A Polish cosmologist, physicist, philosopher and Catholic priest is the recipient of the 2008 Templeton Prize, the world's largest monetary award given to an individual. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim reports.

Does the universe need to have a meaning? It's one of the fundamental questions 72-year-old scientist and theologian Michael Heller poses and examines in his research and writings. Heller is the author of more than 30 books on topics such as relativity, quantum mechanics, geometry and the history of science. He also teaches philosophy and theology at Krakow's Pontifical Academy.

At a news conference in New York to announce the $1.6 million award, John Templeton, Jr., of the Templeton Fund said Heller has creatively worked in physics, philosophy and theology and shown that these three areas of human inquiry can relate to each other.

"He [Heller] emphasized that science and religion have always interacted with each other and that this interaction can be imminently fruitful without at all violating the autonomy of science, provided that the inquiry is carried out in conformity with sound methodolgical principles," Templeton said.

The prize was created in 1972 by mutual funds tycoon John Templeton to encourage the advancement of knowledge in spiritual matters. His son, John Templeton, says Heller is an especially significant recipient because of his efforts to bridge science and religion at a time when Poland was under strict Communist rule.

Templeton says Heller toiled through the overt anti-intellectualism and anti-religious dictates of the Soviet era to produce his work.

Heller says his interest and belief in both science and religion have motivated his work for the past 40 years.

"What can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning," he said. "And both are prerequisites of the decent existence. And the paradox is that these two great values seem often to be in conflict."

Heller says he is able to reconcile science and religion and doesn't believe that the two are mutually exclusive.

The Templeton Prize was based on the founder's belief in the importance of spirituality. Mother Teresa, who received the Nobel Prize in 1979, was the first recipient of the Templeton award in 1973.