Friday, March 17, 2006

Templeton prize

I was alerted first by Dave Lull (who always seems to get news before the rest of the world, or blogoshpere, anyway, and is very generous about sharing it) to the fact that John Barrow has just won the 2006 Templeton prize (said to be worth 1.4 million US dollars) for "progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities". This award was controversial from the start. Scientists don't like it, being naturally suspicious of anything smacking of supernatural phenomena and not being too happy about such a huge amount of money going for something that they rather feel they could make more use of in their own studies, if offered the chance. So how useful is the award from the scientists' perspective? What do they think of the work of the people who win it? P. Z. Myers, on his active scientists' blog Pharyngula, is in no doubt in his posting "I'm in the wrong business", subtitle "the God racket". Myers says: "it's all for peddling a garbage interpretation of the anthropic principle. I've gotta wonder: would it be worth 1.6 million to get a lobotomy?" There is a great set of comments to go with Myers' posting: the usual full and frank exchange of a range of views on the topic you might expect on an active blog, but as they are by scientists, the perspectives (not all negative about the award in general or Barrow in particular, though many of them are) are particularly pertinent. News of the prize is also posted on Books, Inq. , with a comment (so far) that Barrow writes well. This is true, he has written many books over the years, which people actually walk into bookshops to buy -- and there are not a great many scientists who can say that. (Let's not have a list -- or on second thoughts, maybe let's --- if time permits). While I'm on lists, here is a (fascinating) list of the previous winners. The first winner, in 1973, was Mother Teresa. Subsequent (annual) winners were firmly in the religious, ethical, philanthropical or social-work sphere until 1985, when the famous marine biologist Professer Sir Alistair Hardy was awarded the honour. Since then, the award has been divided pretty much equally between professional scientists and "other good people" for want of a brief characterisation. The current count (including Barrow) is "good people" 23, scientists 11, of whom 8 are physical scientists (theoretical physicists and cosmologists in the main) and 3 are biologists. Of the biologists, there is Hardy (1985); Professor L. Charles Burch, a "biologist-geneticist" (1999); and the Rev. Canon Arthur Peacocke (2001), a "biophysical chemist". I am afraid I have not heard of these last two or of their contribution to biological knowledge.