Most scientists learn early in their careers that speculations involving religion are more likely to generate criticism than acclaim. Happily, physicist Freeman Dyson, the recipient of this year's $948,000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, has spent much of his career ignoring that lesson.
Dyson, now 76, has been wondering about the implications of science at least since the age of 9, when he wrote a short story about a collision between an asteroid and the moon. (He bravely published the story in his 1992 collection of essays, "From Eros to Gaia.") Born and raised in England, Dyson saw the destructive side of science close up. During World War II he spent two years analyzing English bombing runs, looking for ways to protect English bombers from German anti-aircraft guns. The experience left him a devoted arms control advocate.
After the war, Dyson moved to the United States, where he began working with a group of physicists who were developing a mathematical theory describing the interactions between matter and energy. His most important scientific insight came on a cross-country bus trip. He realized that the separate approaches being taken by three different physicists were mathematically equivalent, earning for himself the rather cumbersome title of "midwife to the birth of quantum electrodynamics."
In the late 1950s, Dyson's interests in space re-emerged. He took a leave of absence from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had become a professor of physics, to work on the Orion Project--an effort to explore the possibility of nuclear-powered space travel. That experience led to other astronomical speculations. He conceived of what are now called "Dyson spheres," in which advanced civilizations would take apart the planets orbiting a star and construct huge spheres that could absorb all of a star's useful energy. He has written about life on other planets, humanity's spread into the universe, and whether consciousness could exist in disembodied clouds of energy.
Dyson may seem an odd choice for the Templeton Prize, given that he considers himself a "watered-down" Christian and says he prefers his religion without theology. "Science and religion are two windows that people look through trying to understand the big universe outside," he said in accepting the prize. "Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible."
Yet Dyson's occasional attempts to distance himself from religion are unconvincing. In fact, he is a thoroughly religious man, though in a thoroughly modern way.
Similarly, Dyson's convictions about arms control seem driven by beliefs that can only be termed religious. In 1984, with U.S.-Soviet relations at low ebb, he published a book called "Weapons and Hope," which laid out a path to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Progress since then has been much faster than anyone could have hoped. Yet nuclear weapons remain, Dyson has written, "the most serious dangers to mankind and the most serious insult to God."
Nowhere are Dyson's religious beliefs more evident than in his writing about the earth. In a 1989 essay entitled "The Face of Gaia," Dyson recounts a "moment of illumination when the glory of earth and heaven was revealed to me." While walking along a Washington, D.C., street on his way to a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences, he was assaulted and viciously beaten by two muggers. Lying on his back with a fractured skull and jaw, expecting to be shot at any moment, he gazed through the green leaves of the bushes overhead into the beautiful blue sky. "Everything else fades into insignificance," he wrote. "This life is good and this death is good too. I am a leaf like the others. I am ready to float away on the blue wave of eternity."
For Dyson, our relationship with the earth grows out of our emotions, not our reason. Only by nurturing these emotions can we survive on this planet. "Our first priority must be to preserve our emotional bond to Gaia," he wrote in the essay. (And in the context of the essay, it is almost impossible not to read "God" for Gaia.) "If Gaia survives, then human complexity will survive too. Perhaps, when I was lying under the bushes on C Street, the revelation which came to me was just Gaia showing me her face."
Dyson has always been willing to acknowledge the limits of science. "I do not claim that the voice of science speaks with unique authority. Religion has at least an equal claim to authority in defining human destiny," he says. The Templeton Foundation has chosen wisely in honoring a scientist who recognizes that there is more to life than science.