Brazilian Scientist Wins Templeton Prize for Research on Origins of Universe

Image credit: Eli Burakian/Dartmouth College

On May 29, Brazilian theoretical physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize, worth $1.4 million, in a ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Templeton Prize, established by philanthropist and investor Sir John Templeton in 1972, honors a living person who has “made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”

A native of Brazil, Gleiser is the first Latin American recognized as a Templeton Prize Laureate. He has gained critical international acclaim for his body of work, which includes hundreds of essays in newspapers and peer-reviewed journals. Three of his five published books—The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected (2016), The Prophet and the Astronomer (2002) and The Dancing Universe (1997)—received the Jabuti Award for best nonfiction in Brazil.

As the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of astronomy and physics at Dartmouth College, Gleiser has focused much of his research on the relationship between cosmology and particle physics. According to the Foundation’s press release, he proposes that “science, philosophy, and spirituality are complementary experiences of humanity’s need to embrace mystery and explore the unknown.” Although his research ranges from quantum field theory to astrobiology and early-universe cosmology, one thread weaves his work together: the positioning of science as a spiritual quest to understand the origins of the universe and life on Earth.

In his acceptance speech, Gleiser focused on the interdisciplinary nature of the pursuit of knowledge. “The path to scientific understanding and exploration is not just about the material part of the world,” he claims, but rather about the attachment to the undiscovered. In his book The Island of Knowledge (2014), Gleiser equates this experience to that of being on an island. All human knowledge is self-contained, surrounded by an ever-growing—and nearly inconceivable—sea of unknown information.

“When we look at other worlds, and realize how rare a planet like Earth is,” Gleiser says, “we come to understand how special we are. But given the times we are living in, where the Earth is stressed by overpopulation and pollution, we need to be open to learning from people who think differently from us. Only then will we be able to go beyond tribal divides and build a future we can be proud of.”

The Templeton Prize is one of the world's largest individual awards. Professor Gleiser joins 48 other eminent Templeton Prize Laureates, including Mother Teresa and the 14th Dalai Lama.