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And The Winner Is…

This week, a $1.7 million annual prize was awarded in the sciences. You will not read about it in Chemical & Engineering News—this, despite the magazine’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put the Dalai Lama on its cover!

That’s right, the Templeton Prize, recognizing high achievement in reconciling science and religion, has once again been awarded amidst a nice little fanfare on National Public Radio and Facebook.  And once again it has been treated by many in the science community as a quaint or nonsensical honor given every year to a particularly bright and courageous religious leader, or to a soon-to-be ostracized scientist.

I would argue that the Templeton is the most important award given in the sciences, weighing in somewhere between the science-oriented Nobel Prizes and the Nobel Peace Prize.  I argue this not because of any personal religious beliefs (mine are rather arcane and boring and I will spare the reader), but because the award recognizes the importance of the human being as both rational and spiritual in nature.  On a perhaps more practical level, it also hinges on success in translating science to the world community on the world community’s terms. It is less specialized than most awards in the sciences, awards that have gone to curers of disease and discoverers of the universe. But in its broad humanistic purview, it communicates a great truth about how science must enter the world.

It should be noted that the Templeton has been described as the most important award in religion.

OK. Where is the fine chemicals angle here? Saffron dyes and incense? Well, I don’t slice it that thin. But I’m quite comfortable banging my pot on the Templeton in a space reserved for any section of the healthcare industry. Asked and answered.

And I tread a different kind of Fine Line here. In essence, I feel the Templeton should be covered somewhere in Chemical & Engineering News. Looking through our online archives, I found two references, one of substance: In 2008 coverage of the Priestley Medal, it was mentioned that Joseph Priestley might have been awarded a retro-Templeton. That is true! I have always greatly admired Priestley. A scientist and theologian who helped found Unitarianism in England, Priestley was essentially exiled for his support of religious dissenters. He was also held in suspicion in the science community on account of his religious views. He set sail for enemy territory at the time, the Colonies, where he hung out (and might have been hanged!) with Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. I am almost certain that Priestly would have preferred that the Templeton prize be called the Priestley Prize—not to be confused with the Priestley Medal.

Like most honors in this world, perhaps even more than others, the Templeton has been manipulated by politics—for God’s sake, Mother Theresa won it (1973)! And the great irony of the Dalai Lama, also an exile, is that he is inescapably a political figure. The radical nature of the award—daring to embrace both science and religion—has resulted in it being given to controversial if not radical figures (Freeman Dyson, 2000). This is one reason it doesn’t sit well at a science-only table. But in a world in which we need a $1.7 million award for someone brave enough to work for a reconciliation of reason and faith—the twin pillars of much of the western intellectual tradition—science should be made slightly uncomfortable from time to time. Moreover, the science enterprise should be humbled to the extent that it will communicate respectfully to the world at large. Rather than going the Dale Carnegie route of actively trying to influence public opinion, science might find that it does itself and the world a greater service by simply and fully informing public opinion, trusting the public to see the light.  The science enterprise is beginning to get this, it seems. I have noticed improvement in the thirty years I have covered science-based industry as a journalist. Much of it has taken place over the last ten years. There is, on the other hand, still a seemingly indomitable attitude of entitlement on the part of scientists on issues such as global warming, where science has nonetheless managed to make great headway despite plainly ignorant and manipulative political opposition.

And there is a Templeton Prize. And it is good.

One can highlight the Dalai Lama’s involvement in the sciences in telling the story of why he is awarded the Templeton this year. Surely we are all aware of his interest in astrophysics, behavioral science, neurobiology and quantum mechanics. Ditto his “Science for Monks” program in India. But I feel he brings an overriding quality to the fray and rift, a quality that transcends his science credentials and earns him the recognition of this award—humility. And what better examplar of the persuasive power of humility than this Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk.

Congratulations to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the recipient of the 2012 Templeton Prize.

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