Astronomer Marcelo Gleiser on Creating a Better Future for Humanity

Book Talk

Astronomer Marcelo Gleiser on Creating a Better Future for Humanity

Astronomer and physicist Professor Marcelo Gleiser shares about collective change in the face of a climate crisis, and how science can connect us more deeply with Nature.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. His work ranges from cosmology and applications of information theory to complex phenomena to history and philosophy of science and how science and culture interact. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and National Science Foundation, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize.

Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank. He is devoted to the public understanding of science and his books have been published in fifteen languages. A native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he lives in Hanover, New Hampshire. Find him at

His newest book The Dawn of a Mindful Universe is reviewed in the July/August issue of Spirituality+Health.

How did your background in astronomy and physics support and inspire you in writing this book?

As a scientist moved by a spiritual connection to Nature, I always felt that one cannot exist without the other. To me, science is a portal to a deeper connection to the world, to our primal history; a gateway to becoming a better human. The technical aspects of science, math, and data analysis are an essential part of this connection, one of the ways we humans try to make sense of who we are in the cosmic vastness.

Studying the Universe scientifically is a bridge to the mystery that surrounds us, a powerful way of knowing. When seen this way, there is no conflict between science and spirituality.

Studying the Universe scientifically is a bridge to the mystery that surrounds us, a powerful way of knowing. When seen this way, there is no conflict between science and spirituality.

You write that in order to enact change, we first need to transform our collective mindset, and reassess our place in Nature and our impact on this planet and its biosphere. What are some simple things people can do in their daily lives to get on this path?

That’s a great question and extremely important. We need a vision, but we also need to act on it, even if it calls for a certain level of sacrifice, of changes to our ways of being in the world.

I’m often surprised (and saddened) by a sort of cognitive disconnect between people who are very sensitive to the challenges we now face regarding climate change and our collective future and the lack of action. The point is that simple steps can make a huge difference. Not just because they will make you more consistent with your worldview of loving the Earth and life, but also because they have a multiplicative power: You do it, others around you do it, and soon we have a snowball effect toward our common good.

As for specific steps, at the end of the book I propose a few, which I summarize here (of course, the book has more details): the LESS approach to sustainability, the MORE approach to engagement with the natural world, and the MINDFUL approach to consumerism.

The LESS approach to sustainability: Individuals should critically examine what they eat, how they use energy and water, how much garbage they produce, and how they dispose of it. The approach should focus on LESS: less meat, less energy, less water, less garbage.

The MORE approach to engagement with the natural world: Whenever possible, individuals should engage more with Nature.

The MINDFUL approach to consumerism: Consumers have the power to shape corporations and their policies. The logic is simple: If consumers don’t buy, corporations don’t sell and are forced to change their practices. United, consumers have great power to make changes. Individuals should be mindful of the companies they buy products from.

One theme you return to often in the book is that science can't provide all of the answers to how we view earth's place in the cosmos. What, then, supplements science?

Science is immensely powerful. It provides us with longer and healthier lives and with amazing technologies that have changed and will keep on changing the world. But science is also aligned with commercial interests and cannot provide a moral or spiritual compass to humanity. For that we need to embrace a diversity of ways of knowing, from the arts and the humanities to, very importantly, Indigenous cultures and their relation to the planet.

Our ancestors held the world and its living creatures as sacred. For millennia, this sacredness of the land has been shaping their way of being, their values, their culture. With industrialization, we moved away from this kind of connection to the planet and, instead, objectified it, using its resources with complete disregard for the consequences of our actions. This situation is clearly unsustainable.

We need to move away from controlling towards belonging; to an understanding that we are part of the life collective and not above it. This mindset is transformative because it holds the world as a sacred realm. In the book I explain how our study of different planets in this and in other stellar systems is showing how precious and rare our planet is. We need to re-sacralize the planet if we are to live in harmony with it. A sick planet cannot support healthy creatures.

You use the term "biocentrism" often. What does this mean in the context of your call for a new way humans view and interact with Nature?

Biocentrism is the belief that a planet that supports life is sacred and that life is precious. Now, when I use the word sacred, people with a more atheistic attitude would probably cringe and think this is just an empty word. And this is part of the problem.

Sacred here doesn’t mean denominational in the sense of being part of an organized religion, like Christianity or Islam. Sacred means that which we behold in the highest regard, something or someone that we worship by way of protecting and enabling it, that we devote our powers to nurture our relation to it. So, biocentrism is, in essence, a celebration of the unique and spectacular biosphere to which we belong. There may be other living worlds out there, and we don’t know one way or the other. But we do know ours, and the biocentric mindset aims to redefine our relation and connection to our cosmic home.

You call out the need to reestablish the spiritual connection between humans and Nature. What are a few everyday ways people can do this that may actually have an impact on saving the planet?

To me, the simplest and the most essential step in this direction is to spend more time outdoors. The more time we spend walking on trails, looking at the night sky, enjoying the company of trees and of wild animals, the deeper our connection to Nature becomes.

True, many of us don’t have the luxury of having a mountain trail or a lush forest right down the road. But there are many ways to connect to Nature in a big city as well. Squares, parks, beachfront walks, groups that gather to do tai chi or yoga on a city square, caring for plants in your apartment, like a bonsai tree or orchids. And we can look more at the sky, day and night.

Over the past 200 years, as we gathered in bigger and bigger cities, we have moved away from the natural world, building a wall of concrete between us and Nature. So, we need to look through the cracks on these high walls and find the beauty and the energy that is behind them, beckoning us to return to our origins and move closer to the land we came from. The closer we are to Nature, the more we nurture our spirit and our bodies and minds.

Read our review of The Dawn of a Mindful Universe here.

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Astronomer Marcelo Gleiser on Creating a Better Future for Humanity

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