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.

As Edgar Allan Poe wrote, quoting Lord Bacon in Ligeia: "There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportions."

Late last year, when most people were getting ready for the holidays, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) machine at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, made a startling announcement: Their two massive detectors had identified a small bump in the data with an energy level of about 750 GeV.

Why We Love Aliens

May 25, 2016

There is an interesting convergence going on these days, whereby aliens are back as the focus of attention.

Fear Of Not Knowing

May 18, 2016

Today, I want to riff on Sean Carroll's stimulating contribution to 13.7 this past weekend by bringing up a few open scientific questions that are particularly baffling.

Life, for all its remarkable diversity, displays also a remarkable unity.

There is, of course, the way by which animals reproduce, as genetic information encoded in DNA is passed on to new generations in nearly all animals. The two strands of the huge molecule coil as if forming a spiral staircase, with each rung consisting of pairs of chemical groups (bases) which combine in very specific ways: adenine to thymine and guanine to cytosine. In the many ways by which life attempted to emerge on Earth billions of years ago, this was the system that worked best.

In 2006, six years after his presidential bid, Al Gore launched the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The movie made headlines around the world, raising awareness of global warming and its predicted dire consequences for the planet and society.

Anyone who has run more than a few miles with some regularity has experienced what is usually called a "runner's high," an overwhelming feeling of euphoria and well-being that makes the running experience something far more rewarding than just moving forward toward an end point.

As a dedicated endurance trail runner, I can attest to this feeling and the craving for more. Although this is not the only reason why people run, we come back, again and again, hoping for these almost magical moments, that come and go as we move along the road or the trail.

Many of my non-believer colleagues would think it foolish to step onto a stage with a high-ranking Vatican cardinal to discuss science and religion.

I looked at the sun with longing this morning, wondering when its rays would warm up the air. Monday, we had a snowstorm around Hanover, NH, of the kind that must have inspired T. S. Elliot's famous opening words from The Waste Land, "April is the cruelest month..."

Why Math Rocks

Mar 30, 2016

Everyone who has kids, or who remembers his/her childhood, will also remember the struggle to understand why math matters.

"Who cares about multiplication tables and fractions, triangles and algebra? Why do I need to know these things?"

Theoretically speaking, there is widespread confusion about the word "theory." Right?

Many people interpret the word as iffy knowledge, based mostly on speculative thinking. It is used indiscriminately to indicate things we know — that is, based on solid empirical evidence — and things we aren't sure about. Not a good mix at all, especially when certain theories speak directly to people's religious and value-based sensitivities, such as the "theory of evolution" or "Big Bang theory." There is also the danger of falling for meaning traps set by groups with specific agendas.

It's in the news everywhere, with near-apocalyptic hubris: Google's DeepMind machine beat the world champion of the game Go with a score of 4-1.

We may believe that we know what's going on around us. After all, we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste what's around.

Our senses are like antennas, grabbing information about our surroundings and bringing this information into our brains. The brain is this amazing organ capable of synthesizing this information and giving us a sense of the real.

Earlier this week, I visited a fourth-grade class at the public school where I live. I try to go every year to different classes, from grade school to high school, to tell students about the universe.

The class had been studying the solar system, in particular the planets and their properties. The teacher gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. I felt that contextualizing planets would be a good idea, telling their story from birth to death, their relation to their parent star, in our case, to the sun.

It is a sad curiosity that the word "disaster" comes from star (aster), as in "an ill-starred event," owing its etymological roots to astrology.

For the past two weeks we've been exploring some of the questions related to life's origin on Earth and possibly elsewhere.

Last week, we wrote about the fundamental three questions concerning the origin of life on Earth: When? Where? How? Although they are interrelated, each has a specific set of sub-questions that keep researchers very busy.

The singer David Bowie, one of the most creative performers in rock 'n' roll history, died of cancer at age 69 on Sunday — two days after releasing a new album.

The battle goes on. In a galaxy far, far away, forces of good clash with forces of evil.

It was a busy year for science, with remarkable discoveries on all fronts. I have compiled a brief and incomplete list, biased toward space science and physics, with links to more details. Here it goes:

"History will remember this day," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Saturday, after almost 200 countries adopted the first global treaty to curb man-made global warming. "The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people."

President Obama agreed: "[The climate agreement] offers the best chance to save the one planet we have."

Who doesn't want to play God — to have the feeling of creating new worlds with the push of a button? (Although gods presumably don't need buttons to create worlds.)

On this very day 100 years ago, while Europe was buried deep in the darkness of the Great War, Albert Einstein wrote down the equation that changed forever the way we understand space, time and matter.

I spent last week at CERN, the high-energy physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, where the Higgs boson particle was discovered in July 2012.

For those who are not yet familiar, CERN houses a giant particle accelerator — the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — a machine designed to find the smallest constituents of matter.

When discussing the relationship between science and religion, people often take a polarized position: It's either "I believe" or "I don't believe."

Much grief comes from the insistence from either side that the opposite is wrong or meaningless. (Here is an example, as secularist Sam Harris criticizes National Institutes of Health director and believer Francis Collins.)

One of the indisputable advantages of the Internet is accessibility of information, in particular for educational purposes, inside and outside schools.

Vast collections of what we photograph, study and catalogue are available by typing a few words and clicking on a few tabs. For someone who grew up scavenging local libraries to retrieve what little information was available, this accessibility is nothing short of a revolution — and an amazing one.

The notion that mechanization and technology will bring us free time, so we can "enjoy" life, is as old as technology itself.

The use of farming animals to cut through fields spared humans much hard work. Romans used watermills to grind grain and lift water for irrigation. As we advance through history, the list goes on and on. The expectation has always been that as technology and the mechanization of labor grew in sophistication, humans would have more free time and, thus, more opportunities for leisure.

On Sunday, a seven-part documentary series titled Belief begins airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). For a week, viewers will travel around the world as the series explores the many facets of belief across cultures, from the orthodox to the secular, from the material to the spiritual.

The origin of the universe is one of the most difficult realities we ponder.

It bends our logic, straining the words we have to describe it. If one is to say the universe started at the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, the immediate reaction is: "But what came before that? What caused the Big Bang?"

This is the issue of the "first cause" — the cause at the beginning of the causal chain that caused all else but was itself not caused — that has plagued and inspired philosophers for millennia.

We learned Tuesday that Takaaki Kajita, from the Super-Kamiokande Collaboration in Japan, and Arthur McDonald, from the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Collaboration in Canada (SNO), won the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics for helping to solve a long-standing mystery in physics: the disappearing neutrinos.

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