John D. Barrow, a Cambridge University cosmologist who has researched and written extensively about the relationship between life and the universe, on Wednesday was awarded the 2006 Templeton Prize, worth about $1.4 million, for progress in spiritual knowledge.
Barrow, 53, a professor of mathematical sciences who once held research fellowships in astronomy and physics at UC Berkeley, is the sixth scientist to win the award, considered the Nobel Prize for religion.
In a statement prepared for Wednesday’s news conference in New York, where the announcement was made, the British scientist said astronomy has transformed the “simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the skeptical philosophers” into something profound.
Astronomy, he said, “breathes new life” into so many religious questions that arise from humanity’s quest for meaning.
“We see now how it is possible for a universe that displays unending complexity and exquisite structure to be governed by a few simple laws -- perhaps just one law -- that are symmetrical and intelligible,” Barrow said.
Such laws, he added, “govern the most remarkable things in our universe -- populations of elementary ‘particles’ that are everywhere perfectly identical.”
“It is to this simple and beautiful world behind the appearances, where the lawfulness of nature is most elegantly and completely revealed, that physicists look to find the hallmark of the universe.”
Barrow is a member of the United Reform Church, created in the 1970s by the merger of Presbyterian and Congregational traditions in Britain.
Asked what he believes happens after death, he put his response in the context of the technological age: “Perhaps, the end of life in the universe is really just like turning off your computer, and then turning it on later on -- the same information stored. But, I don’t know.”
The annual Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities was founded in 1972 by philanthropist John M. Templeton. Previous winners include Mother Teresa, evangelist Billy Graham and author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Templeton, 93, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987, lives in the Bahamas. The Templeton Prize is the largest annual monetary prize awarded to an individual.
Templeton stipulated that its value always be more than the Nobel Prize to “underscore that research and advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than disciplines recognized” by the Nobel awards committee.
A nine-member panel of judges from diverse backgrounds and representing five of the world’s major religions selected the winner.