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French Physicist And Philosopher Wins 2009 Templeton Prize

Core Facts

  • The winner of the 2009 Templeton Prize has been announced.
  • The £1million Prize, which is the world’s largest annual award to an individual, has been awarded to French physicist and philosopher of science Bernard d’Espagnat.
  • The Prize recognizes d’Espagnat’s explorations of the philosophical implications of quantum physics for the definition of reality and the potential limits of knowable science.
  • The announcement took place at a news conference held by the John Templeton Foundation at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.
  • From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, d’Espagnat, 87, was a philosophical visionary in the physics research community.
  • D’Espagnat played a key role in the exploration and development of quantum mechanics, specifically on experiments testing the ‘Bell’s inequalities’ theorem.
  • Definitive results published in 1981 and 1982 verified that Bell’s inequalities were violated in the way quantum mechanics predicts, leading to a clear confirmation of the radical phenomenon of ‘non-local entanglement’. This was an important step in the later development of ‘quantum information science’, a flourishing contemporary domain of research combining physics, information science, and mathematics.
  • D’Espagnat, Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at the University of Paris-Sud, also explored the philosophical importance of these new physics-based insights into the nature of reality.
  • Much of his early work on the subject centred on what he calls ‘veiled reality’, a hidden yet unifying domain beneath what we perceive as time, space, matter and energy – concepts challenged by quantum physics as possible mere appearances.
  • Since then, his writings and lectures on fundamental questions such as “What deep insights does science reveal about the nature of reality?” have provoked debate among scientists and philosophers.


  • From early in his career, d'Espagnat developed an interest in foundational problems in physics, which brought him in contact with Louis de Broglie, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, John Bell and other luminaries of 20th century physics.
  • In the 1960s and 70s, along with other physicists, he focused on the existence of serious discrepancies between quantum mechanics and the common-sense way of thinking about the world.
  • His technical papers at the time inspired and encouraged the early emergence of vital experiments on physicist John Bell’s inequalities theorem (published in 1964), which showed that the concept of philosophical atomism – that nature is composed of a myriad of separate objects whose behaviour can be understood ‘locally’ (influenced directly only by their immediate surroundings) – is in conflict with the predictions of quantum mechanics.
  • D’Espagnat anticipated that Bell’s inequalities would be violated as predicted by quantum mechanics, even though at the time many physicists, following Einstein, believed that atomism and locality were right and quantum mechanics must be wrong.
  • Following preliminary measurements by John Clauser and others, experiments by the French physicist Alain Aspect and his collaborators in 1981 and 1982 proved d’Espagnat’s bold philosophical insight to have been correct: Bell’s inequalities were in fact violated and, with that, not only atomism but even ‘locality’ were no longer viable as descriptions of the physical universe.
  • D’Espagnat has written and lectured extensively on the philosophical significance of the universal truths of quantum mechanics
  • He notes, however, that quantum physics merely predicts, rather than describes observational results in the way conventional science does.  As far as describing reality, it suggests that our plain, everyday concepts of objects as well as our scientific concepts refer only to phenomena – that is, to mere appearances common to all.
  • D’Espagnat warns that experiments often falsify theories and so there must exist, beyond mere appearances, something that resists us and lies beyond the phenomena, a ‘veiled reality’ that science does not describe but only glimpses uncertainly.  In turn, contrary to those who claim that matter is the only reality, the possibility that other means, including spirituality, may also provide a window on ultimate reality cannot be ruled out, he insists, even by cogent scientific arguments. Although d’Espagnat concedes the theological implications of the term ‘veiled reality,’ he guards against using it as justification for specific religious doctrines, which can be easily falsified by reason and fact.
  • At the news conference in Paris, d’Espagnat said that science cannot tell us anything certain about the nature of being, clearly it cannot tell us with certainty what it is not. He added: “Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated. On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being.”
  • On the subject of the mind’s ability to perceive deeper realities, d’Espagnat said “the possibility that the things we observe may be tentatively interpreted as signs providing us with some perhaps not entirely misleading glimpses of a higher reality and, therefore, that higher forms of spirituality are fully compatible with what seems to emerge from contemporary physics.”
  • D’Espagnat is the son of a leading post-impressionist painter, Georges d’Espagnat.
  • D’Espagnat stressed the role of science in grasping empirical reality, i.e., the reality of experience or observation. However, d’Espagnat notes that other methods of insight, including the arts, provide windows on understanding the true realities that lie behind things, what he described as “the ground of things.” He added: “Artistic emotions essentially imply the impression of a mysterious realm, which we may merely catch a glimpse of. Science and only science yields true knowledge. On the other hand, concerning the ground of things, science has no such privilege.”


John M. Templeton, JR., M.D., Chairman and President of the John Templeton Foundation and son of Sir John, said: "Instead of simply measuring the limits of quantum physics he has explored the unlimited, the openings that new scientific discoveries offer in pure knowledge and in questions that go to the very heart of our existence and humanity.” 


Alain Aspect, Ph.D. – Professor and CNRS Senior Scientist, École Polytechnique and Institut d'Optique, Palaiseau, said:  “In 1974, at a time when it was not fashionable to work on the foundations of quantum mechanics, I learned from Bernard d’Espagnat many subtleties about the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen problem, Bell’s inequalities, and quantum non-locality. This played a crucial role in my decision to embark on an experimental program to test Bell’s inequalities. More generally, his books addressed to physicists as well as to the general public have greatly contributed to focussing attention on quantum weirdness, and have emphasized its importance both for epistemology and for science. Without visionary thinkers like Bernard d’Espagnat, the field of quantum information would certainly not have emerged as it did. I am happy to congratulate him and to have this opportunity to tell how much I owe him.” 


Brian Greene, Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Columbia University said: “Quantum mechanics is the most accurate theory of nature ever devised.  There's never been a single experimental result that's contradicted its predictions; indeed, some of these predictions regarding subatomic particles have been confirmed to better than ten decimal places.  Such phenomenal success stands in stark contrast to the many mysteries regarding what quantum mechanics tells us about the true nature of the cosmos.  Bernard d'Espagnat is among a small coterie of courageous thinkers who over the course of many decades has worked tirelessly to meld scientific and philosophical insights to reveal the full wonder of quantum reality.” 


Sir Anthony Leggett, Professor of Physics at University of Illinois and 2003 Nobel Prize winner in Physics said: “I would like to congratulate Bernard d'Espagnat on his receipt of the 2009 Templeton Prize.  In an era when, as John Bell put it, ‘the typical physicist feels that (the questions of quantum measurement) have long been answered, and that he will fully understand just how if he can ever spare twenty minutes to think about it.’ D'Espagnat was one of the small group of physicists to appreciate how flawed were all the standard arguments for that conclusion, and to emphasize the profound philosophical implications of the predictive success of quantum mechanics.  He realized from early on the crucial importance of Bell's work, and has for decades labored tirelessly to get its message across both to the physics community, as in his beautiful book Conceptual Foundations of Quantum Mechanics and his 1979 Scientific American article, and to the general public in a series of other books.  When we look back on the early days of what are now recognized as the eminently respectable disciplines of quantum foundations and quantum information, we see how far ahead of his time d'Espagnat has been.” 


William D. Phillips, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S.A. and 1997 Nobel Prize winner in Physics said: “Entanglement is one of the key features of quantum mechanics, one that most sets it apart from classical physics—our pre-twentieth century description of how the universe works.  Bernard d'Espagnat was a key figure in providing a mature understanding of both the scientific and philosophical implications of entanglement, a phenomenon so counterintuitive that it continues to intrigue 21st century physicists.  D’Espagnat appreciated that entanglement not only changed our view of how physics works, but also our concept of the very nature of reality.  At a time when entanglement is increasingly being put to use in the science and technology of quantum information, it is a pleasure to congratulate Bernard d'Espagnat on the occasion of his receiving the Templeton Prize, recognizing his contributions to both physics and philosophy in advancing understanding of this astounding phenomenon.” 


Nicolas Gisin, Ph.D., Director of the Group of Applied Physics, University of Geneva, Switzerland, said:  “I have great pleasure in congratulating Bernard d’Espagnat for his well deserved 2009 Templeton prize.  His early recognition of the groundbreaking role of “non-local entanglement” for our world view and his contribution to the studies of the foundations of quantum physics have had a profound impact on the entire field.  It is fair to say that his leading role triggered the experimental work on Bell’s inequality that took place in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in France, Austria and Switzerland.  Today’s experimental and conceptual worldwide research efforts in exploring quantum nonlocality owe a great deal to d’Espagnat’s early contributions.” 


Nidhal Guessoum, Chair of Physics at American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates said: “he has constructed a coherent body of work which shows it is credible that the human mind is capable of perceiving deeper realities.” 


Bruno Guideroni, former student of d’Espagnat and Director of the Observatoire de Lyon at the Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, said: “I was deeply impressed by the philosophical implications of what he was addressing. One has to understand that these issues were completely absent from the usual lecture courses in quantum physics…he helped me to understand that was actually a very deep question in this issue.” 


Commenting on D’Espagnat’s seminal book On Physics and Philosophy, Roland Omnès, Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at the University of Paris-Orsay hailed it as “surely the most complete book to have been written on this subject and one likely to last a long time…” Professor Philip Clayton, Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School said: “Professor d’Espagnat is an internationally recognized physicist and one of the best, if not the pre-eminent interpreter of quantum field theory. For some decades he has been arguing that quantum physics leads to the recognition of a deeper, spiritual reality – exactly the sort of argument that so excited Sir John. It may be the single most powerful evidence we have, drawn from contemporary physics, that what science describes is not merely mundane or physical reality, but is actually the reflection of a deeper level of reality.”


Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne, former Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University said: “His [d’Espagnat’s] care and judicious evaluation of the consequent metascientific insights that arise in this enquiry, centres on his celebrated concept of ‘veiled reality’, which he uses to rebut materialist-reductionist accounts of the nature of reality.”

Boilerplate Statements

Background on the Laureate:

  • Bernard d’Espagnat was born on August 22, 1921 in Fourmagnac, France, but spent most of his early years in Paris, where his parents imbued him with a love of classic literature and the arts.
  • He attended some of the finest schools in Paris, where he developed an interest in the humanities, especially philosophy.
  • During his early years, while riding his bicycle through a large country garden, d’Espagnat says he first took conscious notice of beauty.  Even now, he says, that initial realisation serves for him as “a signpost pointing to reality.” Despite his love of philosophy, d’Espagnat focused on science and mathematics, believing that advances in philosophy would require the knowledge and practise of contemporary science.
  • D’Espagnat became a young researcher at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and was attached to the Institut Henri Poincaré.  There, under the guidance of Louis de Broglie, the 1929 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, he prepared his thesis and received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1950.
  • D’Espagnat was a research assistant to physicist Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago, and then to the temporary headquarters of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, headed by physicist Niels Bohr.  From 1954 to 1959 he served as physicist, then senior physicist, at CERN’s permanent home in Geneva, helped create the CERN theoretical physics group, and continued there part-time until 1970.  In 1959 he was appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and almost immediately became attached to its newly created science centre in Orsay.
  • D’Espagnat remained troubled by the scant attention most of them paid to the interpretational questions raised by quantum mechanics.  From 1965 onwards d’Espagnat was an early and vocal interpreter of the deep philosophical significance of experimental research agendas in quantum physics.  In his 1979 Scientific American article, “The Quantum Theory and Reality,” and best-selling 1979 book, À la recherche du réel, le regard d’un physicien (In Search of Reality, the Outlook of a Physicist), he encouraged physicists and philosophers to think afresh about questions long considered marginal but which today serve as the foundation for new fields of research into the nature of reality.
  • In 2002, d’Espagnat published his seminal book, On Physics and Philosophy (published in France in 2002 as Traité de physique et de philosophie), which was hailed as “surely the most complete book to have been written on this subject and one likely to last a long time…” by Roland Omnès, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the University of Paris-Orsay.
  • D’Espagnat and his wife of 59 years, May de Schoutheete de Tervarent, live in Paris and have two daughters. 


Background on the Prize