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By Culturekiosque Staff

NEW YORK, 14 MARCH 2008 — Michael (Micha³) Heller, a Polish cosmologist and Catholic priest who for more than 40 years has developed sharply focused and strikingly original concepts on the origin and cause of the universe, often under intense governmental repression, has won the 2008 Templeton Prize.

The Templeton Prize, valued at 820,000 pounds sterling, more than $1.6 million, was announced Wednesay at a news conference at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York by the John Templeton Foundation, which has awarded the prize since 1973.  The Templeton Prize is the world's largest annual monetary award given to an individual.

Heller, 72, Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Cracow, toiled for years beneath the stifling strictures of the Soviet era. He has become a compelling figure in the realms of physics and cosmology, theology, and philosophy with his cogent and provocative concepts on issues that all of these disciplines pursue, albeit from often vastly different perspectives. With an academic and religious background that enables him to comfortably and credibly move within each of these domains, Heller’s extensive writings have evoked new and important consideration of some of humankind's most profound concepts.

Heller's examination of fundamental questions such as "Does the universe need to have a cause?" engages a wide range of sources who might otherwise find little in common. By drawing together mathematicians, philosophers, cosmologists and theologians who pursue these topics, he also allows each to share insights that may edify the other without any violence to their respective methodologies.

In a statement prepared for the news conference, Heller described his position as follows:

Various processes in the universe can be displayed as a succession of states in such a way that the preceding state is a cause of the succeeding one… (and) there is always a dynamical law prescribing how one state should generate another state. But dynamical laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations, and if we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about a cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the Great Blueprint of God's thinking the universe, the question on ultimate causality…: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes. Science is but a collective effort of the human mind to read the mind of God from question marks out of which we and the world around us seem to be made."

Despite the active anti-intellectualism of the Communist regime that controlled Poland for the majority of his life, Heller established himself as an international figure among cosmologists and physicists through his prolific writings – he has more than 30 books and nearly 400 papers to his credit – on such topics as the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics, multiverse theories and their limitations, geometric methods in relativistic physics such as noncommutative geometry, and the philosophy and history of science.

Simultaneously, as a Catholic priest, Heller surmounted the anti-religious dictates of Polish authorities, opening new vistas for the faithful by positioning the traditional Christian way of viewing the universe within a broader cosmological context and by initiating what can be justly termed the "theology of science."

In his nomination of Heller for the Prize, Professor Karol Musiol, Rector of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and a professor in the Institute of Physics there, noted that Heller's combination of scientific investigation and theological inquiry rises above the trap of easy concordism. "His unique position as a creatively working scientist and reflective man of religion has brought to science a sense of transcendent mystery," he wrote, "and to religion a view of the universe through the broadly open eyes of science…. It is evident that for him the mathematical nature of the world and its comprehensibility by humans constitute the circumstantial evidence of the existence of God."

Michal Kazimierz Heller was born on March 12, 1936 in Tarnow, Poland, one of five children in a deeply religious family devoted to intellectual interests. His mother, a school teacher, and his father, a mechanical and electrical engineer fluent in several languages, fled with their children as the Nazis approached in 1939 after Heller's father sabotaged the chemical factory where he worked to keep it out of the hands of the invaders.

By the time Heller was ten years old, the winds of war had uprooted his family from Poland to the present day Ukraine, to Siberia, to southern Russia and back to Poland. Thanks to vigorous debate among his parents and their friends, Heller gained powerful insights into the importance of mathematics, physics and religion. At 17, he entered the seminary in Tarnow and was ordained a priest at 23.

Despite the oppression of Polish Communist authorities against intellectuals and priests, the Church, energized by the Second Vatican Council, provided Heller with a sphere of protection that allowed him to make great strides in his studies.

Reverend Professor Heller earned a master of theology degree in 1959 from the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland, and was ordained a priest in April 1959, serving briefly in a parish in Ropczyce, about 30 miles east of Tarnow. He returned to the Catholic University in 1960, earning a master of philosophy in 1965 with a thesis on the philosophical aspects of relativity theory, and a Ph.D. in philosophy with a thesis in relativistic cosmology in 1966. Even though his studies were largely in physics, the authorities prevented the university from granting degrees in that discipline.

In 1969, Heller received a docent degree – an academic achievement above a doctorate – with a thesis on Mach's Principle in relativistic cosmology. He obtained a passport in 1977 after more than a decade of delay and was named visiting professor at the Institute of Astrophysics and Geophysics at Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium and, subsequently, did research at the Institute of Astrophysics at Oxford University and at the Physics and Astronomy Department of Leicester University in Britain. In 1985, he joined the faculty of the Pontifical Academy of Theology where his scholarship in physics, logic, philosophy and theology has influenced two generations of students.

In 1986, Heller began research at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, where he has worked with the Jesuit Father George V. Coyne, the observatory’s director emeritus, astrophysicist and theologian William Stoeger, and many others. One of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world, Pope Gregory XIII had the Tower of the Winds built in the Vatican in 1578 and later called on Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians to study the scientific data and implications involved in the reform of the calendar which occurred in 1582. It houses two libraries containing over 22,000 volumes including the works of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler and others. The Vatican Observatory’s dependent research center, the Vatican Observatory Research Group, is hosted by the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The 2008 Templeton Prize will be officially awarded to Heller by HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, May 7th.

Heller plans to dedicate the Templeton Prize money to help create the Copernicus Center in conjunction with Jagiellonian University and the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Cracow to further research and education in science and theology as an academic discipline.

Travel Calendar Tip

 Darwin at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto: 8 March - 4 August 2008 

Related External Links

John Templeton Foundation 

Michael Heller's Web Site

Michael Heller: Cosmological Singularity and the Creation of the Universe

Michael Heller: Generalizations: From Quantum Mechanics to God 

Michael Heller: Chaos, Probability, and the Comprehensibility of the World

George V. Coyne, SJ:  ‘Science Does Not Need God. Or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution’

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