NEW YORK, MARCH 17 – George F.R. Ellis, a leading theoretical cosmologist renowned for his bold and innovative contributions to the dialogue between science and religion and whose social writings were condemned by government ministers in the former apartheid regime of his native South Africa, has won the 2004 Templeton Prize. The announcement was made today at a news conference at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.
The Templeton Prize, valued at 795,000 pounds sterling, more than $1.4 million, is the world’s largest annual monetary prize given to an individual. It will be awarded to Ellis by the Duke of Edinburgh in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on May 5.
Dr. Ellis, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town, specializes in general relativity theory, an area first broadly investigated by Einstein. He is considered to be among a handful of the world’s leading relativistic cosmologists, including luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Malcolm MacCallum. His most recent investigations question whether or not there was ever a start to the universe and, indeed, if there is only one universe or many.
It is his important contributions to the dialogue at the boundary of theology and science, however, that led to his being named the 34th Templeton Prize laureate. Specifically, Dr. Ellis has advocated balancing the rationality of evidence-based science with faith and hope, a view shaped in part by his firsthand experiences in South Africa as it peacefully transformed from apartheid to multi-racial democracy without succumbing to racial civil war. Ellis describes that history as a “confounding of the calculus of reality” that can only be explained as the causal effect of forces beyond the explanation of hard science, including issues such as aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and meaning.
The award, officially known as the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, was founded by Sir John Templeton, the financier who pioneered global investment strategies. Since selling the Templeton Group of mutual funds in 1992, he has focused his talents on stimulating progress through philanthropy that fosters broader understanding of the relationship between theology and science. The world’s best known religion prize, the Templeton Prize is given each year to a living person to encourage and honor those who advance spiritual matters. When he created the prize in 1972, Templeton stipulated that its monetary value always exceed the Nobel Prizes to underscore his belief that advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than those honored by the Nobels.
The 2003 Templeton Prize laureate was philosopher Holmes Rolston III, widely acknowledged as the “father of environmental ethics.” John Polkinghorne, a mathematical physicist and Anglican priest, won the prize in 2002, and Arthur Peacocke, a biochemist who is also an Anglican priest, received the award in 2001. The first Templeton Prize was given to Mother Teresa in 1973, six years before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
George Francis Rayner Ellis, 64, was born in Johannesburg and received a Bachelor of Science (Honors) degree in physics with distinction from the University of Cape Town in 1960. In 1964 he received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics and theoretical physics from Cambridge University, where he was a student at St. John’s College. It was during this time that he began his prolific career as a writer and lecturer on issues of time, space, and relativity. His first book, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, written with Stephen Hawking and published in 1973, immediately became a standard reference work on the subject and continues to sell steadily today. In 1974 he was appointed to his position at the University of Cape Town, and served eight years as head of the department.
But while he was rapidly moving to the forefront of the development of general relativity theory, Ellis was also establishing himself as an unrelenting critic of the Nationalist government of South Africa and its brutal system of apartheid. It was also around this time, in 1974, that he joined the Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers. In 1977, he and three colleagues wrote The Squatter Problem in the Western Cape, a scathing review of the plight of homeless people under the Nationalists.
Two years later, he co-wrote Low Income Housing Policy in South Africa, an analysis of how to transform the desperate housing situation among blacks and other down-trodden minorities in Cape Town. The book so enraged the apartheid regime that the government minister responsible for housing policy took to the floor of parliament to denounce it, a moment which Ellis now recalls with pride. Ironically, the book later became a guide for a renewed national housing policy even before the new pluralistic government.
South Africa’s journey from apartheid to multi-cultural democracy provided Ellis with insights that would come to inform some of his most important discoveries and writings in the realm of science and religion. When defending his notion that rationality and reason must be balanced with faith and hope in order to accurately understand the universe, for example, Ellis cites his own nation’s history.
“There were very many times in the past when it was rational to give up all hope for the future – to assume that the nation would decay into a racial holocaust that never happened,” Ellis wrote in a statement prepared for the March 17 news conference. “It did not occur because of the transformatory actions of those marvelous leaders Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, confounding the calculus of rationality.”
His work on the origin of the universe, evolution of complexity, the functioning of the human mind, and how and where they intersect with areas beyond the boundaries of science, has been covered in such books as the groundbreaking On the Moral Nature of the Universe, written with Nancey Murphy. In 2002 he edited The Far-Future Universe, developed from a symposium examining cosmological, biological, human, and theological aspects of the future held at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in The Vatican.
In nominating Ellis for this year’s Templeton Prize, Rev. Dr. William R. Stoeger, an astrophysicist with the Vatican Observatory Research Group, noted that Ellis’ service to a broad spectrum of social, economic and ethnic groups in South Africa and elsewhere had sparked significant insights into the workings of the physical universe. “He has demonstrated how genuine religious and theological perspectives can help us understand the constitution and character of our universe in terms of ‘kenosis,’ self-sacrificing love,” Stoeger wrote, adding that Ellis had shown, “that our universe seems to be particularly suited for fostering that attitude and practice, and to require it for its harmonious functioning at every level.”
Self-sacrificing love, according to Ellis, is the true nature of morality, another area that he says cannot be explained with simple physics. “Ethics is causally effective,” he said in his prepared remarks that referred to the power that ethics has to change the world, “and provides the highest level of values that set human goals and choices.” Describing himself as a “moral realist,” Ellis noted his belief that ethics and morality are a very real part of the universe, as compared to something that humans have socially developed over the millenia. “I believe that we discover the true nature of ethics rather than invent it,” he said.
Referring to On the Moral Nature of the Universe, Ellis added, “Indeed it is only if ethics is of this nature that it has a truly moral character, that is, it represents a guiding light that we ought to obey.” He believes, along with co-author Murphy, that kenotic behavior is “deeply imbedded in the universe, both in ethics and in other aspects of our lives” and that it is the only way to achieve what might otherwise be “rationally impossible” in a world fraught with war and insecurity.
Beyond ethics, Ellis contends that there are many areas that cannot be accounted for by physics. “Even hard-headed physicists have to acknowledge a number of different kinds of existence” beyond the basics of atoms, molecules and chemicals, he said in his prepared remarks. Directly challenging the notion that the powers of science are limitless, Ellis noted the inability of even the most advanced physics to fully explain factors that shape the physical world, including human thoughts, emotions and social constructions such as the laws of chess.
Since the rise of democracy in South Africa, Ellis has devoted much of his energies to developing the nation’s social, political, cultural and educational future, particularly in making math and science education more broadly available to his fellow citizens. Ellis said he intends to use a portion of the Templeton Prize money to provide tutorial and monetary assistance for black youth in Cape Town.
Ellis, the father of two children and two stepchildren, and his wife, Mary, a retired doctor, live in Cape Town.