In an appreciation of work bridging science and philosophy—or a canny attempt to buy credibility, depending on whom you ask—the controversial Templeton Foundation has awarded its $1.6 million annual prize to an agnostic: astrophysicist and former Royal Society President Martin Rees.
Rees, the master of Trinity College of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Astronomer Royal, has a seat in the House of Lords and served as president of the Royal Society from 2005 until November 2010. He is the author of numerous books and papers on philosophical questions raised by the physics of the universe's beginnings, as well as how human activities will determine Earth's future. As an astrophysicist, he studied black holes and microwave radiation traces of the big bang. In its press release, Templeton lauded him for his "profound insights on the cosmos [which] have provoked vital questions that speak to humanity's highest hopes and worst fears."
"I hadn't thought I had the basic entry qualifications, looking at the previous winners," Rees told Science. "I'm proud to be joining that roll call."
The Templeton Prize is the largest honorary award for an individual, given to a person who has "made exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension." But the Templeton Foundation's mission has concerned some scientists, who have accused it of purposely blurring religious and scientific values. Rees is an unusual awardee in that he holds no religious beliefs. Past awardees include Billy Graham and Mother Teresa, and, in 2010, evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, a former Benedictine priest.
But Rees believes that philosophy and ethics hold an important place in scientific inquiry. He said that he is "inspired" by religion's contributions to the humanities, such as music and architecture. "I grew up in the traditions of the Anglican Church and those are 'the customs of my tribe,' " Rees said in a press release.
"He's an observant member of his tribe," University of California, Irvine, astrophysicist Virginia Trimble, who nominated Rees for the prize, told ScienceInsider, adding that although she is a "third-generation atheist," religion at least encourages its members to take life seriously. "So few people these days take anything seriously. That, I think, is not healthy. Scientific endeavor is a serious activity."
Asked about scientists' concerns with the Templeton Foundation itself , Rees denies any conflict. But evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago in Illinois feels that Rees, as a nonbelieving scientist, should have refused the prize and that this year's award is just Templeton's latest attempt to transmute money into credibility. "This just shows how far the Templeton Foundation has its tentacles into the scientific establishment," he says. "[Rees] is a smart choice for Templeton: he's highly respected, accomplished, and not a crackpot. It was a poor choice for Rees."
Of Rees's bringing cosmology to bear on philosophy, Coyne says, "He's mistaken: religion and science are separate domains. If there's no conflict between science and religion, why do I still deal with creationists?"
To Rees, his work on the origin of the cosmos opens more important questions about humanity than the divine. "Some people might surmise that intellectual immersion in vast expanses of space and time would render cosmologists serene and uncaring about what happens next year, next week, or tomorrow," he said at a news conference. "But … even in a perspective extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past, this century may be a defining moment." He told Science that he believes scientists have a responsibility to consider the political and ethical implications of their work.
But whether Templeton has succeeded in its attempt to reform its image or continues to be a slick vehicle for religious intrusion, "Martin's scientific achievements deserve any prizes you can think of," Trimble says.