Penrose is still defining the way we see the universe. But, in today's world of ultra-specialised science, could a thinker of such breadth ever emerge again?by Philip Ball / February 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Scientists exhausted by the relentless demand to “demonstrate impact” and churn out peer-reviewed papers find ways of cheering themselves up. A popular consolation is to imagine reviewers’ reports on Einstein’s “grant application” for his work on special relativity, condemning his revolutionary thoughts as sheer speculation, devoid of any practical application, and worthy of no funding at all.
Lost golden ages are rarely as golden as we remember: back in 1905 Einstein wasn’t funded either, but still working in the Swiss patent office. The rueful jokes do, however, make a valid point about the way conservatism and bandwagon-riding often dictate progress in scientific careers today. Now you need polish, pizzazz, and state-of-the-art facilities. Gone are the days when it was possible to conduct cutting-edge experiments, as Ernest Rutherford did, with little more than sealing wax and string. But something has been lost in the face of the incessant need to score CV points, create spin-off companies, and descend into ever-narrower specialisms. The greatest of scientists, like physicist Erwin Schrödinger, have often thought profoundly outside their own particular specialisms; others, like Francis Crick, one half of the pair who unravelled the mysteries of DNA and partly inspired by Schrödinger, had the versatility to switch fields entirely.
Many virtues of that vanished age, before the intellectually narrowing pressures on today’s careers, are preserved in the person of the veteran British mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose—a theorist of black holes and quantum particles, sometime collaborator of Stephen Hawking, and an unlikely best-selling author. I met the 85-year-old don in the new Mathematical Institute at Oxford, where he is still cooking up challenging new ideas. You have to enter the building across a tiling scheme Penrose invented in the 1970s, which covers the courtyard in a pattern that seems to be orderly but can never quite repeat itself.
Although his insights are often fiendishly technical and expressed in eye-watering mathematics, Penrose is irrepressibly eclectic in his learning. He is given to mixing the insightful with the wildly speculative in a way that is almost unknown today, floating ideas that younger colleagues would never dare to—such as the notion that quantum mechanics might explain consciousness. Penrose shrugs off labels such as “maverick,” pleading that he is “much more accepting of conventional wisdom than most of the others I know.” It is hard to tell how much of this bemusement is real and how much a wry performance, but whatever it is that he seeks, it’s neither approval nor modish notoriety.