TASIS The American School in Switzerland was honored to open the 2021–2022 TASIS Speaker Series with a visit from renowned theoretical physicist and astronomer Dr. Marcelo Gleiser, the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College and the 2019 Templeton Prize Laureate—an honor he shares with Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, and scientists Freeman Dyson and Martin Rees, among other luminaries. The distinguished scholar and author delivered a keynote address to TASIS students and faculty members in the Palmer Center on the evening of October 18.
The Templeton Prize is an annual award granted to a living person "whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton's philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it." A native of Brazil, Dr. Gleiser is the first Latin American to receive “the world’s most interesting prize.” In his humble acceptance speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on May 29, 2019, he pledged to devote his time in the the coming years to helping “create the sense of a moral imperative, where we humans work together to try to save this planet and life in it with everything we’ve got.”
In his keynote address, which can be viewed in full above, Dr. Gleiser focused on some of the biggest and most pressing questions we face as humans in the 21st century: questions that “have an impact for the kind of people we are, for the way we look at life, for the way we think about the world, and for the way we think about the future.” He asked his audience to consider the following:
- Where did we come from?
- Are we alone?
- As we look to colonize Mars and other worlds in the future, are we the aliens?
- Science is critical to solving our problems on Earth, but it can also be dangerous. What risks are posed by genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and nanoscience?
- How should we approach the ethical choices of how to use science and technology?
Dr. Gleiser explained to students that the more we look out, the more we understand that our world is very special. “Life is rare, and we are unique,” he noted. And while science opens windows to help us understand who we are, we also need to connect different kinds of knowledge—the sciences, the humanities, the arts, history, and philosophy—to gain a fuller picture of our complex story in this age of Earth-mindedness.
As our perception of our place on Earth evolves—and we search for solutions to the very serious problems our planet faces—it is imperative that today’s students start to ponder these weighty questions in earnest. “You should begin thinking about these things and how they affect your life so that you’ll be prepared for the world you’re living in,” urged Dr. Gleiser. “So that you are not just carried on with the wave but actually become the people who can surf on the wave.”
Following his address in the Palmer Center, Dr. Gleiser carried on the discussion with a smaller group in Casa Fleming. He also spent two full school days connecting with students in High School Physics, Math, Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and English Literature classes before capping his visit by joining 16 student and faculty members of the TASIS Speaker Series Committee for dinner at a local grotto.
TASIS students were grateful for the opportunity to connect with a brilliant scholar whose vast knowledge extends well beyond the scientific fields. “I was thrilled to hear from so many students throughout this visit and afterward,” said TASIS Speaker Series Committee Chair Dr. Christopher Love. “They expressed a similar sentiment, which was that Professor Gleiser’s keynote, class visits, and dinner conversation offered insights and ideas that enlivened, broadened, and shifted their perspectives on the world. As they turn to face their future, our students need to understand the ethical imperatives that come with technologies such as genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence, and space exploration. Professor Gleiser offered our students a vista on the possibilities and pressing moral questions that come with this future.”
Below are the impressions from three students who had a chance to speak extensively with Dr. Gleiser during his visit.
From Jakob Norton-Scherer ’22:
My impression of Dr. Gleiser was that of an extremely knowledgeable and wise yet humble and down-to-earth human being. He was extremely easy to talk to and treated you as an equal despite his vast wealth of knowledge and experience. He took time to build relationships with students and talk about more personal subjects. He even asked students to call him by his first name. Dr. Gleiser also had very progressive ideas/views regarding social issues. Overall Dr. Gleiser is an extremely well-rounded and awesome human being, and I am honored to have met him.
From Alejandra Cova ’22:
First of all, I was simply astonished by how educated and intelligent he was. For English to be his second language, he expressed himself very clearly and eloquently. He doesn't limit his studies of physics by only thinking about the scientific possibilities of why humans were put on the earth. Instead, he combines philosophy and the humanities with cosmology, something that is hard to do well (scientific evidence with theoretical ideas).
I was also impressed to learn about Dr. Gleiser's intention behind titling his book The Island of Knowledge. He described to me how the island of knowledge symbolizes humanity on earth, and the water surrounding the island is the "water of the unknown." Every time we learn something new about what is in the water, the land expands out, but the periphery of the island becomes larger and larger. His paradox is meant to show that as we learn more about the universe, the less we will actually get to understand. He put a lot of things into perspective that I have never second-guessed, such as the concept of time and whether or not our senses actually show us the reality of what is in front of us. It was an absolute pleasure to discuss with him these ideas that I so rarely get to think about.
From Anna Batyreva ’24:
When he visited our Honors World Literature class, Dr. Gleiser didn’t explicitly answer our questions but implicated the false opposition in their phrasing, implying that knowledge is complementary. I felt that his background in physics and philosophy resonated with his idea of the intersection of science and literature, of the objective and the subjective observational perspectives.
In pondering universal sources of truth and my future career choice, I asked Dr. Gleiser if the form—literature—or the content—science—of knowledge was worthier of study. He defined fiction as a “lie that sounds like a truth” and science as a “truth” that “may be lies,” which in my interpretation emphasized the ethical guidance that we can find in literature’s verisimilitude.
Dr. Gleiser earned his Ph.D. at King’s College London, received the 1994 Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House, is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and currently directs the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth College. His books have been published in 15 languages and include The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Scienceand the Search for Meaning, A Tear at the Edge of Creation, and The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected.
A world-renowned theoretical physicist with extensive interest in cosmology and astrobiology, Dr. Gleiser has published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and more than a thousand essays and op-eds and frequently participates in TV documentaries and radio shows in the United States and abroad. He is the co-founder of the NPR blog on science and culture, 13.7: Cosmos & Culture and writes weekly for Orbiter Magazine.
TASIS Speaker Series
The TASIS Speaker Series, formerly known as the Senior Humanities Program (SHP) and renamed in the fall of 2018 year to more accurately reflect its present purpose, draws from five fundamental elements of the TASIS identity—truth, goodness, beauty, international understanding, and humanitarian action—to provide TASIS students with a signature educational experience.
The TASIS Speaker Series Committee selects four speakers each year who embody the pillars of the program. The Committee strives for a variety of voices, backgrounds, and professions represented in each year’s group but ultimately selects speakers on the basis of their ability to enhance the intellectual and moral experience of the outgoing seniors and the community as a whole. The 2021–2022 series will continue on February 7 with a visit from CNN journalist Daniella Diaz, and Pontus Siren—an expert in innovations, biotechnology, and international relations—will come to campus on March 7. The Committee is in the process of finalizing details for the year’s fourth and final guest.
Although the TASIS Speaker Series focuses on students near the end of their TASIS careers, the program aspires to serve as an educative instrument for the entire division, creating opportunities for all High School students to interact with people and ideas of significance that are concerned with the world beyond the TASIS campus. Students enhance their intellectual experience through discussions, lectures, class visits, and film screenings centered on some combination of truth, goodness, beauty, international understanding, and humanitarian action. Above all else, the program conveys a clear message to students about what the School hopes for and expects from them after they leave TASIS.
The influential program was initially made possible by a CHF 100,000 donation from TASIS parents Michael and Jane Grindfors to The M. Crist Fleming Endowment for International Understanding and Leadership in 2008. It remains an integral part of a TASIS education thanks to ongoing support from the TASIS Board of Directors and the excellent behind-the-scenes work done by a dedicated group of students and faculty members.