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By Chris Herlinger
c. 2008 Religion News Service

NEW YORK — Michael (Michal) Heller, a Polish cosmologist and Roman Catholic priest whose commitment to combining the insights of science and religion stretches back to his youth in war-torn Europe, has won the 2008 Templeton Prize.
The $1.6 million award is the largest annual monetary prize given to a single individual, for work in connecting the realms of physics, cosmology, theology and philosophy.
Heller, 72, is a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, and has fond memories of discussing science and religion with a young Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow who later became Pope John Paul II.
In prepared remarks at Wednesday’s (March 12) announcement of the award, Heller said he had “always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion?
Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.”
In nominating Heller for the prize, Karol Musiol, rector of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, said the scientist-priest has “brought to science a sense of transcendent mystery and to religion a view of the universe through the broadly open eyes of science.”
Heller’s current work focuses on the fields of non-commutative geometry and groupoid theory in mathematics. More broadly, Heller has been interested in such foundational questions as “does the universe need to have a cause?” and has been able to engage intellectual sources from different academic disciplines, the John Templeton Foundation said.
Britain’s Prince Philip will formally give Heller the award — the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities — at a May 7 ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London.
In an interview Tuesday, Heller reiterated his belief that the worlds of religion and science are not at all at odds, saying that without the meaning afforded by religion, “science would be meaningless.”
Heller credited his father, Kaziemierz, an engineer and painter, for sparking his love of both science and religion. He noted that the road to the Templeton began humbly, when his family, like many other Poles during World War II, was driven out of their homeland to Siberia under orders from Joseph Stalin. They were later forced to the Soviet Union’s Volga region, and eventually settled in western Poland.
The experience of displacement, Heller said, gave him a sense of a higher calling. “Without higher motives, life is vegetation, it’s not human life,” he said.
Under post-war communism, Heller’s life as both an academic and Roman Catholic priest was not easy, though he eventually penned some 30 books.
He became acquainted with Wojtyla, who convened occasional meetings of scientists, theologians and priests to discuss scientific and theological trends. “From his friends, he (Wojtyla) had a grasp of science and a bit of a scientific mentality,” Heller said.
Asked about his plans for the prize money, Heller said, “My only needs are books.” Instead of spending it on himself, he said he would help create a planned Copernicus Center that, in conjunction with Jagiellonian University and the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, he envisions as a leading center for the study of science and religion.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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