Back to top

George Ellis (1939 - )

The Order of Mapungubwe in

George Ellis (1939 - ) Awarded for:
His excellent contribution in the field of science and putting South Africa on the world stage.

Profile of George Ellis

George Francis Rayner Ellis was born in Johannesburg on 11 August 1939.

He attended Michael House, in the then Natal, where he matriculated in 1955. His excellent matric results won him the Governor-General's prize for the best South African matriculation science paper.

He moved to further his studies at the University of Cape Town where he obtained a BSc Honours in 1960 with a distinction in Physics. He then proceeded to Cambridge University where he did his PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. He completed his PhD in 1964.

After obtaining his PhD, he worked for different academic institutions as research fellow, visiting lecturer and visiting professor. He became professor in Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1974 and was appointed head of the Department of Applied Mathematics in the same year.

His field of specialisation is the general relativity theory, which is a field first explored by Albert Einstein. A prolific thinker and writer, Professor Ellis wrote extensively on the origins of the universe, evolution of complexity and the functioning of the human mind.

His versatility did not stop with the scientific world. He was a withering critic of the apartheid State, earning the ire of the Government of the day. He put his acute insights at the service of the cause of eradicating poverty in South Africa, writing a book, along with three colleagues, entitled Squatters in the Western Cape (1977), which further soured his relations with the Nationalist Government.

In 1989, he co-wrote another book on apartheid relations, called Low Income Policy in South Africa, suggesting ways to change the dismal housing conditions of black people in the Western Cape. This further foraging in the social science and politics catapulted him to be the bete noir of the Government, with the Minister of Housing quoting and condemning the book in Parliament.

A keen observer of socio-political phenomena, Ellis was deeply moved by the peaceful political transformation in South Africa. This had an immense impact on his work and the way he saw and interpreted the interaction between science and religion.

Ellis reflected as follows on the developments in the country: 'There were very many times in the past when it was rational to give up all hope for the future - to assume that the nation would decay into a racial holocaust that never happened'. He regards Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former President Nelson Mandela as the leading lights whose contribution to the new South Africa was phenomenal.

In 2004, Ellis received the Templeton Prize, awarded by the Duke of Edinburgh in recognition of his important contribution to the relations between religion and science.

George Francis Rayner Ellis could, without undue emphasis, be described as versatile, an acute thinker whose ranges of vision go beyond the mundane. He has inspired many men and women in different fields of human endeavour, as well as using the pedestal of his distinction as an academic - much to his peril - to question the pernicious ideology of racial supremacy.

In the post-apartheid era, Ellis has been directing his sharp mind to making Mathematics and Science accessible to ordinary South Africans.

He lives in Cape Town with his wife Mary and four children.