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Initiative will join physics, theology

Cambridge group to award grants

The John Templeton Foundation, a $1.1 billion philanthropy devoted to bringing science and religion together, is launching an ambitious international effort to fund physics research with potential theological implications.

Based in Cambridge and led by an MIT physics professor, the new Foundational Questions Institute is scheduled to announce its first round of grants Monday -- a total of $2.2 million to 30 physicists at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other leading scientific institutions.

The institute will not tackle explicitly religious questions like "Does God exist?," but will instead focus on deep, important questions in physics that may be too speculative or philosophical for government funding. The first round of grants will support scientists interested in a wide range of questions, such as whether the fundamental laws of nature seem specially designed to allow life, and whether there are truths about the universe which physics is inherently incapable of proving.

Coming at a time when many researchers feel under siege by some religious leaders who dispute evolution and other areas of science, the new initiative will be closely watched and debated. Some scientists said they welcomed it as a way to fund vital research at the foundation of modern physics. But critics of the foundation said they worry the institute will be used to blur the line between science and religion.

"I think that bringing science and religion together is a not a good thing," said Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago who did not apply for a grant, and declined an offer to help select the winners. "It is not that different from the Vietnam War, when people wondered whether to take money from the Defense Department for their research, even if their research had no conceivable military application."

The Templeton Foundation has been quite influential in encouraging academic research through a combination of massive resources and a fairly narrow focus on issues that lie at the boundaries of religion and science. The foundation has been sharply critical of "intelligent design," an idea that challenges modern biology and is supported by only a handful of researchers, but Templeton has embraced controversial topics. For example, they recently funded a scientifically rigorous set of experiments which showed prayer did not heal those who were prayed for. This work was criticized as misguided by some religious leaders, and as a waste of money by some scientists.

Now, Sir John Templeton, who started the foundation in 1987, is in the process of handing over the reigns to his son, Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr. The foundation recently adopted a new mission statement that makes no mention of religion, and is putting together new plans for research in mathematics, chemistry, and other areas of science.

The new Foundational Questions Institute received all of its money it will give out -- $6.2 million -- from the Templeton Foundation. But it makes its funding decisions independently, based on peer review by other scientists, and it is run by two well-respected researchers who say they are not religious. The institute’s scientific advisory board is also filled with top scientists.

"I’d like to see more religious organizations having this attitude and being pro science and pro Darwin, and pro education," said Janna Levin, who received one of the grants and is a physicist at Barnard College of Columbia University. Levin and others who will receive funding, said the money would allow more adventurous research, because government funding tends to be cautious, sticking to popular and well-established areas.

Although physics has experienced a century of dramatic advances, there are widely acknowledged problems at the field’s foundation. For example, the theory of quantum mechanics, which describes how particles behave, is inconsistent with the theory of how gravity works. Quantum mechanics itself raises questions which left Einstein uneasy, and have never been resolved.

Yet work on these kinds of "foundational" problems tend to not be funded by the government, physicists say. Some of the questions are out of fashion in academia, others just seem too difficult or speculative.

And because they deal with the nature of reality in a broad way, many of them have philosophical or even theological implications.

The new institute is designed to encourage serious work in these areas, according to the institute's scientific director, MIT physicist Max Tegmark. The institute's associate scientific director, physicist Anthony Aguirre of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the funding will allow physicists to be more creative, and pursue the kinds of questions that brought them to the field in the first place.

"We are allowing a certain segment of scientists to work on what they really want to," said Aguirre.

Levin, for example, will use her grant to try to understand the implications for physics of a famous mathematical theorem, called Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The theorem states that in some formal logical systems, such as arithmetic, there are true statements that are impossible to prove.

Other researchers funded by the institute are looking at the possibility that the fundamental constants of nature are not, in fact, constants. Physics is built on the idea that there are laws that govern how matter and energy behave, and these laws contain constants, like the speed of light, which do not vary. Some physicists have suggested that these constants may very over time, or that we live in one of many parallel universes, each with its own set of constants.

These suggestions have been controversial, as has the related idea that the constants of nature physicists have measured may be "tuned" to values that make life possible. If the values of the physical constants were inconsistent with life -- if stars and planets could not form -- then humans would not be here to measure them.

The institute will also fund research on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

The institute is headquartered in Cambridge, but it does not have a building, or even lab space, of its own. It gives grants, and also plans to hold a conference next year. Tegmark said that he hopes to find other sources of money for the institute besides the largesse of the Templeton Foundation.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com.

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