Times caption: Professor Sir Roger Penrose has won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on black holes (James Glossop for The Times)
A wonderful piece in today’s Times, no mention of women. Amazing. I expect the writer – Tom Whipple, Science Editor – will be fired.
When he was young Sir Roger Penrose liked to make very precise drawings of “impossible” objects.
He corresponded with the Dutch artist MC Escher about a staircase he and his father had drawn that went both up and down, and designed a triangle with impossible geometry that is still named after him.
Then, one day in 1964, after his career had begun, he realised that there was another impossible object that, unlike his previous creations, could actually exist: a black hole.
Now thanks to that insight the Oxford mathematician has been told he will get his hands on an object that is, for most of us, all but impossible — a Nobel prize. This morning, he received a phone call, he said, “while stark naked in the shower”, to tell him he had won the Nobel prize for “the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”.
Despite waiting more than half a century the award was, for him, perfectly timed, Sir Roger, 89, said. “If you’ve got grand ambitions it’s bad to get a Nobel too early,” he said, arguing that it “gets in the way of your science”.
“If you’re going to get a Nobel prize for science it’s a good thing to get it when you’re good and old. I’m just about old enough now.”
Some of the work that led to this award was done in collaboration with a younger physicist, Stephen Hawking — who colleagues said could well have shared the prize had he still been alive.
When Sir Roger undertook the research that earned him this year’s Nobel, many physicists considered black holes to be fanciful abstractions.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity had predicted that when stars collapsed they could form infinitely dense points of matter that were so heavy no light could escape — but prediction was one thing, reality another. Einstein himself doubted their existence.
In the real world where, unlike in mathematical abstractions, stars are not perfect spheres imploding with perfect symmetry, would such an object be created?
Sir Roger realised that they would be. He applied his understanding of topology, geometry and Einstein’s equations to come up with an idea called “trapped surfaces”, strange shapes that directed all rays of light towards a centre — and could explain how even non-spherical objects could become black holes.
Lord Rees of Ludlow, the astronomer royal, said that this “triggered the renaissance in relativity in the 1960s”.
“On the basis of this concept, he and Hawking together showed that the development of a singularity — where the density ‘goes infinite’ was inevitable once a threshold of compactness had been crossed,” Professor Rees said. Not only could black holes exist, according to his mathematics they must.
More than that, the work told us a lot about their properties. “This crucial discovery firmed up the evidence for a Big Bang, and led to a quantitative description of black holes,” Professor Rees added. He said that the award, 55 years later, was long overdue — and, arguably, also too late.
“Penrose is amazingly original and inventive, and we can look back on more than 60 years of creative insights. There would, I think, be a consensus that Penrose and Hawking are the two individuals who have done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge of gravity. Sadly, this award was too much delayed to allow Hawking to share the credit.”
Sir Roger, does, however, share the prize in physics with two astronomers who saw what he had predicted. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, both from the University of California Los Angeles, provided strong evidence for a supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. They will receive a quarter of the £716,000 prize money, while Sir Roger will receive half.
The award is not the only cash prize he has gained from his physics. In 1997 it emerged that Kleenex had made toilet tissue embossed with a mathematical tiling system he had designed. Sir Roger sued, and won.
The damages were not disclosed, but the lawyers were in no mood to take prisoners. As the director of the company he had created to market the design, which has unusual symmetrical properties, put it: “When it comes to the population of Great Britain being invited by a multinational to wipe their bottoms on the work of a knight of the realm without his permission then a last stand must be made.”
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