Templeton Prize surprises Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees
Astrophysicist Martin Rees, a man of 'no religious beliefs,' was awarded the Templeton Prize for helping humanity address 'fundamental questions of our nature and existence.'
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“He is someone who has been involved in every major branch of astronomy and cosmology,” says Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist, prior winner of the Templeton, and now a professor at Arizona State University. “But he has always had a very level-headed approach; his judgment is better than anyone else’s.”Skip to next paragraph
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'Durability' of his insights
Professor Davies recalls attending a 1983 conference with the theme “from matter to life” organized by Rees. Rees assembled famous physicists such as Freeman Dyson from Princeton as well as mathematicians and biologists. “There is not a better example of his work. It was inclusive, considerate, and involving deep challenging issues,” says Davies.
In nominating Rees, Viriginia Trimble, a physicist at the University of California, Irvine, wrote, “Looking back over his career, one is impressed by how early he seized on the importance of fields that are now central to the astronomical enterprise, and by the durability and prescience of his insights.”
Rees’s involvement with science started in the 1960s at Cambridge University. It was a time when astrophysical knowledge of the universe was growing rapidly. Among the major breakthroughs of that era: strong evidence for the “big bang,” the moment that physicists think created the universe, and the discovery of neutron stars and black holes.
In a phone interview, Rees says he is still quite interested in black holes, massively dense objects at the center of many galaxies, including the Milky Way. (In 1971, he predicted the existence of a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy well before it was actually discovered.)
“We might learn some new physics there,” he says. At the same time, he is also studying the processes that formed the first stars and galaxies when the universe was only a few hundred million years old.
Dire warnings for future
But, Rees, president of the Royal Society, does not mind speculating about issues that are unknown. For example, he says it is possible that there are multiple universes. To prove this, he says, would require a physical theory that could be tested so it gained credibility. “That way we may get a view of whether other domains exist,” he says.
When he is not contemplating the heavens, Rees has a very specific view on earthly matters. He calls himself a technological optimist but a political pessimist. This leads him to predict a 50 percent chance of some serious setback to civilization by 2020, such as a nuclear war or the misapplication of some technology.
“Science is essential, but it is not enough,” he says. “We need the vision and ethics as well to avoid the downside.”
IN PICTURES: Where stars form