Q&A with professor, author Marcelo Gleiser

by Anthony Robles | 1/31/17 2:00am


Professor of physics Marcelo Gleiser has taught at the College for 26 years.

Source: Courtesy of Marcelo Gleiser

Physics professor Marcelo Gleiser has devoted his life to the study of theoretical physics. His discipline has enabled him to study and teach on three different continents, first completing his undergraduate work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil before graduating from King’s College London with his Ph.D. His postdoctoral work took him to Fermilab, a high-energy particle physics laboratory located right outside of Chicago, Illinois, and finally to the University of California, Santa Barbara. While there, he applied for a faculty job at Dartmouth, where he has been teaching for the last 26 years.

“I came, and I loved the place,” Gleiser said. “I loved the department, and I’ve been here ever since.”

In addition to his work as a physicist, Gleiser has published five nonfiction books regarding his studies. These works have been translated into over 15 different languages, with Gleiser receiving the Brazilian Jabuti Award for best nonfiction work on two separate occasions. Now, Gleiser will be teaching a new massive open online course named “Question Reality!,” which will explore the intersection between philosophy, religion and science. The course will begin on Jan. 31, as part of DartmouthX, an initiative dedicated to expanding Dartmouth’s collection of MOOCs since 2014, in collaboration with the nonprofit online learning consortium edX.

What was it like going through college as a theoretical physicist?

MG: Basically when you’re an undergraduate, you just do physics. So you’re going to get a bachelor’s degree in physics, and it really varies from student to student how clear they are about their path and what they want to do in the future. In my case, I knew, although I will say that I started doing engineering, and I only moved to physics in my third year. My family didn’t like the idea of me becoming a physicist because they thought that engineering is a more respectable position, a more solid employment prospect, but I did not relent. I decided that I had to be a scientist, no matter what my parents thought, and so there was a little bit of family strife, but I survived and got my degree in physics knowing that I wanted to become a theorist. That meant not working necessarily in laboratory experiments but doing more of the mathematical modeling of natural systems — that uses a lot of math and a lot of computer simulations. And so, that’s the path that I forged from very early on. I had no doubt that I wanted to deal with the big questions and that cosmology and particle physics was where those questions were most clearly asked.

What does your work entail?

MG: I work on what could be generally called “early universe physics,” such as the Big Bang and cosmology. I want to understand how the universe emerged from a hot dense soup of particles to become what it is nowadays, full of galaxies, stars, planets and even life. Some of my research also goes into what we call the “emergence of complexity” that describes how the simple becomes complicated in nature and how you can actually quantify that complexity and learn the physical mechanisms behind it.

How have you enjoyed your time at Dartmouth and how has Dartmouth changed during your time here?

MG: Oh, wow. So I’ve been here for a long time. This is my only professor job thus far, so I’ve been here 26 years, which is longer than most people that are studying here have lived. I would say that the most obvious change at Dartmouth is diversity. When I came here, there was not a very diverse student population or faculty population, and I think that this is really changing right now. In the last few years you can really see a much more diverse student population than in the early days. The other thing that I see and I love is that there is much more opening to new institutes, centers and programs that foster the conversation across disciplines, which I think is at the very heart of liberal arts.

How did you end up teaching this course, “Question Reality!”?

MG: I wrote a book called “The Island of Knowledge” that was very well received, and I decided that it could be a perfect course for non-science majors about the interface between science, philosophy and religion. I proposed it as a college course, and it was approved. I lectured it once, and the students loved it. We had a wonderful time in the classroom. And then, when I got this big grant to start this new institute ­— the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement — as part of the grant, I had money for two MOOC productions, and I decided that this would be a really good MOOC. That’s why it became not just a course here at Dartmouth, but also an online course that starts very soon.

What will the full course experience be like?

MG: Basically, MOOCs have three components. They have videos that the instructor — in this case, myself — uses to present most of the course material, so basically a lecture. The media group here was outstanding in its production efforts, and they really created videos which are very good, almost NOVA [a science television series] quality. There’s beautiful graphics, animations and images that compliment what I am saying. Then you have interviews with experts from many different fields, from a classics professor talking about Lucretius to a CERN physicist talking about the search for the ultimate particles of nature on location at CERN. So I went there and filmed it. Then there is the work that the students themselves do, which is divided into multiple-choice questions that are basically content check to make sure that they are actually studying and learning something and activities that they have to develop and present back to the class. It will kind of be an interesting exercise when you have more than 10,000 people doing this.

How did you decide that this course was suitable for discussion?

MG: Well, part of my mission, not just as a professor here at Dartmouth but as a public intellectual, is to bring the conversation between the sciences and the humanities out into the public sphere. I want people to be aware of what’s going on and to be a part of the conversation about the latest ideas in sciences and the humanities and how they interface so the Institute’s mission is precisely that — to bring this [the conversation] out into the public sphere and talk about the nature of reality from a scientific and philosophical and religious perspective. It’s a perfect cross-disciplinary platform to engage the public in this conversation.

What’s the course about?

MG: One way to describe this course is to say we start at Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and we end with “The Matrix.” Basically, we cover the whole idea of what reality is from ancient Greek philosophy to modern science fiction and cutting-edge science, including the possibility of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. We consider seriously the question: “Do we live in a computer simulation?” And if we don’t, how can we tell, and what are the impact of these conversations on the notion of free will? But to go from Plato to “The Matrix,” we go across the whole history of Western scientific knowledge from a cosmological perspective, and we discuss how our visions of the universe changed over time from being earth-centered to a multiverse, how our notions of particle physics changed over time, from the Greek atoms to modern atoms, the mysteries of quantum mechanics to the search for the Higgs and the ultimate particles of nature and, also, what the meaning of mathematics is. We really cover a lot of ground in six weeks. The course is divided into three parts: Cosmos, Matter and Mind — two weeks for each, essentially. And it’s self-paced like all MOOCs are, within those six weeks.