British astrophysicist wins Templeton Prize

by Rich Heffern

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c. 2011 Religion News Service

A British theoretical astrophysicist who has achieved renown for
his study of the cosmos and for sounding warnings about the future of humanity has won the $1.6 million 2011 Templeton Prize.

Martin J. Rees of Cambridge University, a former president of
Britain's prestigious Royal Society, was announced the winner on
Wednesday (April 6) by the John Templeton Foundation.

The annual prize honors an individual who has made "exceptional
contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension." Rees is a
somewhat unorthodox choice because he holds no formal religious beliefs.

Rees, 68, has long studied questions surrounding black holes, the
big bang and what some call the "dark age" of the early universe. Rees
has also speculated on the idea of infinite universes, sometimes called
"multiverses," and has pondered how large physical reality actually is.

Rees has helped reshape "crucial philosophical and theological
considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual
progress that the Templeton Prize has long sought to recognize," the
Templeton Foundation said in announcing the prize.

"The questions Rees raises have an impact far beyond the simple
assertion of facts, opening wider vistas than any telescope ever could,"
said John M. Templeton, Jr., president and chairman of the John
Templeton Foundation started by his father.

"By peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies, Martin Rees
has opened a window on our very humanity, inviting everyone to wrestle
with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence," he

In recommending Rees for the honor, Robert Williams, president of
the International Astronomical Union, said Rees "is very unusual in that
he constantly touches on spiritual themes without dealing explicitly
with religion. I do not know whether he is a theist, for example."

In an interview, Rees acknowledged he holds no formal religious
beliefs, but honors the traditions of the Anglican Church as a member of
his "tribe."

"I do participate in services because I value them for their
aesthetic and social value," he said.

Rees has won notoriety as a scientist concerned with the survival of
the planet. In a 2004 book, published in the United States as "Our Final
Hour," Rees argued that civilization likely will suffer a severe setback
in the next century. He argued that humans, with their interconnected
world vulnerable to disruption, have no more than a 50-50 chance of
surviving until 2100 without some sort of serious event or problem
linked to technology or the environment.

Though hopeful about what science and technology can do to improve
life, "in terms of politics, I am not optimistic."

In remarks prepared for Wednesday's announcement in London, Rees
said the "intractable politics and sociology -- the gap between
potentialities and what actually happens -- engenders pessimism."

"All too often the focus is short term and parochial -- the urgent
and the local loom higher on political agendas than even the gravest
long-term challenges."

The Templeton Prize is the world's largest annual award to an
individual and is intended to exceed the monetary value of the annual
Nobel Prizes. Britain's Prince Philip will award Rees the prize on June
1 at Buckingham Palace.

The Templeton Prize began in 1973 as an initiative by the late
philanthropist and global investor Sir John M. Templeton. It was
initially given to such religious figures as Mother Teresa and Billy
Graham. In recent years, however, the prize has been awarded to
scientists and theologians whose work focuses on the field of science
and religion.

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