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In 1973, the first Templeton Prize was given to Mother Teresa. In 2023, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this award. Over the next 52 weeks, we will highlight each of our laureates and reflect on their impact on the world. From humanitarians and saints to philosophers, theoretical physicists, and one king, the Templeton Prize has honored extraordinary people. Together, they have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it, making this (we humbly think) the world’s most interesting prize. 

As a theoretical physicist and popular author, Marcelo Gleiser has established himself as a leading proponent of the viewpoint that science, philosophy, and spiritual perspectives are complementary expressions of humanity’s deep need to explore the unknown.

Born 1959 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the third of three children in an influential family of Rio’s Jewish community, Gleiser grew up immersed in the natural beauty of the beaches and mountains of his native land. 

After receiving a conservative Hebrew school education, he began college majoring in chemical engineering but soon shifted to physics, receiving a Bachelor of Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in 1981. The next year, he earned a master’s in physics from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and, in 1986, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from King’s College London.

As a post-doctoral fellow, he wrote a series of papers on the cosmological consequences of theories with extra spatial dimensions, as proposed by models of unification, and one of the first papers examining superstring theory as it may relate to the Big Bang.  Soon, his research branched into aspects of symmetry breaking, phase transitions, and the stability of physical systems, concepts that would influence his later critique of so-called “theories of everything.”

At 32, Gleiser was appointed assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth and full professor in 1998 at age 39.  Over those years he distanced himself from unification theories and expanded his scientific views into a larger cultural context, resulting in his first book, The Dancing Universe.  Conceived as a textbook for non-science majors at Dartmouth, this exploration of the philosophical and religious roots of scientific thinking and their influence from ancient to modern times marked Gleiser’s emergence as a public intellectual

A native of Brazil, where his books have been bestsellers and his television series drew audiences in the millions, Gleiser became the first Latin American to be awarded the Templeton Prize.

Upon receiving the Templeton Prize at a ceremony on May 29, 2019, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium in New York City, Gleiser reflected on the specialness of life on Earth, commenting that here only do humans exist as “self-aware molecular machines capable of wonder and awe.”

“It’s exactly when we look at the other worlds that we understand how rare our planet is, how rare life is. Because if you go to Mars, and if you go to Venus, and if you go to Jupiter, you’re not going to find anything. Certainly, if Mars had life it didn’t build telescopes or compose Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.”

—Marcelo Gleiser