GEORGE ELLIS WINS 2004 TEMPLETON PRIZE
GEORGE ELLIS WINS 2004 TEMPLETON PRIZE
NEW YORK, MARCH 17 – George F.R. Ellis, a leading theoretical cosmologistrenowned for his bold and innovative contributions to the dialogue betweenscience and religion and whose social writings were condemned by governmentministers in the former apartheid regime of his native South Africa, has won the2004 Templeton Prize. The announcement was made today at a news conference atthe 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 beawarded to Ellis by the Duke of Edinburgh in a private ceremony at BuckinghamPalace 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 byEinstein. He is considered to be among a handful of the world’s leadingrelativistic cosmologists, including luminaries such as Stephen Hawking andMalcolm MacCallum. His most recent investigations question whether or not therewas ever a start to the universe and, indeed, if there is only one universe or many.
It is his important contribitions to the dialogue at the boundary of theologyand science, however, that led to his being named the 34th Templeton Prizelaureate. Specifically, Dr. Ellis has advocated balancing the rationality ofevidence-based science with faith and hope, a view shaped in part by hisfirsthand experiences in South Africa as it peacefully transformed fromapartheid to multi-racial democracy without succumbing to racial civil war.Ellis describes that history as a confounding of the calculus of reality thatcan only be explained as the causal effect of forces beyond the explanation ofhard science, including issues such as aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and meaning.
The award, officially known as the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Researchor Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, was founded by Sir John Templeton, thefinancier who pioneered global investment strategies. Since selling theTempleton Group of mutual funds in 1992, he has focused his talents onstimulating progress through philanthropy that fosters broader understanding ofthe relationship between theology and science. The world’s best known religionprize, the Templeton Prize is given each year to a living person to encourageand honor those who advance spiritual matters. When he created the prize in1972, Templeton stipulated that its monetary value always exceed the NobelPrizes to underscore his belief that advances in spiritual discoveries can bequantifiably more significant than those honored by the Nobels.
The 2003 Templeton Prize laureate was philosopher Holmes Rolston III, widelyacknowledged as the father of environmental ethics. John Polkinghorne, amathematical physicist and Anglican priest, won the prize in 2002, and ArthurPeacocke, a biochemist who is also an Anglican priest, received the award in2001. The first Templeton Prize was given to Mother Teresa in 1973, six yearsbefore receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
George Francis Rayner Ellis, 64, was born in Johannesburg and received aBachelor of Science (Honors) degree in physics with distinction from theUniversity of Cape Town in 1960. In 1964 he received his Ph.D. in appliedmathematics and theoretical physics from Cambridge University, where he was astudent at St. John’s College. It was during this time that he began hisprolific career as a writer and lecturer on issues of time, space, andrelativity. His first book, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, writtenwith Stephen Hawking and published in 1973, immediately became a standardreference work on the subject and continues to sell steadily today. In 1974 hewas appointed to his position at the University of Cape Town, and served eightyears as head of the department.
But while he was rapidly moving to the forefront of the development of generalrelativity theory, Ellis was also establishing himself as an unrelenting criticof the Nationalist government of South Africa and its brutal system ofapartheid. It was also around this time, in 1974, that he joined the ReligiousSociety of Friends – the Quakers. In 1977, he and three colleagues wrote TheSquatter Problem in the Western Cape, a scathing review of the plight ofhomeless people under the Nationalists.
Two years later, he co-wrote Low Income Housing Policy in South Africa, ananalysis of how to transform the desperate housing situation among blacks andother down-trodden minorities in Cape Town. The book so enraged the apartheidregime that the government minister responsible for housing policy took to thefloor of parliament to denounce it, a moment which Ellis now recalls with pride. Ironically, the book later became a guide for a renewed national housingpolicy even before the new pluralistic government.
South Africa’s journey from apartheid to multi-cultural democracy provided Elliswith insights that would come to inform some of his most important discoveriesand writings in the realm of science and religion. When defending his notionthat rationality and reason must be balanced with faith and hope in order toaccurately understand the universe, for example, Ellis cites his own nation’shistory.
There were very many times in the past when it was rational to give up all hopefor the future – to assume that the nation would decay into a racial holocaustthat never happened, Ellis wrote in a statement prepared for the March 17 newsconference. It did not occur because of the transformatory actions of thosemarvelous leaders Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, confounding the calculus ofrationality.
His work on the origin of the universe, evolution of complexity, the functioningof the human mind, and how and where they intersect with areas beyond theboundaries of science, has been covered in such books as the groundbreaking Onthe Moral Nature of the Universe, written with Nancey Murphy. In 2002 he editedThe Far-Future Universe, developed from a symposium examining cosmological,biological, human, and theological aspects of the future held at the PontificalAcademy 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, notedthat Ellis’ service to a broad spectrum of social, economic and ethnic groups inSouth Africa and elsewhere had sparked significant insights into the workings ofthe physical universe. He has demonstrated how genuine religious andtheological perspectives can help us understand the constitution and characterof our universe in terms of ‘kenosis,’ self-sacrificing love, Stoeger wrote,adding that Ellis had shown, that our universe seems to be particularly suitedfor fostering that attitude and practice, and to require it for its harmoniousfunctioning 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 iscausally effective, he said in his prepared remarks that referred to the powerthat ethics has to change the world, and provides the highest level of valuesthat 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 theuniverse, as compared to something that humans have socially developed over themillennia. I believe that we discover the true nature of ethics rather thaninvent it, he said.
Referring to On the Moral Nature of the Universe, Ellis added, Indeed it isonly 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 withco-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 toachieve what might otherwise be rationally impossible in a world fraught withwar and insecurity.
Beyond ethics, Ellis contends that there are many areas that cannot be accountedfor by physics. Even hard-headed physicists have to acknowledge a number ofdifferent kinds of existence beyond the basics of atoms, molecules andchemicals, he said in his prepared remarks. Directly challenging the notionthat the powers of science are limitless, Ellis noted the inability of even themost advanced physics to fully explain factors that shape the physical world,including human thoughts, emotions and social constructions such as the laws ofchess.
Since the rise of democracy in South Africa, Ellis has devoted much of hisenergies to developing the nation’s social, political, cultural and educationalfuture, particularly in making math and science education more broadly availableto his fellow citizens. Ellis said he intends to use a portion of the TempletonPrize money to provide tutorial and monetary assistance for black youth in CapeTown.
Ellis, the father of two children and two stepchildren, and his wife, Mary, aretired doctor, live in Cape Town.
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