Philosopher and physicist wins 2009 Templeton Prize

By Ecumenical News International
March 16, 2009

Bernard d'Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher of science whose research has focused on "veiled reality", has won the 2009 Templeton Prize, believed to be the largest yearly monetary award given to a single individual - writes Chris Herlinger.

"Instead of simply measuring the limits of quantum physics, he has explored the unlimited, the openings that new scientific discoveries offer in pure knowledge and in questions that go to the very heart of our existence and humanity," said John M. Templeton Jr, chairperson and president of the John Templeton Foundation in announcing that the prize would be awarded to d'Espagnat.

Templeton said d'Espagnat is being honoured for work that expands the possibilities of what science can reveal about the nature of reality. "Veiled reality," the Foundation said, is "a hidden, yet unifying domain beneath what we perceive as time, space, matter, and energy."

In an interview given to Ecumenical News International from his Paris home, d'Espagnat, Professor Emeritus of theoretical physics at the University of Paris-Sud, described veiled reality as "what is beyond our possibilities of describing".

The announcement of the prize is usually made in New York City but for 2009 was made on 16 March at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. D'Espagnat, aged 87, said he did not want to leave his wife, May de Schoutheete de Tervarent, for an extended period.

From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, d’Espagnat was a philosophical visionary in the physics research community, the Templeton Foundation said. He played a key role in theoretical developments that would lead to "quantum information science", a contemporary domain of research combining physics, information science and mathematics.

In prepared remarks for the award announcement, d'Espagnat spoke of the complexities of science and what can and cannot be explained about the nature of being.

"Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated," d'Espagnat said. "On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being." While only science "yields true knowledge," he said, realms like religion and the arts offer a glimpse of the "ground of things," an area where "science has no such privilege".

The Templeton Prize, currently valued at £1m ($1.42 million), was initiated in 1973. It is intended to exceed the monetary value of the annual Nobel Prizes.

Created by the late philanthropist and global investor Sir John M. Templeton, the prize was initially given to people such as Mother Teresa and the U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, who had made their mark in the field of religion.

More recently, however, it has been awarded to scientists and theologians whose work focuses on the intersection of science and religion.

In the interview, d'Espagnat, who was brought up as a Roman Catholic, called the church his "spiritual family" but said his work has tended to be separate from any particular Catholic vantage point.

D'Espagnat said he was surprised to be named a Templeton Prize winner. He said he expected to spend the prize money in three ways: on scientific and intellectual research; on assistance to humanitarian groups in France working to help the homeless; and on enabling him and his wife to "remain at home" for as long as possible.

The Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of the British monarch, will formally present d'Espagnat with the Templeton Prize at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London on 5 May 2009.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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