the dangers and possible mechanisms that have been proposed to deal with these issues. My intention is not to offer a detailed analysis for each threat — but to invite reflection and, hopefully, action.

This is the second in a series of essays concerning our collective future. The goal is to bring forth some of the main issues humanity faces today, as we move forward to uncertain times. In an effort to be as thorough as possible, we will consider two kinds of threats: those due to natural disasters and those that are man-made. The idea is to expose some of the dangers and possible mechanisms that have been proposed to deal with these issues. My intention is not to offer a detailed analysis for each threat — but to invite reflection and, hopefully, action.

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