PARIS, MARCH 16 – Bernard d’Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher of science whose explorations of the philosophical implications of quantum physics have opened new vistas on the definition of reality and the potential limits of knowable science, has won the 2009 Templeton Prize.
From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, d’Espagnat, 87, was a philosophical visionary in the physics research community. He played a key role during this revolutionary period of exploration and development in quantum mechanics, specifically on experiments testing the “Bell’s inequalities” theorem. Definitive results published in 1981 and 1982 verified that Bell’s inequalities were violated in the way quantum mechanics predicts, leading to a clear confirmation of the phenomenon of “non-local entanglement,” which in turn was an important step in the later development of “quantum information science,” a flourishing contemporary domain of research combining physics, information science, and mathematics.
D’Espagnat, Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at the University of Paris-Sud, also explored the philosophical importance of these new physics-based insights into the nature of reality. Much of his early work on the subject centers on what he calls “veiled reality,” a hidden yet unifying domain beneath what we perceive as time, space, matter, and energy – concepts challenged by quantum physics as possibly mere appearances. Since then, his writings and lectures on fundamental questions such as “What deep insights does science reveal about the nature of reality?” have provoked debate among scientists and philosophers.
The Templeton Prize was announced today at a news conference at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris by the John Templeton Foundation, which has awarded the prize since 1973. The Prize, valued at one million pounds sterling (approximately $1.42 million or €1.12 million), is the world’s largest annual award given to an individual.
From early in his career, d’Espagnat developed an interest in foundational problems in physics, which brought him in contact with Louis de Broglie, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, John Bell, and other luminaries of 20th century physics. In the 1960s and 70s, along with other physicists, he focused on the existence of serious discrepancies between quantum mechanics and the common-sense way of thinking about the world. His technical papers at the time inspired and encouraged the early emergence of vital experiments on physicist John Bell’s inequalities theorem (published in 1964), which showed that the concept of philosophical atomism – that nature is composed of a myriad of separate objects whose behavior can be understood “locally” (influenced directly only by their immediate surroundings) – is in conflict with the predictions of quantum mechanics.
D’Espagnat anticipated that Bell’s inequalities would be violated as predicted by quantum mechanics, even though at the time many physicists, following Einstein, believed that atomism and locality were right and quantum mechanics must be wrong. Following preliminary measurements by John Clauser and others, experiments by the French physicist Alain Aspect and his collaborators in 1981 and 1982 proved d’Espagnat’s bold philosophical insight to have been correct: Bell’s inequalities were in fact violated and, with that, not only atomism but even “locality” were no longer viable as descriptions of the physical universe.
Since then, d’Espagnat has written and lectured extensively on the philosophical significance of the universal truths of quantum mechanics. He notes, however, that quantum physics merely predicts observational results. As far as describing reality, it suggests that not only our plain, everyday concepts of objects but also our scientific concepts refer only to phenomena – that is, to mere appearances common to all.
Still, d’Espagnat warns, experiments often falsify theories and so there must exist, beyond mere appearances, something that resists us and lies beyond the phenomena, a “veiled reality” that science does not describe but only glimpses uncertainly. In turn, contrary to those who claim that matter is the only reality, the possibility that other means, including spirituality, may also provide a window on ultimate reality cannot be ruled out, d’Espagnat insists, by cogent scientific arguments. Although he concedes the theological implications of the term “veiled reality,” he guards against using it as justification for specific religious doctrines which can be falsified by reason and fact.
In his nomination of d’Espagnat for the Templeton Prize, Nidhal Guessoum, Chair of Physics at American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, wrote, “He has constructed a coherent body of work which shows why it is credible that the human mind is capable of perceiving deeper realities.”
These perceptions offer, d’Espagnat has said, “the possibility that the things we observe may be tentatively interpreted as signs providing us with some perhaps not entirely misleading glimpses of a higher reality and, therefore, that higher forms of spirituality are fully compatible with what seems to emerge from contemporary physics.”
In a statement prepared for the news conference, d’Espagnat pointed out that since science cannot tell us anything certain about the nature of being, clearly it cannot tell us with certainty what it is not. “Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated,” he said. “On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being.”
D’Espagnat stressed the role of science in grasping empirical reality, that is, the reality of experience or observation. He went on, however, to note that other methods of insight, including the arts, provide windows on understanding the true realities that lie behind things, what he described as “the ground of things.” “Artistic emotions essentially imply the impression of a mysterious realm which we may merely catch a glimpse of,” he said. “Science and only science yields true knowledge. On the other hand, concerning the ground of things, science has no such privilege.”
The Templeton Prize each year honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Created by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, the Prize is a cornerstone of the John Templeton Foundation’s international efforts to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions, ranging from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity. The monetary value of the prize is set always to exceed the Nobel Prizes to underscore Templeton’s belief that benefits from discoveries that illuminate spiritual questions can be quantifiably more vast than those from other worthy human endeavors.
John M. Templeton, Jr., M.D., Chairman and President of the John Templeton Foundation and son of Sir John, notes that d’Espagnat has consistently employed the most rigorous scientific standards to expand the potential of what science may tell us far beyond the laboratory. “Instead of simply measuring the limits of quantum physics,” he said, “he has explored the unlimited, the openings that new scientific discoveries offer in pure knowledge and in questions that go to the very heart of our existence and humanity.”
The 2009 Templeton Prize will be officially awarded to d’Espagnat by HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, May 5th.
Bernard d’Espagnat was born on August 22, 1921 in Fourmagnac, France, but spent most of his early years in Paris, where his father, a post-impressionist painter, and mother imbued him with a love of classic literature and the arts. Attending some of the finest schools in Paris, he was drawn to the humanities, especially philosophy. It was during those early years, while riding his bicycle through a large country garden, that d’Espagnat says he first took conscious notice of beauty. Even now, he says, that initial realization serves for him as “a signpost pointing to reality.”
Despite his love of philosophy, d’Espagnat focused on science and mathematics, believing that advances in philosophy would require the knowledge and practice of contemporary science.
In 1939, as d’Espagnat made plans to enter the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, World War II put his education on hold. In 1946, his studies finally began. Encouraged by his professors, he became a young researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and was attached to the Institut Henri Poincaré. There, under the guidance of Louis de Broglie, the 1929 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, he prepared his thesis and received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Paris–Sorbonne in 1950.
D’Espagnat went on to the University of Chicago, where he served as a research assistant to physicist Enrico Fermi, and then to the temporary headquarters of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, headed by physicist Niels Bohr. From 1954 to 1959 he served as physicist, then senior physicist, at CERN’s permanent home in Geneva, helped create the CERN theoretical physics group, and continued there part-time until 1970. In 1959 he was appointed assistant professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and almost immediately became attached to its newly created science center in Orsay.
While d’Espagnat enjoyed fruitful collaboration with some of the most outstanding physicists of the time, he remained troubled by the scant attention most of them paid to the interpretational questions raised by quantum mechanics. His first book, Conceptions of Contemporary Physics, published in 1965, asked these questions and sketched possible resolutions, underscoring his insistence that scientists face the issues raised by their own pursuits.
Subsequently, d’Espagnat was an early interpreter of the deep philosophical significance of experimental research agendas in quantum physics. In his 1979 Scientific American article, “The Quantum Theory and Reality,” and best-selling 1979 book, À la recherche du réel, le regard d’un physicien (In Search of Reality, the Outlook of a Physicist), he encouraged physicists and philosophers to think afresh about questions long considered marginal but which today serve as the foundation for new fields of research into the nature of reality.
Bruno Guiderdoni, director of the Observatoire de Lyon at the Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, remembers attending one of d’Espagnat’s lectures as a graduate student in 1980, a time when quantum physics was presented merely as a series of computational recipes. “I was deeply impressed by the philosophical implications of what he was addressing,” he says. “One has to understand that these issues were completely absent from the usual lecture courses in quantum physics…he helped me understand that there was actually a very deep question in this issue.”
In his 1994 book, Le réel voilé, analyse des concepts quantiques (Veiled Reality, An Analysis of Present-Day Quantum Mechanical Concepts), d’Espagnat coined the term “veiled reality” and explained why significant experiments over the past decade had not restored conventional realism. On Physics and Philosophy (published in France in 2002 as Traité de physique et de philosophie) was hailed as “surely the most complete book to have been written on this subject and one likely to last a long time…” by Roland Omnès, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the University of Paris-Orsay. His most recent book is Candide et le physicien (Candide and the Physicist), written with Claude Saliceti and published in 2008, a layperson’s guide that answers 50 questions which pinpoint and correct preconceived ideas of contemporary physics and examine the many conceptual and philosophical changes those ideas reveal.
Bernard d’Espagnat and his wife of 59 years, May de Schoutheete de Tervarent, live in Paris and have two daughters.