Martin J. Rees Wins 2011 Templeton Prize
By Rod Dreher — Director of Publications
||Martin J. Rees at the Templeton Prize
Martin J. Rees, a theoretical astrophysicist seen by many as the most distinguished living British scientist, has won the $1.6 million Templeton Prize for 2011. The Prize will be awarded by H.R.H. Prince Philip in a June 1 Buckingham Palace ceremony.
Lord Rees, 68, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and past president of the Royal Society, was given the award—the world’s largest annual prize given to an individual—both for his penetrating insights into the philosophical implications of “big questions” in astrophysics, and his work alerting the public to the scientific risks humanity’s activities pose to its survival. In his best-selling 2003 book Our Final Hour, Lord Rees argues that morally reckless use of science poses a 50/50 risk of bringing about our extinction in this century. (He summarized his case in a 2005 TED talk, available in the online video format here.)
“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,” Lord Rees said at an April 6 news conference in London. “But, for me, the opposite is the case. My concerns are deepened by the realization that, even in a perspective extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past, this century may be a defining moment.”
Dr. Jack Templeton, president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, said that the questions Lord Rees raises may be more important to humanity’s spiritual progress than the answers his scientific work provides.
“By peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies,” he said, “Martin Rees has opened a window on our very humanity, inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence.” (See online videos in which Lord Rees offers his answers to five Big Questions on the Templeton Prize website.)
In recommending Lord Rees for the Templeton Prize, Robert Williams, president of the International Astronomical Union noted, “I have found Martin’s books and lectures, of which I have read and heard numerous, extremely thought provoking.” Williams added, “He is very unusual in that he constantly touches on spiritual themes without dealing explicitly with religion. I do not know whether he is a theist, for example.”
As it turns out, Lord Rees is an atheist, though one who said in a recent interview that he is “not allergic to religion,” and that he enjoys participating in aesthetic and cultural activities of the Anglican church, in which he was raised. Though he doesn’t believe science and religion share much common ground, Lord Rees said wise public policy requires adding diverse and informed perspectives to scientific discussion and that “decisions on how science is applied shouldn't be made just by scientists.”
|VIDEO: Big Questions interviews with the 2011 Templeton Prize winner
The choice of a non-religious scientist as the 2011 Templeton Laureate caused much discussion in the media. Familiar voices among “professional atheists” (as Lord Rees called them) denounced the Astronomer Royal as a sellout for accepting the award. But many other prominent non-religious voices welcomed the honor for one of Britain’s leading scientists.
The Guardian, the newspaper most closely associated with the British intellectual establishment, praised the award for Rees, and chastised atheist critics for engaging in “intellectual tunnel vision—recasting every discussion in terms of the one discipline they have mastered, with no regard for how ideas that enlighten in one context often make no sense elsewhere.”
On the Guardian’s website, science writer Dan Jones declared that he too is an atheist wary of religion’s influence on science, but that one top atheist scientist’s charges against the Templeton Foundation are “hyperbolic and misleading.” Columnist Mark Vernon, himself an agnostic, said Rees’s Templeton win could be “a turning point in the ‘God wars’” in the science and religion dialogue. In contrast to prominent scientific voices who mock faith, wrote Vernon, “Rees…though an atheist, values the legacy sustained by the church and other faith traditions.”
Barnaby Marsh, who oversees strategic initiatives at the Templeton Foundation, said that the choice of Rees as the 2011 Templeton Laureate exemplifies Sir John Templeton’s spirit of intellectual curiosity and humility.
“Sir John was raised in the Christian faith, but he had great respect for honest seekers of the truth of any faith, and of no faith at all,” said Marsh. “He was passionately interested in learning more about ultimate reality, and was humble enough to grasp that neither science, nor religion, nor any other way of knowing had a monopoly on truth. Lord Rees may not be a religious believer, but he is a believer in truth. He has applied his considerable intellect to the pursuit of same, and toward making a better world. If humanity is going to make lasting spiritual progress, it will need the help of gifted, open-minded scientists like Martin Rees.”
Hamilton Comes Alive!
“Television documentaries about American history in the post Ken Burns-age have a certain predictability,” writes Christopher Smith in the Los Angeles Times. But not Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton, a contemporary look at one of the most influential Founding Fathers, which aired on PBS April 11. Smith praised director-producer Michael Pack’s film as “an energetic reworking of the form…history with a high-octane kick.”
Hosted and narrated by popular historian Richard Brookhiser, Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton reveals its subject’s surprising relevance to the nation today. As Ryan L. Cole writes in City Journal, the legacy of the man who designed America’s financial system has been unjustly overshadowed by that of arch-rival Thomas Jefferson.
“But as Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton makes clear,” says Cole, “it is not Jefferson’s agrarian fantasy but Hamilton’s vision—an economic power dotted with vibrant cities, underpinned by a financial system that rewards risk and provides unlimited opportunities to those willing to pursue them—that resembles modern-day America.
The Hamilton documentary, which will be re-broadcast in local PBS markets nationwide, was partially funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.