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PARIS (Reuters) - British astrophysicist Martin Rees, whose research delves deep into the mysteries of the cosmos, has won the 2011 Templeton Prize for career achievements affirming life's spiritual dimension.
The one million sterling ($1.6 million) award, the world's largest to an individual, was announced on Wednesday in London. Rees, master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, is former head of the Royal Society and a life peer.
Announcing the award, the United States-based Templeton Foundation said Rees's insights into the mysteries of the Big Bang and so-called black holes in space have "provoked vital questions that address mankind's deepest hopes and fears."
"Lord Rees has widened the boundaries of understanding about the physical processes that define the cosmos, including speculations on the concept of 'multiverses' or infinite universes," it said.
"The 'big questions' Lord Rees raises -- such as 'how large is physical reality?' -- are reshaping the philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life."
Rees, 68, says he has no religious beliefs but was brought up in the Church of England and values its culture and ethics.
Theology cannot explain scientific mysteries, he told Reuters, but added: "I'm not allergic to religion or religious believers."
Previous winners of the prize, which seeks to promote better understanding between science and religion, include Catholic nun Mother Teresa, U.S. preacher Billy Graham and Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn as well as many leading scientists.
During his career, Rees has made important contributions to support the theories of the Big Bang, the explosive start to the universe 13.7 billion years ago, and of the existence of massive "black holes" in space in which even light can be trapped.
Rees, who was awarded the honorary title of Astronomer Royal in 1995, has also been a leading theorist of the "multiverse."
"Our Big Bang may not be the only one," he said in a statement on winning the prize. "We may be living in a 'multiverse' -- an archipelago of cosmoses, perhaps governed by an array of different physical laws."
In the past decade, Rees has become active in public debate on global issues, notably man-made threats to the environment. His research also has led him to take huge steps back to observe humanity and its place in the vast cosmos.
"Most people still somehow think we humans are the culmination of the evolutionary tree," he said. "That hardly seems credible to an astronomer."
"Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out ... so even if life were now unique to Earth, there would be abundant scope for post-human evolution on Earth or far beyond."
Rees thinks some mysteries of nature and the cosmos may simply be too complex for present-day humans to fathom.
"There may be post-human species more intelligent than us and maybe some aspect of nature may have to await that."
Editing by Jeffrey Heller