£600,000 prize for physicist who urges ethics in science

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A British-born physicist physicist has won a £600,000 prize for furthering the understanding of science and religion.

Freeman Dyson, 77, was yesterday awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion as a result of his books on the subject of science, ethics and the future of humankind.

The emeritus professor at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study has written on subjects ranging from the technology of warfare to the exploration of space. He was cited for being a pre-eminent physicist "whose futurist views consistently challenge humankind to reconcile technology and social justice". He has been a leading proponent of the idea that scientists should eliminate the wedges that technology drives between the haves and the havenots.

"Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but both look out at the same universe," Professor Dyson said yesterday in his acceptance speech in New York.

He has proposed that new technologies can be used as "social equalisers" in much the same way that vaccine, antibiotics and electricity helped to bridge economic and social gaps over the past century.

Professor Dyson was born in Crowthorne, Berkshire. He joined the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and in 1958 became a citizen of the US, where he worked with Edward Teller, "father" of the hydrogen bomb.

Professor Dyson said he is agnostic rather than a true believer in God. "We live with uncertainty in religion as we do in science," he told The Independent. He admitted the prize came as a shock. "It's absurd to be put in the same category as Mother Teresa. I'm not a saint, nor am I a theologian."

The prize was established in 1972 by the industrialist Sir John Templeton in recognition that the Nobel prizes do not reward religious achievements. Mother Teresa was the first winner but scientists have also received it. In 1995 Paul Davies, a British physicist, won and last year Ian Barbour, a physicist and theologian, won.