updated 3/9/2005 3:54:57 PM ET 2005-03-09T20:54:57

Charles Townes, co-inventor of the laser and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, was named Wednesday as the recipient of a religion award billed as the world’s richest annual prize.

Townes, 89, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, won the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. The award is worth 795,000 British pounds — more than $1.5 million — and Townes was honored for talks and writings about the importance of relating science and religion.

He first addressed that topic in 1964, the same year he shared the Nobel with two Russians for research on principles underlying the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

Scientific revelations
Townes said in remarks prepared for the announcement that his first talk about religion, to the men’s Bible class of New York City’s Riverside Church, was later published in IBM’s Think magazine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni magazine.

After the second article, a prominent alumnus threatened to cease all involvement with MIT if anything like it were ever published again, Townes said. He also recalled that, years before, his doctoral adviser at California Institute of Technology “jumped on me for being religiously oriented.”

“Many people don’t realize that science basically involves assumptions and faith. But nothing is absolutely proved,” Townes said. “Wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith and logic.”

He has compared his flash 1951 discovery of maser principles, while sitting on park bench in Washington, D.C., with the revelations depicted in the Bible.

Townes said that, with findings of modern physics, it “seems extremely unlikely” that the existence of life and humanity are “just accidental,” which inevitably raises religious questions about whether the universe was planned.

From wartime radar to E.T. search
A native of Greenville, S.C., Townes graduated from local Furman University before earning graduate degrees at Duke University and Caltech. He was a Bell Labs radar researcher during World War II and taught at Columbia University and MIT.

In 1961, Townes began another long-running interest, using optical searches for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Townes receives the prize May 4 in a private ceremony at London’s Buckingham Palace.

He plans to donate a major portion of the money to Furman University, the Pacific School of Religion, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless and Berkeley’s First Congregational Church.

The Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, Pa., which sponsors various projects on science and religion, was founded by mutual funds entrepreneur Sir John M. Templeton.

Until 2002, its annual award was known as the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The first went to Mother Teresa in 1973.

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