Work on Big Questions Yields Big Bucks

Physicist, philosopher, and antiapartheid activist George Ellis has won this year's Templeton Prize. At $1.4 million, the award is the biggest annual prize a person can win. It is intended to advance humanity's "spiritual information."

The 64-year-old Ellis is a professor in the mathematics department of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. His work spans many areas of physics and philosophy, including general relativity, cosmology, and epistemology. His research includes such theologically interesting topics as whether the laws of physics had to be fine-tuned by a creator in order for the universe to be able to support life.

"He's one of those people who's very broad and very fair," says Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. "The thing he's done that's influenced me the most is his work about what you can deduce about the universe from what you can see."

Ellis's Quaker beliefs strongly influence his sense of social commitment, which led him to criticize the injustices of the apartheid South African government--and which drive him to donate half of the prize money to charitable causes. They also frame his scientific interests. "The philosophy of science has to go its own way, but faith leads to other philosophical questions," says Ellis. "Physics itself can not answer why the laws of physics are the way they are."

Related sites
The Templeton Prize
Ellis's site