This is a post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
Martin J. Rees, the renowned British astrophysicist, has won the Templeton Prize for this year, it was announced today.
I would like to keep this post to mainly factual information, keeping my personal views and comments to my regular Monday post. I should, however, point out that I have, for several years now, had a rather close connection to the John Templeton Foundation, which administers the prize and sets its philosophy, as per its late founder, Sir John Templeton, who wanted the Prize to recognize a living individual who will have made substantial contributions to the “spiritual progress” of humanity. In my next post, I will comment on this concept of “spiritual progress”, but suffice it to say now that, contrary to what some observers understand, this is not a prize for work on ‘Science and Religion’, nor for people who promote cozy relations between religion and science. Indeed, Sir Martin Rees is not a believer; he views religion as merely culture, which in some of its manifestations (music, liturgy, architecture) can be quite beautiful and uplifting.
So, in this post, I wish to simply explain who Martin Rees is and why, as I understand it, he was awarded this prestigious prize.
Indeed, the monetary value for the Templeton Prize is £ 1 million (about $1.6 million), making it the largest of any prize in the world. Its intellectual value is no less important, judging by the list of luminaries who have won it since its inception in 1972, including: a number of world-class scientists (Bernard d’Espagnat, Charles Townes, John Barrow, George Ellis, Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, von Weizsacker, etc.), philosophers (Charles Taylor, Ralph Wendell Burhoe), and religious leaders (Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, Inamullah Khan, Lord Jakobovits, Nikkyo Niwano).
Martin John Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow, is, first, one of the most important astrophysicists and cosmologists of today, and secondly, a tireless public figure who has worked hard at both promoting science and warning of the dangers that we humans have produced for Earth and for the future of our species. As a scientist, he has published over 500 research papers, many of them seminal and visionary, often picking on some new developments that would later turn out to be hugely important. Indeed, he was one of the first cosmologists to pick on the idea of the multiverse, and one of the first to investigate various aspects of black holes, quasars, dark matter, gamma-ray bursts, and other such topics that are now at the forefront of astrophysics. He has also authored/co-authored several books, with one coming out in a few months and another one next year. From 2005 to 2010 he presided over the prestigious Royal Society, of which he had been a member for more than 25 years. And he has given countless lectures and interviews.
Most recently, Rees has been sounding an alarm over the dangers and risks that our careless lives and policies have produced for our planet and our species. In his 2003 book ‘Our Final Century’ (published in the US as ‘Our Final Hour’) he says that the human civilization has only a 50-50 chance of surviving until 2100 without suffering a severe setback. He has also predicted that by 2020 we will have a “bioterror” or a “bioerror” accident that will claim a million casualties.
Now, was the Templeton Prize given to him because he has been a great scientist and/or because he has been actively trying to raise public awareness and to affect changes in policies that will reduce the risks of catastrophes? I don’t think so.
In my view, to understand the awarding of this “spiritual progress” Prize to Martin Rees, who (softly) admits to being a non-believer who “culturally” goes to church, I think it is important to realize that the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) now puts emphasis on research in “Big Questions” instead of “Science and Religion”. What is meant by “Big Questions”? Check out this page, where a series of essay collections was produced by JTF, on topics such as: “”; “”; and “”. Check out also Templeton’s online e-zine: Big Questions Online.
So how does this apply to Sir Rees? In both the press release from today’s announcement and the text of the speech given by the winner, strong references are made to the “big questions” that his work has raised, including “how large is physical reality?” (a reference to the uni/multi-verse), “How did our complex cosmos emerge” (alluding to quantum gravity, superstrings, etc.), and “What is the role of life in the cosmos?” (a hint to the anthropic principle, on which Rees had written the popular and successful book ‘Just Six Numbers’).
Venturing further into philosophical avenues, Rees today asked: “Are there special perspectives that cosmologists can offer to philosophy?” He says yes, first stressing the “interconnectedness of cosmic processes” (life and human’s stellar origins and subsequent dependence on light and energy from the sun/stars), and secondly reminding us how our existence could only have come after the billions of years that constitute the age of Earth, the solar system, and the universe in general, and the billions of years that life – if not humans – has (have) in front of it (us).
As I will explain in my next post, I believe that by awarding Sir Martin Rees its prestigious prize, the Templeton Foundation has made a bold statement that puts contemporary science, even its speculative aspects (Rees freely admits that the multiverse is mostly speculations), at the center of our human endeavors and interests and calls that “spiritual progress” – even from someone who regards religion as mere culture.