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."