One of the greatest thinkers in physics says the human brain—and the universe itself—must function according to some theory we haven’t yet discovered.
Roger Penrose could easily be excused for having a big ego. A theorist whose name will be forever linked with such giants as Hawking and Einstein, Penrose has made fundamental contributions to physics, mathematics, and geometry. He reinterpreted general relativity to prove that black holes can form from dying stars. He invented twistor theory—a novel way to look at the structure of space-time—and so led us to a deeper understanding of the nature of gravity. He discovered a remarkable family of geometric forms that came to be known as Penrose tiles. He even moonlighted as a brain researcher, coming up with a provocative theory that consciousness arises from quantum-mechanical processes. And he wrote a series of incredibly readable, best-selling science books to boot.
And yet the 78-year-old Penrose—now an emeritus professor at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford—seems to live the humble life of a researcher just getting started in his career. His small office is cramped with the belongings of the six other professors with whom he shares it, and at the end of the day you might find him rushing off to pick up his 9-year-old son from school. With the curiosity of a man still trying to make a name for himself, he cranks away on fundamental, wide-ranging questions: How did the universe begin? Are there higher dimensions of space and time? Does the current front-running theory in theoretical physics, string theory, actually make sense?
Because he has lived a lifetime of complicated calculations, though, Penrose has quite a bit more perspective than the average starting scientist. To get to the bottom of it all, he insists, physicists must force themselves to grapple with the greatest riddle of them all: the relationship between the rules that govern fundamental particles and the rules that govern the big things—like us—that those particles make up. In his powwow with DISCOVER contributing editor Susan Kruglinksi, Penrose did not flinch from questioning the central tenets of modern physics, including string theory and quantum mechanics. Physicists will never come to grips with the grand theories of the universe, Penrose holds, until they see past the blinding distractions of today’s half-baked theories to the deepest layer of the reality in which we live.
You come from a colorful family of overachievers, don’t you?
My older brother is a distinguished theoretical physicist, a fellow of the Royal Society. My younger brother ended up the British chess champion 10 times, a record. My father came from a Quaker family. His father was a professional artist who did portraits—very traditional, a lot of religious subjects. The family was very strict. I don’t think we were even allowed to read novels, certainly not on Sundays. My father was one of four brothers, all of whom were very good artists. One of them became well known in the art world, Sir Roland. He was cofounder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. My father himself was a human geneticist who was recognized for demonstrating that older mothers tend to get more Down syndrome children, but he had lots of scientific interests.
How did your father influence your thinking?
The important thing about my father was that there wasn’t any boundary between his work and what he did for fun. That rubbed off on me. He would make puzzles and toys for his children and grandchildren. He used to have a little shed out back where he cut things from wood with his little pedal saw. I remember he once made a slide rule with about 12 different slides, with various characters that we could combine in complicated ways. Later in his life he spent a lot of time making wooden models that reproduced themselves—what people now refer to as artificial life. These were simple devices that, when linked together, would cause other bits to link together in the same way. He sat in his woodshed and cut these things out of wood in great, huge numbers.
So I assume your father helped spark your discovery of Penrose tiles, repeating shapes that fit together to form a solid surface with pentagonal symmetry.
It was silly in a way. I remember asking him—I was around 9 years old—about whether you could fit regular hexagons together and make it round like a sphere. And he said, “No, no, you can’t do that, but you can do it with pentagons,” which was a surprise to me. He showed me how to make polyhedra, and so I got started on that.
Are Penrose tiles useful or just beautiful?
My interest in the tiles has to do with the idea of a universe controlled by very simple forces, even though we see complications all over the place. The tilings follow conventional rules to make complicated patterns. It was an attempt to see how the complicated could be satisfied by very simple rules that reflect what we see in the world.
The artist M. C. Escher was influenced by your geometric inventions. What was the story there?
In my second year as a graduate student at Cambridge, I attended the International Congress of Mathematicians in Amsterdam. I remember seeing one of the lecturers there I knew quite well, and he had this catalog. On the front of it was the Escher picture Day and Night, the one with birds going in opposite directions. The scenery is nighttime on one side and daytime on the other. I remember being intrigued by this, and I asked him where he got it. He said, “Oh, well, there’s an exhibition you might be interested in of some artist called Escher.” So I went and was very taken by these very weird and wonderful things that I’d never seen anything like. I decided to try and draw some impossible scenes myself and came up with this thing that’s referred to as a tri-bar. It’s a triangle that looks like a three-dimensional object, but actually it’s impossible for it to be three-dimensional. I showed it to my father and he worked out some impossible buildings and things. Then we published an article in the British Journal of Psychology on this stuff and acknowledged Escher.
Escher saw the article and was inspired by it?
He used two things from the article. One was the tri-bar, used in his lithograph called Waterfall. Another was the impossible staircase, which my father had worked on and designed. Escher used it in Ascending and Descending, with monks going round and round the stairs. I met Escher once, and I gave him some tiles that will make a repeating pattern, but not until you’ve got 12 of them fitted together. He did this, and then he wrote to me and asked me how it was done—what was it based on? So I showed him a kind of bird shape that did this, and he incorporated it into what I believe is the last picture he ever produced, called Ghosts.
Is it true that you were bad at math as a kid?
I was unbelievably slow. I lived in Canada for a while, for about six years, during the war. When I was 8, sitting in class, we had to do this mental arithmetic very fast, or what seemed to me very fast. I always got lost. And the teacher, who didn’t like me very much, moved me down a class. There was one rather insightful teacher who decided, after I’d done so badly on these tests, that he would have timeless tests. You could just take as long as you’d like. We all had the same test. I was allowed to take the entire next period to continue, which was a play period. Everyone was always out and enjoying themselves, and I was struggling away to do these tests. And even then sometimes it would stretch into the period beyond that. So I was at least twice as slow as anybody else. Eventually I would do very well. You see, if I could do it that way, I would get very high marks.