UK astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees wins 2011 Templeton Prize
British astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees, whose research delves deep into the mysteries of the cosmos, has won the 2011 Templeton Prize for career achievements affirming life’s spiritual dimension. The one million sterling ($1.6 million) award, the world’s largest to an individual, was announced on Wednesday in London. Rees, master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, is former head of the Royal Society and a life peer.
Announcing the award, the United States-based Templeton Foundation said Rees’s insights into the mysteries of the Big Bang and so-called black holes in space have “provoked vital questions that address mankind’s deepest hopes and fears… Lord Rees has widened the boundaries of understanding about the physical processes that define the cosmos, including speculations on the concept of ‘multiverses’ or infinite universes… The ‘big questions’ Lord Rees raises — such as ‘how large is physical reality?’ — are reshaping the philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life.”
Rees, 68, says he has no religious beliefs but was brought up in the Church of England and values its culture and ethics. Theology cannot explain scientific mysteries, he told Reuters, but added: “I’m not allergic to religion or religious believers.” Previous winners of the prize, which seeks to promote better understanding between science and religion, include Catholic nun Mother Teresa, U.S. preacher Billy Graham and Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn as well as many leading scientists.
During his career, Rees has made important contributions to support the theories of the Big Bang, the explosive start to the universe 13.7 billion years ago, and of the existence of massive “black holes” in space in which even light can be trapped. Rees, who was awarded the honorary title of Astronomer Royal in 1995, has also been a leading theorist of the “multiverse.”
“Our Big Bang may not be the only one,” he said in a statement on winning the prize. “We may be living in a ‘multiverse’ — an archipelago of cosmoses, perhaps governed by an array of different physical laws.”
In the past decade, Rees has become active in public debate on global issues, notably man-made threats to the environment. His research also has led him to take huge steps back to observe humanity and its place in the vast cosmos.
“Most people still somehow think we humans are the culmination of the evolutionary tree,” he said. “That hardly seems credible to an astronomer. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out … so even if life were now unique to Earth, there would be abundant scope for post-human evolution on Earth or far beyond.”
My news story on the award is here: UK astrophysicist Rees wins 2011 Templeton prize. The Templeton Foundation announcement is here, along with several videos with him asnwering questions such as What effect has your scientific research had on your beliefs?, How large is physical reality? and Are human brains capable of understanding the very big, the very small, and the very complex?
In preparation for this announcement, I had an interesting telephone interview last Friday with Sir Martin Rees at Cambridge University in Britan. Here are some excerpts:
* Will science eventually explain everything? “It may be able to, I think we can’t be sure. I think a separate question is — are we as humans will be able to understand the explanation? It’s possible that there are explanations, but they may be too difficult for us. This is where we have to be open-minded. There may be post-human species more intelligent than us and maybe some aspect of nature may have to await that.”
* The quest for the “theory of everything” — “It’s a very important quest indeed. But when it’s achieved, it won’t answer most scientific questions. It will be the end of the quest to unify the forces of nature, it will help us unify the very large and very small, and it will certainly help us understand the big bang better and the interiors of black holoes. But the point is that 99 percent of scientists are not held up at all by the lack of a unified theory. They’re held up because they’re trying to study things that are very complicated…
“It’s just the phrase ‘theory of everything’ that appears to be misleading. It’s a fundamental theory. The problems of science are challenging not because we don’t have that theory. Indeed that theory is irrelevant to most theories of science.”
* Humans and evolution — “No astronomer could really think of humans as being the culmination of evolution because we know that the time lying ahead is longer than the times that’s elapsed up until now… There are two simple points. The solar system has more time ahead of it than it’s taken to evolve us from protozoa. And any future evolution will be faster than darwinian selection because it may be on a technological time scale. .. so that’s why i dont think we should think of ourselves in any way as the endpoint. But we can’t conceive of what’s going to happen.”
“We’re just part of a process and there’s no reason to think we’re the end any more than any previous species was the end.”
*Post-humans — It’s inevitable there will be posthumans, but what they’ll be, we have no idea. Evolution is proceeding on a technological timescale in future, not the slower timescale of Darwinian selection. But even if it were proceeding on the slower Darwinian timescale, there would still be change. Darwin himself realised this. He said no species would survive into the distant future.”
* Human uniqueness — “What does it mean for humans to think we will be superceded by something else? I think it sort of makes one sceptical about any claims to human uniqueness. But also I suppose any awareness of the far future ought to make us more concerned that we don’t jeopardise it by what happens on the earth in the next century.”
* Religion — I don’t have any religious beliefs. I participate in the social and ritualistic aspects of the religion that was dominant in the society in which I was brought up, which is the Church of England. If I had been brought up in a different culture, I would have different customs. If I was a Jew, I might be lighting a candle on Friday night, as many of them do even if they have no religious beliefs. My tradition is that of the Church of England… I’m head of a college here and I go to the chapel service once a week. I’m also generally supportive of the Churdh of England as an institution. I’m not allergic to religion or to religious believers.”
* Do religion or philosophy help understand reality? — “I don’t think they do, to be honest. I’ve certainly never found them helpful. Tthere are huge numbers of mysteries that we haven’t solved, but that just means we’ve got to think longer and harder. One should resist claims to provide snappy simple answers beyond science for things that are scientific mysteries. If science teaches me anything, it teaches me that even a single atom is pretty hard to understand. For that reason I’m very sceptical if anyone claims to have any sort of complete understanding of any deeper aspect of reality. We’ve got to expect that there are many things that we obviously don’t understand now and may never understand. We’ve got to accept the uncertainty. I dont see that as an argument about religion.
* Winning the Templeton Prize — I’m very honored to join the roll call of winners. Six members of the Royal Society have won it, plus philosophers, theologicans and campaigners of all kinds. Someone asked me if I felt out of place but the person I feel closest to in terms of style and career is Freeman Dyson (prize winner in 2000). His views and career would be similar to mine and he was also interesed in public affairs… for the past 20 years, I’ve been involved in Pugwash Conferences. For five years, I was president of the Royal Society and obviously involved in a whole range of issues on how science impacts on public policy. And I’m now a member of the House of Lords.”