It was a message from my son that broke the news: Did you see my friend has won the Nobel Prize? I was tempted to write back, He is my friend too, but that was hardly the case. I had met Roger Penrose and interviewed him in Bengaluru, but my son had worked with him. The two of them had watched the semifinal of the cricket World Cup together last year.
The Penroses are an amazing family. Father Lionel was a geneticist, mathematician and chess theorist. Brother Jonathan is a Grandmaster in chess who beat world champion Mikhail Tal in the 1960s, and sister Shirley Hodgson is a geneticist. Amateur psychologists can have a field day with that!
A reviewer in New York Times three decades ago said: (Roger) Penrose is a gifted mathematician with an impressive record of lighting lamps that have helped guide physics on its way. His research with Stephen Hawking aided in establishing the plausibility of black holes, and brought new insights into the physics of the big bang with which the expansion of the universe is thought to have begun. His work in the early 1970s, on the geometry of what are called aperiodic tiles, impressive just as a matter of pure mathematical invention, turned out to describe the architecture of a new class of crystals the existence of which was not yet known at the time&
Then there is his connection with the artist Escher and the impossible drawings both created.
Penrose is 89. Often theoretical physicists have to wait a while for the Nobel call. Sometimes the committee decides proof is necessary. Peter Higgs won a Nobel in 2013 for work he had done in the 1960s. Penrose published his theory in 1965. Albert Einstein didnt win for relativity but for the photoelectric effect, although the bending of light predicted by the general theory ( 1915) was confirmed in 1919.
Experimental scientists fare better. When C.V. Raman discovered the Raman Effect, he was so confident of winning the Nobel that he bought two tickets to Stockholm much before the announcements were made!
Penroses thought experiments need imagination and a willingness to delink the mind from popular theories. His books have both rigour and occasional playfulness. And humility. In The Road to Reality, he writes: Although in places I shall present opinions that may be regarded as contentious, I have taken pains to make it clear to the reader when I am actually taking such liberties.
More recently he has asked the question: what if the final state of the universe as we know it is merely the initial big bang of a new cycle?
Penrose is a philosopher of the first rank, unafraid to grapple with problems that contemporary philosophers tend to dismiss as meaningless, wrote Martin Gardner.
In some ways the Nobel is a distraction, said Penrose. That tells you all you need to know about the man who said he had been making the most of the lockdown to develop new ideas.
(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)