The announcement of Roger Penrose along with Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez as the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics did not raise any eyebrows. It is known that the Nobel Committee loves to recognise people well past their prime for doing something audacious in their youth – Penrose is 89.
Even mathematicians do sometimes get the prize that does not recognise their favoured subject. Remember John Nash, who made game theory a household name, and got a Nobel in economics in the 1990s? The trio was awarded for – as the Nobel Committee puts it – ‘the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity’.
So why did it take the committee so long to decorate Penrose? One of this famous partners in reserach of black holes – a super dense area in space from which even light can escape – was Stephen Hawking, who would surely be on the Nobel list had he been alive. Was the committee waiting to see a ‘photographic’ evidence of a black hole? If not, Penrose and Hawking should have been seen with a Nobel many summers ago.
One could feel for the departed genius, but the other half is no less accomplished in his achievements. Physicist Lee Smolin has described Penrose as ‘one of the very few people I’ve met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius’.
It seems his first engagement with mathematics was like any other child fearful of the subject. In an interview with BBC, Penrose claimed as a boy he used to get flummoxed by problems of mathematics. However, those moments of early awkwardness did not stop him from becoming one of the stars of mathematics.
Starting off as an undergraduate student in mathematics at University College, London and then on to Cambridge University where he pursued his PhD, the former Rouse Ball Professor at Oxford, showed his promise early and developed a deep understanding of the intricacies of mathematics. ‘Like many of us,’ Penrose told me in 1995 during a lecture tour in Kolkata, ‘the beauty of mathematics attracted me early. And I’m still searching for that beauty.’
So what led him black holes? In a 2015 interview to Physics World, Penrose said that his ‘career-long interest in black holes was triggered by attending a lecture by David Finkelstein on the nature of event horizons and the concept of a singularity’. In mathematics he was always interested in topology – popularly known as rubber sheet geometry, a mathematics that deals with geometric properties of objects when they are stretched.
This led him to discover more about black holes. He wanted to know about the geometry of these extreme gravity zones in space and what happens to light rays when they enter black holes.
Over the years Penrose has delved deep into many subjects from quantum gravity, twistor theory, a new cosmology of the cosmos to a controversial theory of consciousness. The last mentioned area created a controversy when Penrose presented the idea in his 1994 book, Shadows of the Mind. According to the Nobel laureate, one should go beyond we must go beyond neuroscience and delve into quantum mechanics to explain consciousness.
With the anaesthesiologist Stuart Hamenoff, Penrose devleoped a theory that many people believe to be wrong. But given that the man is Penrose no one has actually threw it out of the window.
The hesitation is understandable. The sheer spread of his interests is awe-inspiring – be it MC Esher’s etchings or his own creation of ‘Penrose Stairs’. He has long left his ground-breaking work on black holes with singularity – the point at which the laws of physics do not apply – and moved on with his other ideas.
His books, from The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and The Laws of Physic (1989), to The Roads to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (2004), helped create a new readership for popular science. Even his latest effort to apply quantum theory to biology, although controversial, still interests many.
Roger Penrose, like science, is a work-in-progress. And science hopes he has a lot to offer.