Cosmologist honored for his work on the limits of human understanding.

The John Templeton Foundation announced yesterday that it will give its prize for “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities” to University of Cambridge scientist John D. Barrow. Barrow is a professor in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, and his research focuses on cosmological models and the nature of physical constants. He has written popular books on the anthropic principle and the limits of human understanding.

The winner of the annually awarded Templeton Prize receives £795,000 for efforts in scientific research or another field that stimulate progress toward expanded human perception of divinity. Sir John Templeton, the mutual fund pioneer and noted philanthropist, established the award in 1972.

Professor Barrow is the author of 17 books including The Left Hand of Creation, a discussion of the origins and evolution of the universe, and Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, an exploration of the boundaries of human knowledge, thought and discovery and how knowledge of these limits can lead to greater understanding.

His current work concerns whether the so-called fine-structure constant, a combination of fundamental physical constants that expresses the strength of electromagnetic interaction, has changed over time. He also analyzes cosmological models and dark matter candidates.

“The hallmark of his work is a deep engagement with those aspects of the structure of the universe and its laws that make life possible and which shape the views that we take of that universe when we examine it,” Thomas Torrance, theologian and 1978 Templeton Prize winner, wrote in his nomination of Barrow for the prize. “The vast elaboration of that simple idea has led to a huge expansion of the breadth and depth of the dialogue between science and religion.”

When accepting his prize, Barrow discussed how science and religion play off one another—for instance, scientific discovery reinvigorates religious concepts.

“Astronomy has transformed the simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the skeptical philosophers,” he said. “It breathes new life into so many religious questions of ultimate concern and never-ending fascination.

During his prepared remarks, he also mentioned science’s origins in religion.

“Many of the deepest and most engaging questions that we grapple with still about the nature of the universe have their origins in our purely religious quest for meaning,” he said. “The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of religious beliefs about the nature of God.”

Barrow said both religious conceptions and scientific models show a limited, but accurate, picture of the universe. Just as Einstein’s theory of general relativity did not disprove Newton’s theory of gravity, ultimate religious truth does not exclude the approximations and analogies in people’s conceptions of the divine.

“Sir John Templeton has sought to encourage this impartial dialogue in the firm belief that religion and science can supply mutual illumination and appreciation of the wonders of our Universe and inspire us to seek out and comprehend the truth in new ways—a truth that is unfailingly unexpected and so often not at all like it first appears,” Barrow said, in his concluding statement.

Previous winners of the Templeton Prize include Nobel-winning physicist Charles Townes, Mother Theresa and Soviet author and playwright Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Originally published March 15, 2006

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