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Physicist Awarded $948,000 Templeton Prize

Religion: Freeman Dyson, who admits bafflement to the honor, has written on how technology can widen the poverty gap. Award was established to reward spiritual leaders.

March 23, 2000|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Freeman J. Dyson, a renowned physicist whose multifarious interests have spanned science, social activism and faith, has been awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

The $948,000 prize, one of the world's largest monetary awards, was announced Wednesday in New York and will be conferred in London on May 9 by Britain's Prince Philip on behalf of the Templeton Foundation.

Dyson, 76, said he was "baffled" by the award. "I'm not a theologian. I'm not a saint," he said. His writings have touched only tangentially on religion.

An emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Dyson has written numerous books on the origins of life, biology and, most recently, the problems science and technology pose by widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

He gained scientific attention after World War II when he synthesized various theories about quantum electrodynamics into a single unified theory. A year later he studied with Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb.

At first, Oppenheimer refused to accept Dyson's unified theory. But he changed his mind after a series of seminar debates. Dyson, who was born in England, became a U.S. citizen in 1957. In 1962, he moved to weapons control as a consultant to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He is now "a strong critic" of military use of nuclear weapons, the Templeton Foundation said.

Despite Dyson's clear emphasis on scientific matters, he said that religion has at least an equal claim to authority in defining human destiny.

"I would say that religion is a way of life and not a set of beliefs," he said in an interview. "I'm not really concerned with theology. To me, I like to live with uncertainty. That's a natural thing with a scientists."

Science and religion, he said, are two windows through which people look to understand "the big universe outside."

Although he said he has reached no firm conclusions about the nature of God or why life has evolved to self-awareness, he has a working hypothesis: "The universe has a mind of its own," he said. "We know mind plays a big role in our own lives. It's likely, in fact, that mind has a big role in the way the whole universe functions. If you like, you call it God. It all makes sense."

So far, however, humans are unable to make sense of it all. "I always think of humans not as God's last word. We are very much at the beginning of things," he said. "We only just came down from the trees quite recently. It's amazing that we understand as much as we do. It would be even more amazing if we understood what it's all about."

More down to earth, Dyson said "the great question of our time" is how to ensure that the continuing scientific revolution brings benefits to everyone instead of widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

Biotechnology, including breakthroughs in the application of discoveries in human genetics, will pose the biggest impact on human development in the next 100 years, he said.

"Clearly the time is coming when it becomes more directly concerned with humans, and not merely bugs in the lab," Dyson said.

"Science and religion have to maintain a mutual respect and some humanly workable solutions that respect the various points of view," he said. "It's going to be very difficult and divisive set of problems."

Dyson calls himself a "follower of Christ" but is unaffiliated with any church. He grew up in the Church of England but refused to be confirmed. He attends a Presbyterian church in Princeton. When he visits England he attends a Roman Catholic parish because his sister is Catholic.

The Templeton prize was established in 1973 by Sir John Templeton, 87, a Wall Street investor and philanthropist. Templeton said at the time that while billions were spent on research into business, medicine, science and education, relatively little was earmarked for research into issues of spirituality.

Past recipients of the Templeton prize include the late Mother Teresa, evangelist Billy Graham, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, mathematical physicist Paul Davies, and William "Bill" Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.

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