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Templeton Prize surprises Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees

Astrophysicist Martin Rees, a man of 'no religious beliefs,' was awarded the Templeton Prize for helping humanity address 'fundamental questions of our nature and existence.'

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Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees, poses in central London, on Tuesday, April 5. Rees known for his theories on the origin and the destiny of the universe has been awarded the Templeton Prize.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

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As the Master at Trinity College, one of Cambridge University’s top academic posts, Martin Rees attends chapel every week. He enjoys the choir and the readings from the King James Bible. He participates in the service, mainly out of respect for tradition.

But Professor Rees, a world-renown astrophysicist, says he has no spiritual interest in the service. “I have no religious beliefs myself,” he says.

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That may be one reason Rees was surprised to learn he is the winner of this year’s Templeton Prize, $1.6 million given to a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

“I didn’t think I had the credentials,” he says.

But on Wednesday in London, John Templeton, president of the Templeton Foundation, announced that Rees had won the award because he tackles big questions, by “peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies” and opening a window “on our very humanity, inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence.”

Spiritual dimension of science

In the past decade, the Templeton Prize, which was founded in 1973 by the late Sir John Templeton, an investor and the current foundation president’s father, has oriented toward the sciences, awarding the distinction to eight scientists, including physicists and mathematicians, and two philosophers. In its first 10 years, what was then called the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion was given to religious figures such as Mother Teresa and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Partially, this reflects a greater interest by the Templeton Foundation in the spiritual dimension of the hard sciences, say religious experts.

“It is not simply religion on one side and science on the other, but the science itself has very profound spiritual implications and consequences for the human place in the universe,” says James Byrne, a professor of religious studies at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt. “The serious science has some very interesting spiritual and anthropological implications.”

Other scientists who know Rees say he is a good choice.

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“He is someone who has been involved in every major branch of astronomy and cosmology,” says Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist, prior winner of the Templeton, and now a professor at Arizona State University. “But he has always had a very level-headed approach; his judgment is better than anyone else’s.”

'Durability' of his insights

Professor Davies recalls attending a 1983 conference with the theme “from matter to life” organized by Rees. Rees assembled famous physicists such as Freeman Dyson from Princeton as well as mathematicians and biologists. “There is not a better example of his work. It was inclusive, considerate, and involving deep challenging issues,” says Davies.

In nominating Rees, Viriginia Trimble, a physicist at the University of California, Irvine, wrote, “Looking back over his career, one is impressed by how early he seized on the importance of fields that are now central to the astronomical enterprise, and by the durability and prescience of his insights.”

Rees’s involvement with science started in the 1960s at Cambridge University. It was a time when astrophysical knowledge of the universe was growing rapidly. Among the major breakthroughs of that era: strong evidence for the “big bang,” the moment that physicists think created the universe, and the discovery of neutron stars and black holes.

In a phone interview, Rees says he is still quite interested in black holes, massively dense objects at the center of many galaxies, including the Milky Way. (In 1971, he predicted the existence of a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy well before it was actually discovered.)

“We might learn some new physics there,” he says. At the same time, he is also studying the processes that formed the first stars and galaxies when the universe was only a few hundred million years old.

Dire warnings for future

But, Rees, president of the Royal Society, does not mind speculating about issues that are unknown. For example, he says it is possible that there are multiple universes. To prove this, he says, would require a physical theory that could be tested so it gained credibility. “That way we may get a view of whether other domains exist,” he says.

When he is not contemplating the heavens, Rees has a very specific view on earthly matters. He calls himself a technological optimist but a political pessimist. This leads him to predict a 50 percent chance of some serious setback to civilization by 2020, such as a nuclear war or the misapplication of some technology.

“Science is essential, but it is not enough,” he says. “We need the vision and ethics as well to avoid the downside.”