NEW YORK — In the world of condensed matter physics, Freeman Dyson is an international superstar. But in the spiritual realm, he is virtually unknown. So it came as a surprise to Mr. Dyson yesterday that he won the 2000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, the biggest award for works advancing the understanding of God or spirituality.
"I don't understand," Dyson says. "It usually goes either to a saint or a theologian, and I don't qualify as either of those. It is a mystery." But along his 54 years as a scientist, Dyson's colleagues say, he has greatly contributed to the often-heated discussion over science and religion. As a physicist, he has tried to inject ethics into the realm of science. As a writer, Dyson has worked on setting principles to guide both skeptics and believers in their work together.
"Dyson has been a trail-blazer," says Robert Herrmann, one of the nine judges for the 2000 Templeton Prize. "By saying that science has a limited approach to truth, he has tremendously contributed to the science-religion dialogue."
Dyson was not so much rewarded for his outstanding credentials in nuclear physics as for his extensive writing on science and religion. In the last 20 years, he has published eight books, in which he developed the idea that science and religion are two windows to the world, ones that should complement rather than oppose each other.
Science, he says, should be used to better the world; religion to offer spiritual guidance.
In "Imagined Worlds," he wrote: "Religion has at least an equal claim to authority in defining human destiny. Religion lies closer to the heart of human nature and has a wider currency than science."
Dyson has been constantly questioning science's role in society since the start of his career. Recently, he condemned modern science for creating "toys for the rich," like new laptops and ever-smaller cellphones. Instead, he says, scientists should focus on developing technologies like solar energy to reduce poverty in third-world countries. He calls for scientists to join religious leaders in the fight for social justice.
"Science and religion should work together to abolish the gross inequalities that prevail in the modern world," Dyson says.
Dyson has always believed that science and religion should work as companions to do good. In the '60s, he created the "coalition for peace action," a group in which members exchange views on hot-button issues like gun control. "We all need religion in one form or another. We also need science in order to survive," Dyson says.
Born in England in 1923, Dyson grew up in the shadow of the two world wars. After he served as a statistician in the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, Dyson moved to the United States to complete his studies in physics in 1946 at Cornell University.
Then in 1948, he went to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., where he was professor of physics for 41 years. He became famous when, in a series of debates, he convinced Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, of the validity of his theory on quantum electrodynamics.
Dyson has also developed some nuclear devices in medicine and for space exploration, always for the purpose of extending the boundaries of knowledge to benefit humankind. He has spoken out against several "big science" projects - such as the $8 billion Supercollider atom smasher and the international space station, which he considered costly and of little use to ordinary people.
This small thin man, who still has the trace of an English accent, has also worked with Stanley Kubrick, doing research on space travel for the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Dyson is the 30th winner of the Templeton Prize, created by Wall Street philanthropist John Mark Templeton in 1972 to honor living individuals for their works in the discipline of religion. Along with the prize, he received $948,000, one of the largest monetary prizes. He is still undecided as to how he will spend it.
In winning the prize, Dyson has joined the company of Mother Teresa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the Rev. Billy Graham, who are previous recipients. Asked how it feels to join such a famous group, he once again shrugs.
"I'm totally unworthy," he says. "I find it kind of absurd that I should be put into that class."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society