SA scientist wins R10m prize

Time of article published Mar 18, 2004

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By Staff Reporter and Sapa

A University of Cape Town scientist has won the world's largest annual monetary award for an individual.

George Ellis, a professor in applied mathematics at UCT, has won the R10-million 2004 Templeton Prize in science.

Ellis specialises in general relativity theory, an area first investigated by Albert Einstein. He is one of the world's leading relativistic cosmologists, who include Stephen Hawking and Malcolm MacCallum.

Ellis, 64, said he would give most of the prize money away. He would give R5-million to several non-profit organisations in South Africa and the remaining R5-million would go into a trust fund "which will support me in retirement and in my work".

On his death, the capital would be bequeathed to UCT.

Ellis was in New York on Wednesday for the announcement. He will be presented with the award by the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace in May.

In a statement, he said he was "simultaneously humbled and delighted" by the award.

Ellis is a Quaker, and has been involved in social activism for many years.

His most recent investigations question whether there was a start to the universe and if there is only one universe.

"I believe the science and religion dialogue is one of the most important issues we can engage in at the present time. It fundamentally shapes the way we see the universe and how we understand our own existence," Ellis said.

Humanity was at a stage when it could appreciate the incredible progress of science, but could also clearly see some of its limits. "For example, science cannot handle issues of aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics or meaning," he added.

The award was founded by philanthropist Sir John Templeton, a financier who pioneered global investment strategies. Since selling the Templeton Group in 1992, Templeton has focused on fostering a broader understanding between theology and science.

When he created the prize in 1972, he stipulated that its monetary value must always exceed that of the Nobel prizes - to underscore his belief that spiritual discoveries could be more significant than those honoured by the Nobels.

Ellis's social writings were condemned by the apartheid government.

"There were many times in the past when it was rational to give up all hope for (South Africa's) future," he said. But "marvellous leaders like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela" had confounded the calculus of rationality.

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