April 8, 2011

Religious Prize To Astrophysicist Draws Some Debate

A British astrophysicist and cosmologist known for his studies into the origins of the universe and its future was awarded one of the world's top religious awards this week for his work in exploring life's spiritual dimension.

Martin Rees, 68, who is an expert on the extreme physics of black holes and the Big Bang, is the recipient of the $1.6 million 2011 Templeton Prize, announced by the John Templeton Foundation on Wednesday.

Rees was chosen for the award because of the nature of his research, which he said invites everyone "to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence," said Dr. John M. Templeton. He said Rees's "profound insights on the cosmos have provoked vital questions that address mankind's deepest hopes and fears."

Rees, who just finished his tenure at the head of Britain's Royal Society, told The Associated Press (AP) at a London hotel ahead of the announcement that he was attracted to "big questions which we can't answer."

One of the biggest questions was why it is that the physical laws of the universe seemed perfectly calibrated to support human life. But even a few changes in universal constants could easily alter the cosmos as to make it uninhabitable.

Rees argued in one of his books -- "Just Six Numbers" -- that the perfect timing was neither an accident nor the act of a supreme creator. Instead, "an infinity of other universes may well exist" where the constants are set differently, he said. Some universes would be too sterile for life to exist, and others too young. Luckily, our's happens to be just right.

Nobel prize winners and scientists have criticized Rees for accepting the US-funded religious prize.

Professor Harry Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 and is a colleague of Rees, told The Times: "This news is really bad for the Royal Society, bad for the UK -- a basically secular country"¦ The prize uses money to imply that it has obtained some sort of Nobel-like consensus from scientists on the science-religion issue."

"Yet nine out of ten eminent scientists are atheist-freethinkers for whom science is primarily about the reliable determination of truth," said Kroto.

Richard Roberts, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1993, said Rees could not have accepted the prize while he was president of the Royal Society, which he resigned from last year.

Roberts told The Times that "there would have been an uproar." But, he noted, to even "take it now, when he has only just stepped down as president, I think it's terrible."

"The Templeton Foundation is only interested in spreading religion and trying to make Christianity more acceptable," he added.

But Rees said he has no religious beliefs and during the interview with AP he joked that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would most likely "put some theologians into contortions."

He acknowledged that theorizing on the possibility of aliens and a multiverse did tend to leave humanity isolated in the far reaches of the multiverse.

"These thoughts do make it hard to believe in the centrality of human beings," he noted. "Being human beings ourselves, it's hard to give ourselves less consideration."


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