Globe and Mail, March 17, 2006
Cambridge University cosmologist and mathematician John Barrow was awarded $1.6-million yesterday to do research into whether God is sitting at the control panel behind the Theory of Everything about the universe.
He won the 2006 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, the world's richest individual scholarly research grant. Its initiator, mutual-fund investor Sir John Templeton, specified that it be worth more than the Nobel Prize (which is worth about $1.5-million) so the media would take it seriously.
Dr. Barrow, 53, author of 17 books and one play (about infinity), believes that monotheistic religious thought about God and creation offers a better explanation than anything else, including most science, of how the universe works.
He is one of the leading proponents of the anthropic principle of the universe, the dials-set-right idea -- the notion that the universe is, in Goldilocks's words, "just right" for life on Earth.
Because if it were a little bigger or smaller, a little colder or warmer, a little younger or older, then life wouldn't exist.
His ideas and research fit to a T many theologians' underlying notions of the new cosmology, the idea that, because the universe did not create itself, it must have a cause separate from itself. Or as one of them, reading Dr. Barrow's acceptance speech for his award, said admiringly: "I wish I'd said that."
Dr. Barrow is director of Cambridge's Millennium Mathematics Project and Gresham professor of astronomy at London's Gresham College, the world's oldest science professorship, founded in 1596.
He has been a popular writer in Britain since the publication of his 1986 book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, co-authored with mathematician Frank Tipler, and has lectured on cosmology at the Venice Film Festival, 10 Downing St., Windsor Castle and the Vatican.
His most recent book is The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless. His 2002 play, Infinities, was a smash hit for the two seasons it ran at Milan's La Scala.
Dr. Barrow said in an interview yesterday he is not sure yet how he will use the money. He also said he doesn't think the U.S.-based John Templeton Foundation, which oversees selection of the award's annual winner, had any particular expectations of what research he would do.
The essence of his research, as he put it, is the quest for the simple laws -- "perhaps just one law" -- that lie behind all the complexities of the universe, "like the laws of nature that are so impressively, beautifully symmetrical, but can have such highly irregular, asymmetrical outcomes."
What has attracted the Templeton Foundation is his engagement with the structure of the universe and its laws that make life possible, as well as the multidisciplinary perspectives he has developed on the limits of scientific explanation and the mysteries of nothingness and infinity.
"Over the past 75 years," he says, "astronomers have illuminated the vault of the heavens in a completely unexpected way."
They have found, he says, a universe not only bigger than was once thought, but getting bigger. They have found that life on Earth comprises complicated atoms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen whose nuclei took almost 10 billion years to be formed by "stellar alchemy" before being blasted through the universe by the explosions of dying stars.
"So you begin to understand why it is no surprise that the universe seems so big and so old. It takes nearly 10 billion years to make the building blocks of living complexity in the stars and, because the universe is expanding, it must be at least 10 billion light years in size. We could not exist in a universe that was significantly smaller.
"The vastness of the universe is often cited as evidence for the extreme likelihood of life elsewhere. [But] while there may be life, even conscious life, elsewhere, sheer size is not compelling. The universe needs to be billions of light years in size just to support one lonely outpost of life."
Dr. Barrow says that astronomy's revelations -- that a big, old, dark, cold universe with its planets and stars and galaxies separated by vast distances is necessary for the creation and existence of pinpricks of life -- have "transformed the simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the skeptical philosophers.
"It breathes new life into so many religious questions of ultimate concern and never-ending fascination. Many of the deepest and most engaging questions that we grapple with still about the nature of the universe have their origins in our purely religious quest for meaning.
"We see now how it is possible for a universe that displays unending complexity and exquisite structure to be governed by a few simple laws that are symmetrical and intelligible, laws which govern the most remarkable things in our universe -- populations of elementary 'particles' that are everywhere perfectly identical.
"There are some who say that just because we use our minds to appreciate the order and complexity of the universe around us, there is nothing more to that order than what is imposed by the human mind. That is a serious misjudgment."