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Brazilian Physicist Marcelo Gleiser

Brazilian physicist Marcelo Gleiser is the author of the new book, The Prophet and the Astronomer: A Scientific Journey to the End of Time (WW Norton). In it he explores our relationship to the sky and how it has influenced religion and then in turn - science. He writes, 'one of my goals. . is to humanize science, to argue that our scientific ideas are very much a product of the cultural and emotional environment where they originate'. Gleiser is Professor of Natural Philosophy and professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.


Other segments from the episode on July 18, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 18, 2002: Interview with Steve Erlanger; Interview with Marcelo Gleiser; Review of the television show "Donahue."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Steve Erlanger discusses the European reaction to the
Bush administration's foreign policy, and how the European Union
has changed the lives of Europeans

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Ever since September 11th, we've really needed the help and cooperation of our
European allies. But what do Europe's current leaders think of the Bush
administration's plans to invade Iraq? My guest, Steve Erlanger, is the
Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times. We invited him to talk with us
about this, and to discuss how life is changing abroad in the new era of the
European Union and the euro. Erlanger has held many positions at The Times,
including bureau chief for central Europe and the Balkans, Moscow bureau chief
and chief diplomatic correspondent in Washington.

As the European Union is getting stronger, the United States still remains the
only superpower. Let's talk about how the United States is looking right now
in Europe; more specifically, how President Bush is looking right now in
Europe. And let's begin with the United States' plan to invade Iraq. How
much support does that have among European leaders?

Mr. STEVE ERLANGER (The New York Times): Well, among Europeans as a
population, it probably has little to no support. But no one's really going
to ask them. Among European leaders, there's a kind of shrugging, almost a
feeling that, you know, if this is something the United States desperately
wants to do, the Europeans will have to find some way of going along with it.
But they have problems with it. They have problems with the timing. They
have serious questions about how it would work. They're worried about
destabilization of the Middle East, and in large part they think the central
problem of the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the
deterioration in relations there. They do not see Saddam Hussein as a backer
of al-Qaeda or even as a major supporter of international terrorism. And they
think the obsession with Iraq on the part of the Bush administration is
probably a little theological, a little puzzling, a little troubling, but very
difficult to stop.

GROSS: Now the Bush administration seems convinced that Iraq has a supply of
biological weapons, chemical weapons and that they're in the process of making
nuclear weapons. What's your understanding of why the United States is so
confident of this and yet the European leaders seem unconcerned?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I don't think the European leaders disagree with that
intelligence assessment. I mean, the intelligence is kind of widely shared.
Europeans--and I've talked to some of the intelligence people about this here.
They do not believe Saddam Hussein is close to getting nuclear weapons, though
he has been trying to make them, as we know, for quite a long time. They do
believe he has some stocks of biological and chemical weapons which, you know,
bother everyone a great deal. The question becomes one of threat. As a
Frenchman put to me, a French diplomat, you know, `You Americans think it's
safer to kill the crocodile. We tend to think it's better to drain the

In other words, people are worried that an effort to overthrow Saddam by force
could have lots of unintended consequences and involve the use of those very
weapons on American and allied soldiers in the field, let alone against
Israel. And they fear that it will lead to new attacks on allied troops by
al-Qaeda and other angry Arab forces and that it will do little to stabilize
the state of Israel or help along the problems with turning the idea of a
democratic and non-violent Palestinian state into reality.

GROSS: If the United States does, in fact, proceed with the plan to invade
Iraq and try to overthrow Saddam Hussein, can the Bush administration expect
to get any support from Europe, particularly troop support?

Mr. ERLANGER: I think it can, yes, and the reason is, as we all remember, the
unfinished business of the Iraq War. And by that, I don't really mean the
existence of Saddam Hussein; I mean the fact that, you know, the UN
resolutions that govern the end of that war are still valid, and Iraq is out
of compliance with them. Iraq has not for a very long time now allowed UN
inspectors into Iraq to search out and destroy these efforts of producing
weapons of mass destruction. So that legally, Iraq is in defiance of UN
Security Council resolution, and many international lawyers would argue, not
just in America, that, you know, the cease-fire resolution that ended that war
has been breached, and hence the state of war continues.

So the allies, you know, who were with the United States during the Gulf War,
I think, will, if the evidence is clear and if Saddam Hussein continues to
reject sincere efforts to let inspectors go through his country and declare it
free of weapons of mass destruction, the Europeans will have no choice but to
go along, I think, with the United States, certainly not without having long
discussions with Washington, which are already going on, about what kind of
campaign, how long it would last, and most important, you know, what happens
in Iraq afterwards?

GROSS: Steve Erlanger is my guest. He's the Berlin bureau chief for The New
York Times.

Let's look at the Middle East and how Europe and the Bush administration stand
there. President Bush has basically said he doesn't think Arafat is a viable
peace partner. What about the European leaders? How are they reacting to
President Bush's position?

Mr. ERLANGER: Once again, they're--they're reacting with a large degree of
understanding, I mean, in the sense that, you know, Yasser Arafat has annoyed
a lot of people and a lot of, you know, Western leaders for a long time. And
no one's had any real illusions, you know, that he's a democrat fully in
charge of all Palestinians. However, the Europeans more than the Americans
seem to feel that he is the, at least, mostly elected representative of the
Palestinian people and he can't simply be discarded.

The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, has produced a paper to allies
which is being looked at and worked on, which suggests an immediate naming of
a prime minister for the Palestinian territories, basically pushing Yasser
Arafat upstairs to a kind of ceremonial presidential post but putting
day-to-day control of Palestinian life in the hands of someone else, and also
at some point naming a UN or international arbiter and monitor to push along
and help guide the Palestinians toward more self-determination and less
concentration on violence and help them build the structure of a civil society
that can then become a state at the end of negotiations with Israel.

So there's an effort by the Europeans to kind of listen to Bush, to understand
what he's saying, to go along with him. But they are troubled by Mr. Bush's
last speech because it seemed to reject Yasser Arafat without providing any
alternative. It seemed to many as a way of not pushing forward on a Middle
East settlement, a kind of excuse for doing nothing; I mean, setting
conditions so high the Palestinians couldn't possibly reach them, while
setting very few conditions on the Israelis themselves.

But among leaders, who, you know, believe the United States is an important
ally, want to be on the side of the United States, there is a lot of effort
being made, some of it with gritted teeth, to find a way to take these
pronouncements of a Republican administration in Washington and turn them into
policy that, you know, other parts of the world can also go along with.

GROSS: Before September 11th, President Bush was, I believe, seen in Europe
as moving very unilaterally on things, you know, alienating allies, just doing
what's best for the United States without a lot of consideration for what
other countries felt or needed. Then after September 11th, there was this
tremendous reaching out to other countries, trying to turn them into allies in
the war on terrorism. How is Bush seen now in Europe in terms of being, you
know, a unilateral kind of guy or an ally kind of guy?

Mr. ERLANGER: He's still seen very much as a unilateral kind of guy. You
know, President Clinton was ever emollient and seemed to get the tone right,
I mean, though he, in many people's views, patronized the Europeans and in
some sense, you know, lied--not lied in a sense of a falsehood, but, you know,
when he signed the Kyoto Treaty on environmental protection, he knew it wasn't
going to get passed, but he signed it anyway. Bush never played along. He
simply said, `We can't get this passed, so forget it.' It's just--partly it's
a difference in tone.

But there is a feeling that September 11th was an interim period, and yet in a
way was a kind of accelerant of a lot of underlying trends, and that as the
war in Afghanistan has gone on, allies have been helpful allies and eager
allies. And, you know, as you know, French planes are flying in Afghanistan,
and there are German troops there and German peacekeepers and British troops
and, you know, allies are playing perhaps a more significant role than many
Americans realize now in Afghanistan.

However, on things like the International Criminal Court, which was a very big
and recent and quite bitter fight, there is again a feeling among Europeans
that the United States is pursuing its own interests no matter what the
interests are of its allies. And though it is discussing many things with its
allies, it's not really listening very carefully, and that, you know, it seems
unwilling to sacrifice anything that Washington thinks is in its own interests
for the larger interests of the Western world. And lastly, I suppose, people
feel that Washington is underestimating the value of allies themselves.

GROSS: In Europe, which leaders are President Bush's greatest supporters and
greatest detractors?

Mr. ERLANGER: It's a good question. I mean, in general, the British prime
minister, Tony Blair, though he's, you know, from the center left, has been a
very important help to President Bush. I'm not sure they really like each
other very much, but Britain always tries to straddle the ocean and to be an
interlocutor between other Europeans and the United States, and vice-versa.
But that stretch is getting very difficult for him, and the International
Criminal Court was a blow to the British and a blow to Mr. Blair. He was
ridiculed at home for his efforts to find a compromise, and many people felt
that the Bush people had repaid his loyalty to them rather shabbily.

Mr. Bush also has great support among the conservative Italian prime minister,
Silvio Berlusconi; among the conservative Spanish prime minster, Jose Maria
Aznar; and among others. You know, and the United States in general, you
know, has a lot of support in Germany, from where I'm speaking to you.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Erlanger, Berlin bureau chief for The New York
Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Steve Erlanger is my guest. He's the Berlin bureau chief for The New
York Times.

Let's talk a little bit about the impact of September 11th on Europe. You're
based in Berlin, in Germany. Germany has been one of the important places in
the investigation of al-Qaeda because there have been al-Qaeda cells there,
and there have been terrorists based there who helped plan September 11th.
Would you just kind of describe Germany's place as a location for al-Qaeda

Mr. ERLANGER: Yes. Germany was absolutely central to September 11th. In
Hamburg, beautiful port city to the north of here, where I've spent quite a
lot of time, there was a cell of Arab students and immigrants to Germany who
carried out September 11th attacks. I mean, they were considered the
ringleaders and the planners. And they moved freely from Hamburg to America
and back and all around Europe, and sometimes to Asia, too, in pursuit of this
rather amazing plot. So it's caused a lot of self-searching in Germany.

After the Nazi period, the Germans, you know, with the help and advice of
their American conquerors, put into place lots of very strong protections for
the individual against the state and against state prying, data protection
laws. And the Germans now believe some of those laws were so strong that they
protected some of the al-Qaeda sleepers who were in Germany; that, you know,
had the state had more police powers and paid more attention to certain kinds
of investigations, they might have uncovered this plot before it actually
happened. Might have. But it's a big issue here.

GROSS: There's a large Muslim population in many European countries, and I'm
wondering if you're actually feeling tensions in communities, in the streets,
in places where you've been in Germany and other parts of Europe since 9/11.

Mr. ERLANGER: Without question there is a great increase in tension and, you
know, a great feeling that people in these communities have of being
increasingly watched, not just by the police, but by their neighbors.
Germany, as you probably know, has, you know, something like three million
Turks who were brought to this country over the decades as guest workers, and
many of whom settled here; many of whom now have German citizenship and raised
families here. Turks are pretty secular, and there is a much smaller number
of Arab immigrants and students. And it was from this population in general
that al-Qaeda converts came.

But Germany is not, you know, the only issue here. The French have more
Muslims than any other country in Europe; also more Jews. And, you know,
partly it's French history. Many of these are Moroccan and north Africans.
And in London, too, where there are quite a lot of immigrants from south Asia,
in particular, there have been some very interesting revelations about radical
mosques in London and also in the north of England that seem to have been
recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda activists and jihad warriors, people who went
to Bosnia or went to Chechnya. So the Europeans have woken up to a much
bigger problem. You know, one could argue that their domestic intelligence
services were looking at these places but weren't too worried because the
targets of these people were not domestic. And after September 11th, that
kind of, I think, sloppiness and selfishness has disappeared.

GROSS: Do you think that Europe is dealing with immigration and security
issues post-9/11 any differently as a result of the existence of the European
Union than it would have been dealing with it just as individual countries?

Mr. ERLANGER: It's a very interesting question, and I think that's true
because sometimes, you know, the way American politicians like to blame
Washington for things they don't want to do or that just get imposed on them,
they think, Europeans can use the European Union that way, too. But the
European Union is 15 nations who, in a sense, you know--most of whom allow
freedom of travel. You know, once you're inside it, you can go anywhere; the
so-called Schengen visas. The British keep apart from this, partly because of
the channel. But in general, you know, you can go all over Europe once you're
inside without showing your passport to anybody. Now that's a wonderful
thing, but it's easier for terrorists to move.

So there's a lot of concentration now on building up the borders of the EU to
be, you know, more attuned toward serious challenges of immigration. And
these are technical questions, but also there is an effort to cut illegal
immigration as a separate political issue because there's been a kind of
conservative backlash in Europe which is not really to do with September 11th,
in my view, but certainly has been accelerated by it. So the effort to cut
down on illegal immigration has become a European Union issue, and at its last
big summit meeting in Spain, I think last month, this was a big, big topic.
And there were no real, you know, resolutions, quick ones, but as a union,
countries are trying to make their immigration requirements more uniform so
immigrants can't pick and choose. They're trying to make their refugee status
requirements more uniform, and they are trying to crack down on people

GROSS: Cracking down on immigration was one of the issues that Jean-Marie Le
Pen championed. He is the extremist right-wing French leader who did very
well in the first round of the presidential election last April. Was his
success encouraging or spurring on other extremist leaders through Europe?

Mr. ERLANGER: Yes. But, I mean, in a way he was himself a beneficiary of an
earlier movement against immigration. And it's--you know, Joerg Haider, who's
the far-right leader in Austria, who's not in the government but who's party
is important to the government, ran very strongly, you know, on a campaign of
keeping immigrants out. And you see in other countries of Europe, surprising
countries--the Netherlands, Denmark, not just countries like France and
Austria--serious backlash against uncontrolled immigration, which is itself a
kind of euphemism for shutting the doors. And it has echoes in Germany, too,
where there's a big campaign that will end September 22nd in the possibility
of a whole new government. One of the issues here also is, you know,

GROSS: Steve Erlanger is Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times. He'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, comparing how religions and scientists have read the skies.
We talk with Marcelo Gleiser, author of "The Prophet and the Astronomer."
Also, TV critic David Bianculli reviews Phil Donahue's return to TV, and we
continue our conversation with Steve Erlanger of The New York Times.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Steve Erlanger. He
writes about Europe for The New York Times. He's The Times' Berlin bureau
chief and former bureau chief for central Europe and the Balkans.

I want to ask you a little bit about the euro and the European Union. Let's
talk a little bit about the euro. And this might be of particular interest to
any of our listeners who are planning to travel to Europe this summer. This
week, for the first time, the euro became worth slightly more than the dollar.
What's the importance of that?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, psychologically it's very important because when the, you
know, euro, which is used as the currency in 12 of the 15 European Union
members right now--makes traveling very convenient. You know, you don't have
to change money when you go from country to country. But when it was first
introduced in January of '99 not as physical bills at that point but as a
currency that had fixed value against all these other 12 currencies, it
started life worth--it was higher than a dollar. It was about worth $1.18 for
one euro. And that started to sink immediately, and it's been sinking for
more than two years. It reached a low of like 82 1/2 cents in the fall of
2000. But as Europe has been complaining more about the Bush administration
and this sort of superheated American, you know, reach and patriotism and
unilateralism, the fact that the euro is now back above the dollar has made
people smile some in satisfaction.

Financially it doesn't mean very much. Currencies go up and down, and it
really is much more to do with a weak dollar than with a strong euro. The
dollar is at its low against the Japanese yen, too, and against the British
pound. But it will make vacations in Europe a bit more expensive for
Americans. But it shouldn't have a terribly big impact yet on exports and

The big fear people have is simply that the combination of now this big
American trade deficit and this big American budget deficit, together with the
stock market crash and scandals about American corporate practices, means that
confidence in the American economy is being undermined and that there will be
a flight of capital from the United States. A lot of it will go into euros.
That's fine. But people worry that it's going to bring down, you know, the
economy even farther. Nobody wants the dollar to fall too far, in other

GROSS: Well, what impact is the euro having on creating a European group

Mr. ERLANGER: It has an important impact, you know. I mean, it is a
physical, real thing. It's Europe in your pocket. And it's like, you know,
every country has its own passport, but now in Europe, at least among members
of the European Union, they all look the same and they say European Union on
them. But people don't use their passports every day, and they use their
money every day. And I think more and more, you know, people do feel--they're
not quite sure what being a European is.

But, you know, you do find more young people in particular who are traveling
and working all over the continent with a kind of freedom their parents find
extraordinary. And it's an extraordinary success. You know, you ask them and
some of them will say, `Yes, I'm a European.'

So there is, you know, something being built here called Europe. I mean, no
one can quite define it. As I say, the European Union is going through--as
it's trying to enlarge, it's also trying to reform its rules to make them more
efficient, and it's trying to write itself a new constitution that will
govern, you know, weighted majorities and how things work. But it is becoming
more real as an entity, and it's becoming more real to the people who live
here, too.

GROSS: Is shopping different with the euro than it used to be?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it is, actually, particularly if you're going somewhere.
I mean, you know, if you're at home, fine. A lot of people still get confused
because they still think in their old currencies. It was easy for the Germans
because basically one euro is two marks, you know, so that was simple. A lot
harder for the French because, you know, one euro is something like
7-point-something francs.

But people are complaining a lot because prices have rounded up, you know,
they think, and it's true, particularly on day-to-day goods like a cup of
coffee or a roll at a bakery or a glass of wine or a bottle of beer. You
know, people like nice, round prices, so something, you know, that would have
cost two marks before, you know, might cost one euro now. That would be a
bargain. But in general it's likely to cost one euro, 50 now. And people
resent that. There's been a lot of talk about that.

But certainly as a traveler if you go anywhere inside the zone, it's
wonderful. I mean, you don't have to change money at the airport. You just
get into another taxi, use the same money.

There is one nice little difference. The bills are all the same and the coins
are all the same on one side, but each country gets the right to, you know,
put its own symbols on the other side of its coins so that, you know, more and
more in Europe as the coins spread you find yourself with a pocketful of coins
that have, you know, originated in France and Austria and Greece and Germany
and Portugal. And people still like to find--you know, they talk about which
ones are most attractive, you know. And I personally like the Portuguese
two-euro coin and the Italian one-euro coin. But, you know, people collect
them and kids collect them, and it sort of adds to the sense that, you know,
this is one civilization. It has its differences. It has its problems. It's
still fighting about lots of things. The nation-state has not gone away. The
French and the Germans are squabbling bitterly now over agriculture, for
instance. But there is much more of a sense of an entity being born.

GROSS: Well, let's get to the important stuff. I'm wondering--I don't know
if you collect jokes or not, but I'm wondering if there's any good America
jokes that have been circulating, or jokes about the American stock market,
jokes about politics in America, jokes about the hunt for terrorists. You
tell me.

Mr. ERLANGER: I always feel sort of odd, put on the spot. I mean, I can tell
you lots of jokes, but about current politics in America--harder. The funny
thing that I saw recently--I don't know if it's true--but there's a great
story going around. You know, there's this impression that George Bush isn't
very smart and that he actually was saying to another European leader about
the French--he said, `You know, the French don't even have a word for
entrepreneur.' That's a vignette.

GROSS: Oh, I get it.

Mr. ERLANGER: It's rather the way Ronald Reagan used to say, you know, `The
Russians don't have a word for peace,' but, of course, the Russians did have a
word for peace, you know, `mir.'

So, you know, you just never know. A lot of people, I must say, don't find
the Bush administration a joking matter.

GROSS: Steve Erlanger, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thank you.

GROSS: Steve Erlanger is Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times.

Coming up, "The Prophet and the Astronomer," what religions and scientists
have seen in the skies. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Marcelo Gleiser discusses his new book "The Prophet and
the Astronomer"

Religions and science have looked to the skies to understand the cosmos and
our place in it. The history of spiritual and scientific interpretations of
the skies is the subject of the new book "The Prophet and the Astronomer" by
my guest Marcelo Gleiser. He's a professor of physics and astronomy at
Dartmouth College and author of the previous book "The Dancing Universe: From
Creation Myths to the Big Bang." He grew up in Brazil.

Early civilizations looked to the skies with awe, terror and reverence. I
asked Gleiser if early religions assumed the gods lived in the heavens.

Professor MARCELO GLEISER (Dartmouth College; Author, "The Prophet and the
Astronomer"): Absolutely. So there were two things that were very important
with the skies. The first one is that they were very regular, you know.
Things just repeat themselves. So you have day after day. You have a year
after 365 days. You have the four seasons of the years. And so this
regularity of the skies was very important for people to order their lives.
They, in fact, depended on this regularity in order to know when to plant and
when the floods were coming. And so they looked at the skies with this
reverence, you know, in the sense that we owe our lives to the skies. And
there's no doubt that many religions love the skies and, in fact, worship the

GROSS: Let's talk about the terror. What are some of the terrors that have
come out of the skies that historically people ascribed a religious motive to?

Prof. GLEISER: That's the interesting part because the skies are not always
regular. You know, some weird things do happen in the skies. And for older
cultures, you know, those weird things, unexpected, sudden things, were very
scary. Examples: a total eclipse of the sun. So if you put yourself, you
know, in the minds of somebody that lived 10,000 years ago and that depended
completely on the sun for survival and worshiped the sun as a god, and
suddenly the sun starts to disappear in the sky and it gets completely dark in
the middle of the day, you say, well, even if the sun comes back in a few
minutes, you know, if it disappeared for a little bit, it may disappear
forever. And then that's it. Life is gone. So that's one example of a great
terror of the skies. And many different cultures have beautiful myths
describing, you know, this battle of good and evil, of light and darkness that
happens during an eclipse.

Other examples, which are very much present nowadays, is comets. Comets have
this very long history of being associated with some sort of prognostication,
some sort of message from the gods. And the reason being that if the skies
are the realm of the gods, whenever they have something to say to us they're
going to do it through the skies.

GROSS: Now do you think that scientific explanations of the stars and the
moon and the sun and the comets and the eclipses--that those explanations
helped calm people's fears about the skies or diminish their awe of the skies?

Prof. GLEISER: Well, maybe that was the original intention, you know. And,
in fact, right at the beginning of modern science in the 17th century, Newton
and Halley--you know, Halley the man of the Halley's Comet, that tells that
the comet can come back every 76 years or so--those people were the first ones
to understand how gravity rules, you know, the motions in the solar system and
in the universe in general. But they were also the first ones to show that,
look, maybe there could be a collision between a comet and the Earth. And, in
fact, Halley himself had a theory of the biblical flood in which he said that,
well, what happened was that a long time ago a comet hit the Earth and the
impact was so violent that it tilted the Earth's axis and the oceans just got
sloshed around, just like if you could shake a bathtub basically. And that
was what caused the flood. And he even said there is an impact crater in the
Caspian Sea due to that impact.

So you see that the pioneers of modern astronomy were the first ones to bring
back into science things that religious people were saying for a very long
time. They were saying, look, cataclysms do happen and now we have science to
explain them. So I don't think science actually helped to diminish the fears.
In fact, in a sense it's kind of contributing to them.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you're ever frustrated by the fact that although
science is able to explain to some degree why certain cosmological events
happen, or at least explain how they happen, it can't really explain the
larger why of why it's happening.

Prof. GLEISER: Yes. I think that it's very, very important to put science in
its proper place.

It's precisely that science transforms the mystery of the unknown into a
rational challenge. So it's not that science is taking away the mystery of
things. What it's doing is that it's making this mystery accessible to us, to
our own minds, to understand it. And in that way, science is very spiritual,
because a scientist is devoting his or her own life to precisely try to
understand what are these mysteries, and this relationship to the unknown,
that I think brings poetry to science and makes it a very humane enterprise.

GROSS: Do you have any favorite stories about earlier civilizations and what
they projected onto the heavens that you'd like to share with us?

Prof. GLEISER: I love the myth that comes from Shintoism in Japan, which is
that Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, which was the greatest deity for
them--and in fact, that's why the Japanese flag has a rising sun there right
in the middle, and the emperor's family is, in fact, supposed to be descended
directly from Amaterasu, this goddess. And she was very upset because her
younger brother was causing tremendous mess down on Earth, and she was so
distressed that she decided to hide in a cave. So when she went into the
cave, the world was all covered in darkness, and people were very nervous, and
all the gods were very nervous, so they decided to lure her back.

So what they did is they got a goddess to come to the entrance of the cave and
with a big mirror, and lots of people dancing, a tremendous mass outside, so
Amaterasu was very curious about what was going on, so she walked out of the
cave, and when she walked out a little bit out of the cave, she saw her image
on the mirror, and she said to the goddess holding the mirror, `Who's this
person?' And she said, `Well, you know, this is the new goddess, since you're
not interested anymore.' And so she walked out a little more, and somebody
from behind, you know, covered the entrance of the cave with a little string,
which is called a shimenawa, and Amaterasu couldn't go back in, and hence the
sun went back shining into the world.

Now this myth is really a description of a total eclipse, and it's a myth that
symbolizes the resurrection, you know, basically the coming back into life, or
into light, of the world, and it's very beautiful. And so if you go to Japan,
and you go into a temple and you see those ornamental doors with a little
string hanging, that string is the shimenawa that didn't let Amaterasu go back
into the cave.

GROSS: You're the kind of astrophysicist who works more with computers and
with math than you do with a telescope. Is it ever, like, looking at the
shadows in a cave to be working on the numbers and the math all the time
instead of, you know, actually, like, gazing at the stars themselves?

Prof. GLEISER: Well, you know, Plato's allegory of the cave that you mention,
it's a good thing, because he used to say, you know, that there are two
worlds, you know, the world of ideas and the world of the senses, and that the
real world, the thing that is really crucial is the world of ideas, not the
world of the senses, because the senses are the shadows on the wall and we may
be misled by our senses. So if you really want to find truth Platonic style,
you go to the world of ideas.

And funnily enough, you know, he is the guy, the pioneer, of this quest for a
mathematical elegance, or description, of nature. And a lot of physicists,
including me, are very much hooked into this idea that math can describe
nature in a very beautiful and efficient way. And so when I search for those
models, I realize that I'm always going to have to simplify reality because
reality's just too damn complicated, you know, for us explaining all the
details. But we can simplify it, and through the simplification, we can build
models that actually work, which is a beautiful thing. And so it's very
exciting to be able to be use mathematics and, of course, data from
observations. We can't just--and that's where you divert from Plato. You
know, you can't do physics, you can't do science without looking to the
outside. Right? You have to be fed by data, because science is--most of
science, apart from pure math, is empirically driven. So you have to find out
what's happening in the world so you can describe it.

GROSS: Well, you've had a lot of really interesting and even beautiful things
to say about the skies. I feel what I really should ask you is: `So what
sign are you?'

Prof. GLEISER: I am Pisces.

GROSS: Oh, so you even know what sign you are.

Prof. GLEISER: Oh, of course. Boy, I sure do. And, in fact, so was
Einstein, funnily enough.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Prof. GLEISER: Yeah.

GROSS: And how much do you care that you're Pisces?

Prof. GLEISER: Not much. And, in fact, the sad part of this is that, you
know, I write a newspaper column for a Brazilian newspaper, and there's a big
commotion going on now because a senator down there wants to regularize the
profession of astrologer as being an official profession. And he said, `We
should even teach astrologer up to the third grade--astrology up to the third
grade.' And so I received a ton of e-mails of people asking me to write
something about this. So, you see, astrology's pretty big, much bigger than
astronomy, unfortunately.

GROSS: Well, what do you think of astrology? What do you think drives
people's belief that when you were born and where the heavens were at that
time really determine your personality?

Prof. GLEISER: Well, I think what drives that--You know what the idea is,
right? That there is some kind of unique cosmic arrangement every time
somebody is born--Right?--wherever the planets are with respect to the
constellations, and this is somehow going to influence you. And I think the
key point is the `You,' with capital Y, because what astrology is doing is
that it's linking the person to the big cosmos. It's making that person very
important and unique. And who doesn't like that, right? I mean, it's
wonderful to think that all those things that happen in our life have a bigger
reason, you know, and could be explained. And more than that, even your
future could be explained.

I think what's behind astrology and all sorts of numerology and everything and
tarot reading is this deep, deep-seated need that we have to understand who we
are and where we're headed to. And it's never going to go away because, you
know, people are hungry for those kinds of answers, and astrology, good or
bad, provides them. So scientifically, it's complete nonsense. But one thing
which I think is good about it is it that it forces people to think about
themselves and about who they are, and that usually is a good thing.

GROSS: Are you satisfied living in a world of great uncertainty?

Prof. GLEISER: Absolutely. I love that. And I think that's the difference
between a religious person and a non-religious person, because in order to not
be religious, you have to accept that you have to live in doubt, you know.
And with religion, it's OK. You can always say, `Well, I have faith and I
know where the answers come from. They come from God. So I can not worry
about those things.' And I say, `Fine. I prefer to be in doubt,' and go that

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. GLEISER: My pleasure.

GROSS: Marcelo Gleiser is the author of the new book "The Prophet and the
Astronomer." He's a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

Coming up, David Bianculli on Phil Donahue's return to TV. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Phil Donahue's return to television

Phil Donahue, the most successful TV talk show host of his day, returned to
television this week as the host of a new show on cable network MSNBC. TV
critic David Bianculli says that he, like MSNBC, expected a lot from Donahue,
but so far, he's been disappointed.


First, we have to remember what made Phil Donahue such a phenomenon in the
first place. He burst out of Ohio and into national prominence because he
gave voice to his audience, which was almost exclusively female. He was
talking about issues that didn't get much airplay then--everything from
abortion to AIDS--and sermonizing with enthusiasm about all of them.

Donahue opened the phone lines to his viewers, becoming interactive before
interactive was cool. He roamed the aisles of his studio audience with a
handheld mike, relying on the crowd to react and often to ask the tough
questions so he didn't have to. It was good theater and good television, and
sometimes it even educated. Without Phil, there would be no Oprah; simple as

But Donahue retired right as Oprah Winfrey lapped him in the ratings. That's
a long time ago, and the TV landscape has changed enormously. We have
discussion shows on cable now that are more interested in heat than light. We
have so many channels and choices that the competition becomes not only
greater, but frantic. Even in the very small world of cable news
channels--where the three of them combined draw fewer viewers than the
floppiest flop on UPN--there's a desperate attempt to fight for that same
small piece of the pie. Fox News Channel has Bill O'Reilly in the same time
slot that CNN has Connie Chung. And now against both of them, MSNBC has Phil

But Donahue, in his first few days, has gotten off to a really bad start. Not
in the ratings, where he came out of the blocks tripling the audience and
finishing behind O'Reilly, but ahead of Chung. His show, though, is almost
unwatchable; unwatchable because it's so unlistenable. This new "Donahue"
show doesn't have a studio audience. Donahue has some guests seated around a
table, like on Charlie Rose or Jim Lehrer, or others talking via satellite,
like on Ted Koppel. Instead of pacing like a caged animal, Donahue stays
seated, trying to get his guests--two or three of them at a time--to discuss
the issue at hand. But they've obviously been encouraged to jump in and
interrupt one another, and they yell a lot.

So does Donahue, although without the handheld mike to control who's talking
when, sometimes he gets drowned out, too. And the TV director often focuses
on someone who's not talking while we hear other people yelling at each other
sounding like kids in a school yard. Here's a sample--a representative one, I
promise you--from Monday's premiere during an alleged discussion about Iraq.

(Soundbite of "Donahue")

Unidentified Man #1: We have a brutal, murderous dictator, a regime that has
murdered 5,000 of its own people. And they'd like nothing better than to kill

Mr. PHIL DONAHUE: Yes, but it's also true...

Unidentified Man #1: They're training terrorists in three different training

Unidentified Man #2: They're not training terrorists. You have no facts
about that! That is speculation.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, you didn't watch the EDS, the satellite sites...

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, and that's speculation from Achamed Chialopi(ph).
Fraudulent defectors that the CIA...

(Soundbite of people speaking at once)

Mr. DONAHUE: Mr. Chialopi, are you being...

Unidentified Man #3: You change your mind so many times. You are such a

Unidentified Man #4: No, you're talking about Ritter(ph) now, not...

Mr. DONAHUE: Right.

Unidentified Man #3: Yes, of course, Mr. Ritter. You are a chameleon.

(Soundbite of people speaking at once)

Mr. DONAHUE: Mr. Chialopi, with so little time left, sir...

Unidentified Man #3: You keep shouting. Now listen, you know Saddam has
chemical weapons.

Unidentified Man #5: I don't know that. I don't know that.

Unidentified Man #3: You know Saddam is developing more terrorists.

Unidentified Man #5: Don't say I know that.

Unidentified Man #3: You agree to sell...

BIANCULLI: That's just silly and stupid and awful. And Phil, when squaring
off against his guests, shouts just as loudly and looks like a cartoon parody
of himself. He's playing to the back row, but on this show, he doesn't have a
back row. I watched Tuesday's show just in case opening night was a case of
nerves or was seen as so obvious a disaster that course corrections were
instituted overnight, but no. Tuesday's discussions were just as loud and
just as pointless.

Phil, here's a piece of free advice from someone who expected to like your new
show and would rather see you succeed than fail: Don't yell! If there's one
thing on TV we don't need more of, it's rude behavior and pointless arguing.
I can't believe--and I don't believe--you came back for that.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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