2006 Templeton Prize

The 2006 Templeton Prize of $1.4 million was awarded yesterday to cosmologist John Barrow. Barrow is the author of about 400 scientific articles and nearly 20 popular books. In recent years, one of his interests has been the possibility of time-variation of fundamental constants. At a press conference in New York yesterday, he said that new data on quasars expected within two months may provide evidence of such variation.

Science and Spirit has an article by Barrow written for the occasion and called The Unexpected Universe. It also has a report on the press conference that goes on at length about the string theory anthropic landscape and credits Barrow (and Tipler) with writing a “highly influential book for the interface between science and religion” back in 1986 entitled The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. The report includes the following gibberish:

String theorists also assume that other universes, which collectively compose a “multiverse,” exist in other dimensions outside of our observational parameters. Our own very limited experience suggests that finely tuned universes might be more likely to exist than more randomly constructed universes, at least over the long term. If this is true, then fine-tuning may be a guide that cosmologists can use to one day locate and observe an alternate universe.

Barrow himself however doesn’t seem to have much to say about the string theory landscape.

Maybe if Leonard Susskind hadn’t said unfriendly things about having no use for religion in his recent book, he could have been $1.4 million richer instead of Barrow. The New York Times headlines its story about this Math Professor Wins a Coveted Religion Award. A mathematician friend of mine is kind of outraged at this and wants to write to the Times to complain about the description of Barrow as a “math professor”.

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21 Responses to 2006 Templeton Prize

  1. john e gray says:

    Barrow is a math professor at Cambridge. By UK standards he is a mathematician where they treat theorists who work in GR no differently than other types of applied mathematics. Stochastic geometry, which has orgins in GR, is one of many types of math applications that are explodiing in various domains that have come from the exploration of GR. By the way, his “undergraduate degree ” is in math. He is I would bet that he has more papers listed in MathNet than your friend has or will have in 30 years. By what criteria is someone a mathematican these days, working in a subfield that has less than a hundred people who publish papers in that field?

  2. Robert says:

    Not only GR is math at Cambridge, UK but even string theory: DAMTP, the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, is the department not only of Barrow but also of relativist Stephen Hawking, and Michael Green, Paul Townsent, Garry Gibbons, Fernando Quevedo, Nick Dorey, David Tong amongst other. All these people write papers about string theory but in Cambridge’s view are members of the maths department.

  3. csrster says:

    In Cambridge even a semi-maths-literate ex-astrophysicist like me
    can count as a mathematician 🙂 I tell people that Stephen Hawking works in my old department.

  4. anon says:

    A previous recipient of this prize is Paul Davies. It is quite an event, held in a cathedral. In his acceptance speech, Davies said:

    ‘A world freely created by God, and ordered in a particular, felicitous way at the origin of a linear time, constitutes a powerful set of beliefs, and was taken up by both Christianity and Islam. An essential element of this belief system is that the universe does not have to be as it is: it could have been otherwise. Einstein once said that the thing that most interested him is whether God had any choice in His creation. According to the Judeo-Islamic-Christian tradition, the answer is a resounding yes.’


  5. Chris Grant says:

    As a followup on John E. Gray’s point, the ‘ “math professor” ‘ Barrow has 100 items indexed on MathSciNet.

  6. woit says:

    Personally I’m all in favor of blurring the boundaries of math and physics so that in many cases there’s no useful distinction, but here I’m with my friend that the NYT headline is misleading, given local American usage about what is math and what is physics. Barrow clearly falls on the physics/astrophysics side of the physics/math divide. MathSciNet is very inclusive and has lots of papers by physicists (a good thing), but the relevant point is that 3/4 of Barrow’s papers are not in MathSciNet.

    In any case, my suspicion is that the headline writer used “Math” rather than “Physics” because, with 3 characters less, the headline fit better. Most readers of the newspaper can’t tell the difference anyway, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  7. damtp_dweller says:

    To Robert and those discussing Barrow’s position at Cambridge:

    John Barrow is Professor of Mathematical Sciences here in Cambridge. Although he (and Gibbons, Hawking, Quevedo, Perry, Green, and others) works in the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, they are technically members of DAMTP, the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics. We inhabit the CMS with our colleagues from DPMMS (pure mathematics and statistics). However, given the fact that papers from both departments are usually given the affiliation “DAMTP/DPMMS, Centre for Mathematical Sciences,” it’s perhaps understandable that there’s confusion.

    I do agree that Barrow is a physicist rather than a mathematician (and I think that’s how he would describe himself), especially given the content of the majority of his papers.

  8. secret milkshake says:

    gibberish or not, at least they are not giving this money away to Bogdanov brothers or some God-damned televangelist.

    (ID is wooly thinking but I do not have problem with it when it is presented honestly – and it could make for engaging literature, in Dyson case)

  9. MathPhys says:

    Barrow (and Hawking) are in DAMPT: that’s in dept of ‘applied mathematics’ (that’s the fluid mechanics and nonlinear PDE people) and ‘theoretical physics’ (that’s the GR, string theory, and theoretical high energy physics) people.

    None of these people would call themselves ‘mathematicians’. Michael Green would never call himself a mathematician. Same goes to Quevedo, Townsend, and all the others. The most mathematical work at DAMPT is probably done in Fokas’ group (I think he’s at DAMPT).

    It is true that their students dp parts I, IIA, IIB and III of the ‘maths tripos’, but ‘maths’ here has historical origins peculiar to the Cambridge system. In Oxford, they would all be physicists. In Edinburgh, they could be either in maths or in physics.

    No, Barrow is *not* a mathematician in the sense that Andrew Wiles, for example, is a mathematician.

  10. damtp_dweller says:

    It’s DAMTP, not DAMPT (although it is, for some bizarre reason I’ve never quite understood, pronounced “dampt”).

  11. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    “What mighty contests rise from trivial things”

    — “Canto I; The Rape of the Lock”, Alexander Pope

  12. MathPhys says:


    You’re right. My mistake. I was writing phonetically. By the way, what became of the old building on Silver St? It was charming.

  13. damtp_dweller says:

    The old location at Silver Street is now used by (I think) the graduate union and various university admin departments. I think Darwin college may also have taken some of it. I guess it did have a certain character but the new location is much, much better suited to the size of the department.

  14. MathPhys says:

    I haven’t been in the new location, but from the pictures that I see, the architecture horrifies me. Can you open the windows for ventilation? or are the offices air sealed? How far walking is it from Churchill College? How far from St John’s?

  15. damtp_dweller says:

    The place grows on you after a bit. I was a bit concerned by the style of the buildings at first too, particularly the outside. However, it’s actually a really nice place in which to work (apart from the food, which is typically Cambridge: hugely over-priced, bland, and sometimes inedible). The windows open in all of the offices that I’ve seen, although the automatic blinds are a bit unnerving on first sight. Oh, and parts of the place are very confusing. I still manage to get completely disoriented by the circular staircases in Pavillion B 🙂

    It’s less than two minutes walk from Churchill (you simply go north and walk across Madingley Road. St. John’s is a bit farther but still less than ten minutes on foot.

  16. Alex says:

    The award seems a little overgenerous and somewhat dubious in its purpose. If the aim is to try to reconcile religion and physics, I can’t say that I’ve found Barrow’s arguments particularly relevant to such a project.

    “The Constants of Nature”2002 is quite a thought-provoking book, which examines the fine tuning of physical constants to create laws of physics which are conducive to the evolution of life.

    In particular, Barrow is interested in the fine structure constant, the ratio between the energy needed to bring two electrons from infinity to a distance of s \against their electrostatic repulsion, and (ii) the energy of a single photon of wavelength 2 \pi s \.

    This is one of the few dimensionless constants in nature and Barrow seems to believe there is evidence that it has changed over time.
    His evidence comes from the Oklo ‘natural reactor’ in West Africa and the study of Quasars using multiplet sampling.

    The implications of his views are that the universe in its current phase (not just at inception) is particularly fine tuned for life. He also examines the views of Linde on “eternal inflation” and Lee Smolin’s arguments about black hole universes being naturally selected.

    As to his suggestions about the changing fine structure constant: there is counter evidence which suggests that it’s NOT changing, and furthermore, he provides no theoretical explanation about why it would change, or the atom become slightly larger since 14 billion years ago.

    However, even though he is something of a court physicist to Number 10 and the Vatican, I can’t say I noticed any strong religious arguments in this book.
    I suppose a potential one is that some “intelligent designer” was responsible for the “initial conditions” of inflation, although he isn’t crazy enough to suggest this.

    To me, the anthropic principle argument is tautological and leads to not very interesting theoretical musings. In a similar vein Eddington and Dirac spent a lot of time in semi-mystical investigations of large number theory.

  17. Alejandro Rivero says:

    Eddington was a bit more semi-mystical than Dirac. The later was betting more on evolving constants than on a special coincidence. By the way it is interesting to nocice that a lot of crackpot ideas on gravity and masses around in the net are just variants in disguise of Dirac’s large number idea.

    About this kind of research, let me to remember that we took a whole year in physicsforums clasifying the numerical coincidencies around. Some famous ones are even published. For instance, Lubos happened to rediscover m(electron) / m(proton), which probably is the shortest article ever published in the Physical Review, decades ago.

  18. island says:

    At least Barrow is looking for real first principles.

    The structure of our universe is the most natural configuration for the big bang to produce, per the least action principle… because… [ infinities, multiverses, and “cosmological selection effects” don’t go here, jack ].


  19. MathPhys says:

    Thanks, damtp_dweller.

    By the way, what do you do for research? What are people up to in Cambridge nowadays? The place is a bit too quiet as compared to a few years back. (Don’t worry about hijacking a thread. It’s all for the good.)

  20. Incompetent says:

    “It’s DAMTP, not DAMPT (although it is, for some bizarre reason I’ve never quite understood, pronounced “dampt”).”

    Blame it on the peculiarities of what English speakers consider ‘pronounceable’. For obvious reasons, ‘mtp’ at the end of a word is deemed unpronounceable, so the ‘p’ is ignored, giving ‘damt’. But the combination ‘mt’ is also unusual, so this is resolved by inserting a ‘p’ in the middle. In a similar way, many English speakers will say and even write ‘hampster’, even though the word is actually ‘hamster’ (borrowed from German, hence the un-English ‘mst’).

    I tend to say ‘damt’, but then again I have enough experience of German that ‘mt’ doesn’t feel unnatural.

  21. I think that phonemes are defined via the possibility of differentiating words, thus this combination is not only unpronounceable, it plainly does not exist. Just as a colored hadron.

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