Two pioneering astronomers have won what is being touted as the "first ever" award for cosmology. Allan Sandage and P. J. E. (Jim) Peebles will pocket $150,000 each from the Gruber Foundation, founded by Wall Street magnate Peter Gruber. Sandage, an astronomer emeritus at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is an experimentalist who won renown with his measurement of the Hubble constant, the expansion rate of the universe. Princeton cosmologist Peebles's claim to fame is the prediction of remnants of the big bang in the form of microwave radiation.
The donor has much broader interests than straight-up cosmology. Gruber is a scholar of Buddhism who spent his childhood in India, and now he has joined the ranks of philanthropists fascinated with the relationship of theology and science. Perhaps best known of these is John Templeton, whose eponymous foundation is devoted to furthering "spiritual progress" through scientific knowledge. In fact, the Gruber awards are to be presented in November at a Templeton-sponsored conference at the Vatican, according to Vatican astronomer and Gruber prize advisory board member George Coyne.
Despite these holy surroundings, astronomers are hoping the prize won't smell too strongly of incense. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) agreed last week to help out with the administration of future Gruber prizes and will provide three experts to an expanded advisory board. "The arrangement will be purely scientific," says Johannes Andersen, the IAU's General Secretary.
This view may be at odds with Gruber's original "broad-based" vision for the prize, admits board member Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The prize is open to anyone who studies the origin and nature of the universe, including "scientific philosophers" and perhaps even religious thinkers. "The winner does not necessarily have to be a technical astronomer," Gingerich says. But he is "not sure the IAU would be as happy giving it to poets and philosophers."