29 min read

Finding Beauty in the Limits of Science

"I think what happens very often in physics and mathematics is that we've confused the map with the territory." - Marcelo Gleiser
Finding Beauty in the Limits of Science

Scientists sometimes fall in love with the beauty of scientific theories. It can be thrilling to realize that we human beings, in spite of our limitations, can develop simple equations that explain the complex workings of the fundamental laws of the universe.

Over the past century, many physicists have been on a quest to develop a theory that would describe all the fundamental forces of nature. Currently, physicists have been able to combine three of the four known forces – the electromagnetic force, the weak force, and the strong nuclear force – into a single model. This model, however, is unable to accommodate the fourth force, gravity. Many physicists are convinced that a unified theory must be possible that combines quantum mechanics and general relativity into a sort of "theory of everything" encapsulated in an equation that could fit on a T-shirt or coffee mug. Wouldn't that be beautiful?

Marcelo Gleiser, whom I recently had the pleasure of interviewing, was on such a quest – until he came to the realization that this pursuit was ultimately futile, because of the fundamental limits of human knowledge and the complexity of the universe. Even if we were to discover what we currently think of as a "theory of everything," it may not necessarily provide a complete understanding of the universe. There will always be more to reality than we can discover. And perhaps that's not a bad thing.

Marcelo Gleiser is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth. He has authored hundreds of articles and six books in English translated to 15 languages, the latest being Great Minds Don’t Think Alike. His popular writings explore the historical, religious, and philosophical roots of science. Marcelo is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House, and founder and past director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth. He co-founded NPR’s 13.7 Science and Culture blog, and currently writes weekly for BigThink.com. He is the 2019 Templeton Prize laureate, an honor he shares with Mother Tereza, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and scientists Freeman Dyson, Jane Goodall, Francis Collins, and Sir Martin Rees.

Marcelo has advocated for a more humble and nuanced approach to understanding the universe, one that recognizes the limitations of human knowledge and the importance of interdisciplinary and pluralistic approaches to scientific inquiry.

In our conversation, we discuss what's beautiful about both the limits of science and the limitlessness of scientific inquiry.

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Interview Transcript

Brandon: Marcelo, it's such a pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for joining today.

Marcelo: My pleasure, Brandon. I love what you're doing, so I'm happy to be here.

Brandon: Great. Well, let's talk about what drew you to physics in the first place. You grew up in Rio. I think you were first drawn to biology, right? What drew you to become a physicist?

Marcelo: Right. I grew up in Rio right by the beach, the famous Copacabana Beach. Rio is the kind of city that even though it's a very big city, it's really squeezed on all sides by nature. You have the ocean in front, the Atlantic. Then behind the city, you have the Atlantic Forest — that enchanted Darwin when he came by — and these very dramatic, old mountains. Everywhere you look, you're going to see some kind of life.

You're right. Initially, I was more interested in the exuberance of life in the tropics. I was also — I'm talking about my early teenage years. I was also shocked and profoundly worried. I don't know why. But somehow, intuitively, worried about the destruction of the environment that was being perpetrated by project of civilization. That was something that bothered me profoundly already when I was a kid.

I switched into more physics-related questions. I think it came because when I was six years old, my mother passed away in somewhat tragic circumstances. When you have a six-year-old boy that does not have a mom, life basically turns upside down. You start to think about what is the meaning of everything, why this happened to me, what is time, why this time end for some people, but continue for others? Is that really the end of everything? That world of fantasy and nature became very deeply existential, so to speak.

Initially, I was drawn into religion and some sort of mystical approach to things. But then, when I was 13, I found out that my family had a connection to Einstein. In fact, quite an interesting one. In 1925, four years after Einstein got his Nobel Prize, he was fundraising for the Zionist cause around the world. He came to South America. He came to Brazil, to Rio, Sao Paulo, to Buenos Aires. In Rio, his hosts were related to my family. My grandfather from my mother's side was one of his hosts. The other host was — this is a long one — my step mom's uncle. So, I guess it would be my step-grand-uncle. They took a picture together, and that picture stayed in the family. Einstein autographed it.

When I was 13, being a Jewish boy, I got a present for my bar mitzvah, which was the famous Einstein photograph. And so, I was kind of shocked. I already knew about Einstein, of course. But then, I decided to actually learn about him and that made me completely fascinated by the power of physics to actually think about the structure of space and time, and the origin of the universe, and the fundamental nature of reality. That sort of refocused, in a sense, my interest in nature but also my somewhat mystical takings of why we are all here and say, wow, you can actually be a scientist and be asking these kinds of questions. That was, in a sense, my transition into physics.

Brandon: Wow. That's fascinating. You've had quite a journey in physics, as well as a writer. Tell me. In your work today, where do you encounter beauty? What does that mean to you as a physicist? Where do you pretty find it?

Marcelo: Yeah, beauty is a very tricky word. Because it's very culturally anchored and very subjective. What to me may be beautiful, to others may not be beautiful — a lot of people, especially in the theoretical physics and pure mathematics world. I noticed that you talked to Mario Livio. He is one that has written very nicely about one way of thinking about beauty in nature as this sort of what I would call a platonic view of reality where what you have is, nature is too ordered in order to not be mathematical at its very, very root. The fact that we humans, mathematically, can discover — some people say, is it invention or is it the discovery? That's a big, long conversation. It could be a whole podcast right there that we uncover. Let's use uncover — the mathematical blueprints of nature is extraordinary.

People would attach themselves to this notion with what I would call religious devotion. Nature is beautiful. Like John Keats said in his poem, "Beauty is truth, truth is beauty." The notion being that, if I uncover the mathematical beauty of nature, I'm actually discovering the truth of nature. Meaning, mathematics is a bridge between our minds, the human mind, the way we think about reality, and what's really out there in the world. That's a very realistic way of thinking about what's going on.

In the beginning of my career, I was completely taken by this. Because I said, of course, there has to be a key to the secrets of existence, to the mystery of who we are in this natural world. If science is the gateway to that thing, then let's be a scientist. Who are the prophets of this way of thinking? Well, lots of wonderful ones, including Einstein, and Newton, and Feynman, and many others. They would say, yes, you go and you look for fundamental mathematical truths in nature. That is the way to get to know how the world works. I'm like, great. What is the ultimate goal of this? Well, the ultimate goal of this is to show that all of nature is actually the product of a mathematical structure, which people call the unified field theory or the theory of everything.

Waterfall in Telluride
Photo by Thomas Kelley / Unsplash

Brandon: Yeah, one simple equation that describes everything, that that is the foundation of reality, right? That's the question.

Marcelo: I remember in the 1980s, when I was in grad school, the zeitgeist was, "Hey, we are going to be able to put the whole of the universe in a T-shirt, in a single equation."

Brandon: Right.

Marcelo: That was like, wow. I mean, how could you not be wowed by such a possible adventure, right? As a young theoretical physicist, I said, "Of course, I have to go after this. I need to be part of this group of people that are trying." In the '80s, when I was doing my PhD in England, I did join the string theory which was, by the time, the most powerful way of thinking about these mathematical hidden structures. I'm like, Einstein himself spent the last 20 years of his life trying to find the so-called unified theory. He failed, but it was a very valiant attempt, so to speak. I'm like, I just want to keep doing this. What a privilege to have a life where you can actually spend your time teaching people about the beauty of science and pursuing the deepest secret of all. So, I was completely enamored by the whole idea of going for it, finding the theory of everything.

Brandon: Right. So, what happened then? I mean, you essentially distanced yourself from that pursuit of unification.

Marcelo: Yeah, then I grew up. Basically, what happened is, yes, I pursued this. I wrote lots of papers. My PhD thesis was on stuff like this. My postdoc, my first postdoc in particular at Fermilab — which is a big, high energy physics lab. It's the CERN of the United States, so to speak — I was very much devoted to this until I went to the University of California in Santa Barbara to do my second postdoc at the Institute for Theoretical Physics. I guess, now it's called The Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, where I met not just people that were working in high energy physics, string theory, and cosmology but actually focused they're working in condensed matter physics, phase transitions, more applied stuff.

Then I realized that the universe of physics was much broader than this semi — I would call it semi-religious pursuit of the theory of everything, this monotheistic way of thinking about the world. That, in a sense, what was really interesting to most of these people was not the perfect symmetries — of course, they're very useful. We use them all the time — but it was really the asymmetries of things.

Then I started to say, but wait, it's not just them. Because in particle physics asymmetries are extremely important. Because if you start to look at things more carefully, the asymmetry in nature plays a tremendous role. One of the most important of them — I can go and list a bunch of them. One of them is the famous matter-antimatter asymmetry. What does that mean? The idea here is, okay, we're all made of matter, of electrons and protons, et cetera. But there's this other kind of particle in nature which is called antiparticle. People are like, oh, does it go up in gravity? does it have a sort of mysterious—? The answer is no.

Basically, antimatter is simply matter with different properties. An electron has negative charge, but it has a certain mass. It's sort of like a mirror world. The antiparticle of the electron is called the positron. Positron, positive. It just means it's very much like the electron, but it has the opposite electric charge. We see those things. It's really beautiful that particle physics has discovered this kind of matter. It all started in — believe it or not, these are almost 100 years ago with Paul Dirac. He wrote an equation that basically predicted the existence of these things. They found it.

Then the big problem became, "Wait a second. Because if you have as many particles of matter as particles of antimatter in the universe, what would happen is, every time those two collide, they disintegrate into a puff of very high energy electromagnetic waves." They're called gamma rays but so very high energy light. So, if matter and antimatter existed at the same amount in the universe, we wouldn't be here. The universe will be a completely different place. It will be a place filled with radiation, and not much more. So, without that imbalance that exists in nature between matter and antimatter — there's more matter than antimatter — we wouldn't be here.

Then the question becomes why. Why is there such an asymmetry at the fundamental level? Nobody knows. What we do know — here's really interesting — is that this asymmetry somehow is related to another kind of asymmetry which is very existential, which is the asymmetry in time. It turns out that the asymmetry that relates matter and antimatter is related to the fact that we all know that time always flows forward. There's a deep entanglement of these ideas there that we still do not understand.

Long story short, when I started to think more about not just the symmetries but the fact that what we want is not so much the symmetry but we want to break those symmetries. Because when you break the symmetries is when stuff happens, right? You look around yourself and you say, okay, where's perfection in nature? Is a rose perfect, symmetrically perfect? Is a cloud perfect? Is a tree perfect? Is your face perfect in terms of perfect? You realize that it isn't, that everything is imperfect in nature. You say, this is trying to tell us something. Yes, symmetry is a very profoundly efficient tool in physics and mathematics. We use it all the time. But the nuances with which nature creates structures really come more from these imbalances than from a perfectly balanced nature.

Brandon: Yeah, I recently interviewed Ard Louis at Oxford. Their group, they found that there is a sort of disproportionate tendency for nature to produce symmetric shapes. His argument is because the algorithm is much simpler to generate symmetric things than non-symmetric things. But all of those symmetric shapes are slightly asymmetrical. There's imperfection built into everything that we even consider as symmetric, which is quite astounding.

The level of laws though, that's one of the things I think Mario was talking about, where physicists really care about symmetry matters for laws to be translated across space and time, and so on. Is that really essential for laws of nature to exist? Do we need some kind of symmetry in that level? What do you think?

Marcelo: I think that we have to understand something very, very important about laws of nature, which is that everything that we humans do is an approximation to what's going on. Everything that we describe is — let's look at the moon, and let's approximate the moon as a perfect sphere. Then you say, "Well, that's a perfect sphere." If you rotate the moon in any possible direction, if it's a perfect sphere, you're going to get the same thing. A perfect sphere has this beautiful, rotational symmetry in every direction. But the moon doesn't, because the moon is not a perfect sphere.

It's this joke that we have: "Let's consider a spherical cow" is an example of an approximation. But of course, it is very useful as approximation. So, I think what happens very often in physics and mathematics is that we've confused the map with the territory. That's something that, I think, is very pertinent to this conversation. Because if you consider that the territory is what's really out there, what we do as humans is that we interact with physical reality through our senses and our instruments. We create maps of the reality that we can see. Of course, a telescope and a microscope, they will expand the map. They'll make it more nuanced. But the map — this is what's important. The map is never going to be a precise replica of the territory. It's always going to be an approximation of that territory.

Brandon: You don't want to one map would be. Like Borges says, it's the most useless thing, right?

Marcelo: Exactly. Right. The perfect map in Borges is one paragraph short story. It's the territory. It's because a territory, and that's just useless. But that short story that I suggest everybody reads, I think it's called On Rigor in Science. One of the translations is in English, which is a one-paragraph story. It's that the futility of trying to pretend, the futility of believing that we actually represent as nature is nature, and forgetting that what we actually do is we approximate.

Yes, within our approximations, absolutely, symmetries are very, very important. They open gates to new discoveries. That's beautiful and powerful. Of course, we all have to do that. But we should not think that because our approximations describe nature as this perfect thing — like everything is perfectly conserved, energy momentum is conserved, angular momentum is conserved, and electric charge is conserved — that that is how nature is. That is how nature is according to the way we look at nature. I think that brings about a sense of humility. Because it will be profoundly arrogant, in my opinion, to believe that what we can say about the world is what the world is. What we can say about the world is what we, as humans, perceive of the world. That is very much anchored in, first of all, our experience of reality.

Brandon: Well, let's talk about experience. You've written this article recently about the blind spot that many of us have, particularly in science, when it comes to experience. We discount the role of our situated experience as humans, and that blind spot is partly responsible for the existence of scientific materialism as a worldview. Could you say a bit about that?

Marcelo: Yeah. I just finished a book, actually, with Evan Thompson — a phenomenal philosopher from the University of British Columbia — and Adam Frank. The book is called The Blind Spot. It's about experience and the idea of reality. It is a very in-depth analysis and critique of how science sometimes tangle itself into knots by not understanding that there are blind spots in the way we look at reality. The most fundamental of those blind spots, this comes from a school of philosophy called phenomenology like Edmund Husserl, Alfred North Whitehead, and people like that where they say, do not confuse how you describe reality for reality itself, which is very similar to what I was just saying before about the map and the territory. In fact, this analogy of the map and the territory appears all the time. The blind spot is essentially the neglect of experience, our physical experience of the world as being essentially where everything begins.

What we do is, we use an example in the book which is the example of temperature. What is temperature? Nowadays, we think of temperature as something that is real. Temperature exists. It's real. But temperature is not real. What is real is our sensation of hot and cold. That, you feel. You feel hot. You feel cold. Then from that sensation which is primal, it's how it begins, to a description of these changes in sensation by something that we call temperature, you needed 300 years or more of science. To go and quantify via thermometer what you mean by hot and cold, a lot of stuff had to happen. And so, again, the thermometer is a map of our sensation of temperature. But temperature itself doesn't exist. It's a construction. It's a narrative that we are creating to describe ultimately what we mean by hot and cold.

What happens there is that if you look at the history of science — the way we structured the book is an MIT press book that hopefully will come out in about a year or so — if you look at the history of science and the way we broke the book down into, first, the problem itself. Then we do an analysis of time, the notion of what is time. That one is a very complicated story, the way physicists and philosophers talk about time. Then we go on to, I mean, St. Augustine, way before science had this thing about time. Then we go into cosmology, the notion of the origin of the universe. Is that a knowable question, or is that an unknowable question? Why scientists tend to think that it's knowable, and why we think it's unknowable within the framework of science anyways?

Then we go on to talk about the concept of matter, materialism, and the notion of the existence of atoms and particles and quantum mechanics, how do you interpret quantum mechanics. Then we move on to the consciousness, the nature of consciousness. At the very end, we talk about the question of planetary awareness, how those scientific notions percolated through our mindset, especially across the Industrial Revolution and even before then, to position ourselves above everything else in nature, and why that is a disastrous way of thinking about who we are in the world right now.

Brandon: Well, that's fascinating. This work has ramifications for, I suppose, the kinds of philosophical assumptions a lot of scientists carry. I think materialism was one of the ones that I think you critiqued in the article that I think you put out a couple of years ago. That is a very attractive, beautiful prospect for some scientists who think that that's one of the things modern science gives us. It's a secure foundation for understanding reality, where you can dismiss the existence of anything that's non-material. What do you say to that?

Marcelo: Talking about these things is not saying that there is something else which is non-material. You have to make a distinction here. We do not know, right?

Brandon: Right. Yeah.

Marcelo: We do not know. But you could have a narrative of reality which is perfectly materialistic, but it's also aware of the fact that the way we describe the world is full of blind spots. You have to take that into account. What Alfred Whitehead and Husserl said and Merleau-Ponty and friends said is that, you have to be careful not to refine your theories. Meaning, to make sure that what you think is energy and momentum is not something that exists in the world, but it's really a representation of how we measure the world. Before anything, science is really about our interaction with physical reality, either through our senses and, or to our instruments.

buble on the universe
Photo by NASA / Unsplash

You say, "Look, the Hubble Space Telescope is seeing this galaxy which is 10 billion years old." You say yes. And it is. But there is a lot of translation that is going on here. The galaxy is there. There's no question about it. But the way we interact with it is through what? Finally, it's through vision. You may have, let's say, an ultraviolet telescope or an infrared telescope in the case of very far away things. We don't see an infrared, so we wouldn't see a thing. But what we do is we re-map the information from those images which we cannot see into things that we can see. So, there is always this translation of what's out there to things that we can perceive through our senses. But people forget that. They say, "Of course, my field theory that describes electrons as quanta of a certain field is real." That's the problem. That's what Whitehead would call surreptitious substitution — they're always in Whitehead or Husserl — which is the idea that you are beginning to substitute a theory for something that is real. The theory is not real. A theory is a representation of what's real. That's the problem.

When people look for the symmetry, we always forget that that theory, for you guys who are scientists and physicists, you write a Lagrangian. The Lagrangian is full of assumptions and simplifications about what it is that you're describing. It is a great approximation to what's going on. Just like Newton's theory of gravity is beautiful to describe how the moon goes around the Earth, all you need to know is the masses of each one of them, the distances between them. And bingo, there you are. But the moon and the Earth are much more than just that. That is just something that is useful to describe that particular. That is the danger when you start to think of your theories as the world as is, as opposed to representations of the world.

Brandon: That's a great caution. I recall Frank Wilczek talking about how we might get very different physics if we imagine doing physics from the perspective of a bird or of a spider. Because a bird, I think, would more naturally grasp relativism than we would. Relativity, rather.

Marcelo: Yeah, there is a famous quote by Heisenberg, before we go there, which says that what we see is not nature. But nature is subject to our questioning. Meaning, is the questions that we are asking about nature, the ones that we try to respond? That, in a sense, couches the whole conversation. There are all these other things out there that we're not asking questions about yet or have in the past. That's also nature.

But we are looking at nature. Of course, the more we advance scientifically, the more spectacular and the broader our conversation is. Sometimes this stuff that I say is viewed as a little anti-scientific. It's exactly the opposite. What I'm trying to do is to show how awe is an essential part of science. But we should also, at the same time, be careful not to think that science is completely — like not to equate science with truth. Because truth is a very dangerous and elusive word.

The problem with these ultimate theories of everything which, philosophically, that assumption is nonsense, you cannot have an ultimate theory of everything or anything. Because knowledge is always advancing. "You cannot say that, okay, we are having a theory of everything now because we have the four forces of nature — gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces. That's it, folks. All we have to do now is bring them all together, and we have a theory of everything." But then, how can you say that knowing that in 5 or 10 years, some guy or person in some laboratory may discover a fifth force of nature. You'll go, "Damn, my theory now is incomplete. It's not the theory of everything anymore. It's the theory of almost everything." The point is that you have to put that one in. So, I think there's a lot of hubris in making final affirmations about our knowledge of anything, including science.

the heavens
Photo by Alexander Andrews / Unsplash

Brandon: You have this beautiful metaphor of the island of knowledge where I think you explained the sort of limits of science. Could you say a bit about that metaphor?

Marcelo: Sure. That metaphor came as an effort to try to synthesize everything that I'm saying in an image that is appealing to a lot of people. So, the idea is very simple. Imagine that everything that we know fits in an island, this island. Of course, what do we know? Well, we can talk about science, but not just science. We can talk about the arts. We can talk about literature. It's really the output of human creativity that is out there. This is our island of how we describe reality and how we describe who we are. So, it's there. This is the island of knowledge. But, of course, as with any island, this island is also surrounded by an ocean. If the island is the island of knowledge, what is the ocean? Well, it's the ocean of the unknown — what we don't know about reality. What happens is, as we ask questions about the world, about ourselves, the island grows.

Then there are two ways of thinking about this. One says, "Aha. Of course, one day, the island is going to grow so much that there'll be no more unknowns. We are going to reach the end of knowledge." People have written books about this. What my argument says is precisely the opposite. It's that there is no such thing as the end of knowledge. Because the boundaries of the island, the perimeter of the island that is growing is also increasing the regions between the known and the unknown. As the periphery of the island grows, you ask more questions that you couldn't have asked before.

Partly cloudy, strong wind from the south and always a stunning view behind the next corner. This is South Africa!
Photo by Benjamin Behre / Unsplash

Brandon: That prospect, for some, is threatening I would think. The idea that science will one day be able to answer all our questions or all the questions that matter, it seems one of the things that draws a lot of scientists to science — at least, the scientists we've talked to. But you see the limits of sciences as liberating. Could you say about what is attractive about the fact that science is limited?

Marcelo: The idea that science could answer all questions, it's just silly. Because how can we possibly even know the kinds of questions we're going to be asking 10, 20, 120, 2,000 years from now if we're here? We can't. It's impossible to predict anything about the future of knowledge. Who would have imagined the internet 100 years ago? Nobody. The Internet has changed the way we think, the way we interact, the way we construct knowledge. And so, to consider the possibility that science will reach a sort of limit — that is the end of what is knowable — goes against this metaphor. Because what I'm exactly saying is that, as the island grows, as we know more about the world, there is always more that we do not know. So, the process of learning is also the process of being equipped to ask new questions you couldn't have predicted before.

To me, that's just beautiful, because that is what will excite you and motivate you to always learn more. Tom Stoppard, the great British playwright, in his play Arcadia, he has a quote that I love which is, "It's wanting to know that makes us matter." If you could even contemplate — you can't, unfortunately — the end of knowledge that science could answer all questions, then you won't have anything new to know at least in science. That's just a loss, a profound loss of meaning and the quest to grow as humans. There is an obvious philosophical reason why that's not possible, which is that knowledge creates new questions. That has happened on and on and on in the history of science.

I mean, there are tons of examples. But just think of the telescope or the microscope, an instrument. A new instrument changed profoundly the way we looked at the universe. Astronomy before Galileo was naked eye. Then he had this idea of finding the telescope up. That revealed the universe that was unknown to anyone but him for a while. Boom, all these new questions came about. Same century, 17th century, van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope. Boom. What is life? Wow. You have life in a drop of water. How is that possible? You can't even see those things that are alive. Are there limits to that? All these new instruments, what they do is that they are bringing out stuff that we cannot see in the territory. But suddenly, we can. Oh, look. There is that little new detail there that this telescope, or microscope, or MRI machine, or whatever it is, is revealing to me so I can improve my map a little bit. It's just a little bit. It's not going to be, "This is the map of reality."

To me, that's much more interesting than the notion that, "Guys, the party is over. You've reached the end of knowledge." That's just silly, right? As long as we get funded, do ask new questions. I think science, as Vannevar Bush said, is the Endless Frontier. Not just science. Everything that we ask about ourselves is the Endless Frontier. That, to me, is much more interesting as a worldview than the worldview that yes, we have the power with our minds to conquest everything and become God-like to our knowledge of nature.

Brandon: Yeah, that's interesting. What you're bringing up also resonates with a certain critique of science and more feminist critique of science, which sees it as a mode of conquest. Science is about, from that perspective, imposing our will on reality, controlling, and manipulating it. You can see it in the metaphors, right? Not even a metaphor. It's like we're smashing particles together or dissecting animals or whatever. There's a certain violence intrinsic to the methods that we're using, which is a little bit it seems dissonant with your portrayal of science as a spiritual quest and almost a sense of communing with nature, if I could use those words. I don't want to put words in your mouth. But it seems like there is a quest for a union with nature or something like that. Could you respond to that?

Marcelo: Right. This is a whole other story, which is the motivation. I mean, the why. To me, I've been very excited these days about asking people about what is your why. Why do you do what you do? I think that's such a fundamental question to ask. It's funny because the way I came across this was not through science, but through one of my hobbies. I'm a long-distance runner. I do this really, really long races, like 100-kilometer races and stuff. One of the conversations that we have in this community is, "What is your why? Why do you subject yourself and your body to such things?" That uncovered what is the motivation for doing what you do.

It will be a really interesting research topic for you in particular, actually — to actually go and start talking to people about that in the scientific sphere. Because what is it that motivate? Why do you wake up as a biologist, or as an anthropologist, or a sociologist? Why do you ask questions that you're asking right now? To me, my why, why am I a scientist, is exactly what you just said. It is my way of connecting in a much deeper way, which is not just rational but is also emotional and spiritual with the mystery of existence.

Science is one mechanism, is one process that we have developed to ask questions about the nature of who we are in ways that we can understand. The beauty of it is that it's a universal language, more or less. But in principle, it's a universal language that we can share across cultures, across religious beliefs, et cetera. To illustrate what I mean, you go back to the word religion. What is the meaning of the word religion? There are two different discussions about this word. One of them is about relegere, which is "to reread" from Latin. You're rereading the book, right? But to me, that's not the interesting one. To me, the other one is religion. It's religare. It's "reconnect." Now, reconnect with what?

Well, in our current 21st century narrative, I think the most fundamental reconnection that we can try to achieve is our reconnection with nature, with the natural world. That is the connection that we have essentially destroyed in the last 300 years or so of industrial growth. That is the connection that because we have lost it, it's creating all sorts of existential problems and also existential threats to humanity and to life on Earth. I look at science as a bridge between our deepest sense of understanding that there is something much bigger than we are out there. This need that we humans have of bringing meaning out of our existence to the why — why do you wake up, what is your meaning, what is your quest. Not a quest as, "Let's conquest something." But a quest as, "Let's find what drives you to become a better human."

This relationship that I see between science and spirituality, to me, is really a relationship that brings out human flourishing. It really is about finding with humility this deep bridge which has reason in it, obviously, because it's science. But the motivation, the why is not rational. If the why is subjective and that subjectivity is the awe that I feel — I'm sure many, many other scientists feel from your study. You can tell me. When you are in the process of either observing something — we will talk about the Grand Canyon but also the overview effect, the astronauts that go out into space and look at the Earth as a whole that come back completely spiritualized — that, to me, is what's behind at least my passion for knowledge through science.

Full Disk Earth, Apollo 17, 1972
Photo by The New York Public Library / Unsplash

Brandon: Yeah, that's great. It does resonate with what we're finding. One of the things we're trying to argue based on what we're seeing in our international study of scientists is that science is a sort of aesthetic quest. It really is, at its heart, a quest for the beauty of understanding. I think that you'd mentioned the distinction between truth and just understanding from our own perspective reality as opposed to grasping the ultimate truth.

For most scientists, it does seem that science is about experiencing the pleasure of understanding when you gain an insight into the mechanisms of how things work behind appearances, behind the veil of phenomena to grasp his is how things are. You could be wrong. But it's still worth striving for that even if you make mistakes, and even if your knowledge is provisional and can be revised. It seems that that's what's driving a lot of scientists now. But there are mixed motives, right? There's also the rat race that scientists, like a lot of others, are caught up in, chasing after whether it's grants and whether it's the competition where one group wins at the expense of another, et cetera. All those things certainly get in the way. Then the hubris of thinking where we're arriving at some ultimate end to knowledge. All of that is present, certainly.

I think one of the challenges is how do we preserve this quest for the beauty of understanding in the face of these threats. I wonder if you have any suggestions. There are a lot of scientists who are burnt out because of job market insecurity, because of just the pressure to publish. The standards these days for succeeding and surviving in science, they're much higher than they used to be. Would you have any advice for those who are still trying to strive towards this pursuit of this beauty of understanding?

Marcelo: Yeah, that's a very, very important topic of conversation, because it is really hard. When I tell people, "How long does it take for you to become a professor in academia in the sciences in the United States?" People are like, "That's as long as medical school." I'm like, "Yeah, because you have your bachelor's. Then you usually have to do a five-year PhD, and then you have at least two postdocs. That's another four to five years. Add this up, and it is very, very long." The only thing that I can say that I think is what kept me going — because we all face our fears. We all face our unknowns as we move through this highly competitive world. Honestly, it's not just science. It's everywhere. It's not just in academia. It's in every profession.

The difference is that academia is much more restricted as a job market. There are only so many evolutionary biologists or theoretical cosmologists that the universities can hire. Unless you want to go to industry, if you want to keep — because you can be a phenomenal scientist in the industry as well. It doesn't have to be in academia. But the thing that kept me going through all this is, I think, that I always ask myself, why am I doing this? I never lost sense of my why. I've always felt that, yes, the rat race and publish or perish, and the competition in people.

I had a mentor at Fermilab, a guy that I admire a lot. His name is Edward Kolb. He goes by Rocky. When I was doing well in my early career, he says, "Beware. Because as soon as you are the wolf ahead of the pack, there'll be a bunch of wolves behind you trying to bite your back." That kind of mindset is just awful, right? But it does reveal a lot in the academic world — that there is envy, there is competition, there is ego.

The problem is really not the academia. The problem is humanity. These are not problems the academia created. These are problems that we have as human beings. We are competitive. We are greedy. We are ambitious. That is where you have to look at this. It's not so much academia makes you evil. Yeah, go to Wall Street. Go to a law firm. I mean, what are you talking about? In a sense, I find it a life of privilege to be able to dedicate your time to the pursuit of knowledge, and not just the pursuit of knowledge but also to the education of others, about the beauty of what we have discovered. So, why do you wake up every morning? Because every morning, there is a promise of a new discovery. There is a promise of inspiring a young mind to follow this path of discovery. That, to me, is what's behind the whole thing.

I remember, in my whole career, there were two times in my life where I discovered something new that was important. I remember very clearly that when I was doing a simulation on a computer, I was going against everybody that thought I was wrong. I was doing a simulation on a computer, and the results started to come out. I saw that thing on the screen. I'm like, "I am right." I felt it wasn't rational. It was a completely visceral — I could physically feel this awe materializing in my body. I'm like, "Wow. I'm seeing something new here." You can't just replace that. That is, in my opinion, a deeply spiritual connection with something that is out there that you just grasped the little tiniest bit. But that little tiniest bit is such a bridge into this grand stuff that is out there. That is worth dedicating a whole life just for that. Then you write papers about it, yes. Get grants, et cetera. Influence other people.

Everybody talks about this stuff. For the knowledgeable ones, it's about oscillons which is some kind of energy blob that exists in nature. People didn't believe they were possible. They are now. They're super popular, et cetera. But the point is not that. The point is the pursuit of knowledge. It's what Einstein always said. It's not about the accolades. It's about the work. Don't ever lose sense of that. If you start to think of the accolades more than you start to think about the work, then you're really losing your sense of why.

Brandon: Well, that's a brilliant note to end on. Marcelo, thank you so much for joining us again today.

Marcelo: My pleasure.

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