NEW YORK, MARCH 15 – John D. Barrow, a noted cosmologist whose writings about the relationship between life and the universe, and the nature of human understanding, have created new perspectives on questions of ultimate concern to science and religion, has won the 2006 Templeton Prize. The prize, valued at 795,000 pounds sterling, approximately $1.4 million, was announced today at a news conference at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.
Barrow, 53, who serves as Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge, has used insights from mathematics, physics, and astronomy to set out wide-ranging views that challenge scientists and theologians to cross the boundaries of their disciplines if they are to fully realize what they may or may not understand about how time, space, and matter began, the behavior of the universe (or, perhaps, “multiverses”), and where it is all headed, if anywhere.
His work – including 17 books translated into 27 languages and written in accessible, lively prose, hugely popular lectures, and more than 400 scientific papers – has illuminated understanding of the universe and cast the intrinsic limitations of scientific inquiry into sharp relief. It has also given theologians and philosophers inescapable questions to consider when examining the very essence of belief, the nature of the universe, and humanity’s place in it.
As Thomas Torrance, himself a Templeton laureate (1978), wrote in his nomination of Barrow, “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. The vast elaboration of that simple idea has lead to a huge expansion of the breadth and depth of the dialogue between science and religion.”
In particular, Barrow’s engagement with frontier science and mathematics, developing multidisciplinary perspectives on subjects such as the mysteries of nothingness and infinity, and the potentially intelligible realms of the laws of Nature and the limits of scientific explanation, has jarred religious and scientific perspectives in such a way as to open pathways of understanding which may allow both to comprehend each other more fully.
The Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities was founded in 1972 by philanthropist and global financial pioneer Sir John Templeton. Given annually to a living person to encourage and honor the advancement of knowledge in spiritual matters, it is the world’s best known religion prize and the largest annual monetary prize of any kind given to an individual. In establishing the prize’s monetary value, Sir John stipulated that it always be worth more than the Nobel Prizes as a way to underscore that research and advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than disciplines recognized by the Nobels.
HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, will award the prize to Barrow in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, May 3rd.
In remarks prepared for the news conference, Barrow said, “Astronomy has transformed the simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the sceptical philosophers. It breathes new life into so many religious questions of ultimate concern and never-ending fascination. 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. 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.”
He added, “Our scientific picture of the universe has revealed time and again how blinkered and conservative our outlook has often been, how self-serving our interim picture of the universe, how mundane our expectations, and how parochial our attempts to find or deny the links between scientific and religious approaches to the nature of the universe.”
Barrow, who received his doctorate (D.Phil) in astrophysics from the University of Oxford in 1977, first caught wide attention with his 1986 book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, co-authored with Frank J. Tipler. The book investigates all aspects of anthropic principles in cosmology and other sciences, traversing history, philosophy, theology, astronomy, physics and chemistry. In the subsequent two decades it has become an essential work for those who explore the deep questions at the interface of science and religion, while the anthropic principle has become an inescapable factor in the evaluation of contemporary cosmological theories.
That was followed in 1988 by The World Within the World, a wide-ranging study of the origin and development of the concept of the “laws of Nature” in all their forms, and then in 1989 by Barrow’s Gifford Lectures at Glasgow University in the centennial year of the celebrated lectures. At 36, he was the youngest lecturer in the history of the series. Based broadly on the emerging interest in “theories of everything,” Barrow’s talks before capacity crowds employed easy-to-follow reasoning, engaging links between different fields, anecdotes, and eye-opening new ideas to provide a fresh take on the complexity of the universe.
The lectures led to Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation, published in 1991. It continued Barrow’s taming of enormous subjects of staggering implications, weaving together considerations from a wide range of topics, raising as many questions as he answers, and showing clearly how it comes about that a “theory of everything,” while necessary to understand the universe, is far from sufficient.
His later works have explored a huge range of subjects on the science and religion interface at a level that speaks to lay readers and specialists alike. Topics include the nature and utility of mathematics (Pi in the Sky, 1992), the links between the universe and human aesthetic appreciation (The Artful Universe, 1995 and The Artful Universe Expanded, 2005), and how the universe is peculiarly characterized by what cannot be known about it (Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits, 1998).
That provocative formula was expanded to the theater in 2002 with the Italian production of Infinities, directed by Luca Ronconi. Barrow’s five-part play that picks at accepted parameters of infinity with dramatizations that disturb as often as delight introduced many new staging techniques to the theater. In one segment, Borges’ parable of the Library of Babel – a repository of book after book in an endless maze of galleries – is brought to life as the audience wanders through corridors of mirrors brimming with identical characters, suggesting the impossibility of uniqueness in an infinite universe. In another, aging folk consider the unexpected consequences – religious, social, and personal – of living forever. The play, which ran two seasons in Milan and received the 2002 Premi Ubu as the year’s best work in the Italian theater and the 2003 Italgas Prize, exquisitely dovetails with Barrow’s ease of movement between matters physical and spiritual. As he once told a columnist, “The nature of the infinite is and always has been a central question in theology as well as in science and mathematics.”
It also points to his strength as a highly educated scholar with a knack for the common touch. In a recent lecture at London’s Royal Society (Barrow was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2003), for instance, he peppered his remarks with instructions on detecting art fraud, why it is possible to send a rocket to the Moon with pinpoint precision but not predict tomorrow’s weather, and how to win at dice every time.
Barrow’s research has been at the forefront of many areas of cosmology for thirty years and has most recently been concerned with the ways in which astronomy can test the constancy of the so-called “constants of Nature.” Again, these questions have unexpected implications for the nature of life in the universe which are explored in all their ramifications in his book, The Constants of Nature (2002).
John David Barrow was born in London in 1952 to Walter and Lois Barrow, an engineering company stores manager and his homemaker wife. When he entered Van Mildert College at Durham University in 1971, he became the first of his family to attend university in that century. After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics (1st Class Honours), he earned his doctorate (D.Phil.) at Oxford with his thesis, “Non-Uniform Cosmological Models” under the supervision of renowned cosmologist Dennis Sciama, and was elected to a Junior Research Lectureship at Christ Church, Oxford in 1977. He then held research fellowships at the astronomy and physics departments at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the department of astrophysics, Oxford.
In 1989 he moved to the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex, becoming a full professor in 1989, and served as Director from 1995 until he was appointed Professor of Mathematical Sciences in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge in 1999. He was also elected a Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge and has been vice president since 2004. At Cambridge he was also appointed Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project, a many-faceted education initiative aimed at young people, aged five to 19, to help them understand and appreciate mathematics and its applications. Last month, the program was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in the UK Honours list.
Barrow’s most recent book is The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless (2005), which might be considered the reciprocal of his earlier Book of Nothing (2000). It considers all aspects of the infinite and explores its similarities and differences in the realms of mathematics, science, and theology. These two studies reveal how the concepts of infinity and nothing – in all of their various manifestations – played distinctive pivotal roles in the development of mathematics, physics, astronomy, logic, theology and philosophy.
In 2002, Barrow was appointed Gresham Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London, a position once held by Sir Christopher Wren. Founded in 1596, it is the world’s oldest science professorship. Barrow also has the curious distinction of having delivered lectures on cosmology in such unexpected venues as the Venice Film Festival, 10 Downing Street, Windsor Castle and the Vatican Palace.
John Barrow and his wife of 31 years, Elizabeth Mary (East), have three children ranging in ages from 21 to 27. They live in Cambridge.