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Roger Penrose

(1931 - )

Sir Roger Penrose was born August 8, 1931, in Colchester, England. His maternal grandparents were physiologist John Beresford Leathes and his wife, Sonia Marie Natanson, a Jewish Russian who had left St. Petersburg in the late 1880s. He has given somewhat conflicting answers regarding his own beliefs. He is Jewish according to Jewish law, he told an interviewer, but doesn’t identify as one. “I don’t believe in established religions of any kind. I would say I’m an atheist,” he has said.

In 1939, Roger’s father took the family to the United States but decided not to return to England as war clouds gathered. Instead, he moved to London, Ontario, Canada where Roger attended school.

In 1945, after the war, the family returned to England. Penrose attended University College School in London. Faced with having to choose between studying biology and following in his father’s footsteps into medicine, or pursuing his interest in mathematics, he chose the latter.

Penrose attended University College School and University College London, where he graduated with First Class Honors in mathematics. He then moved to Cambridge to begin research in algebraic geometry. Penrose was awarded a Ph.D. in math but had become increasingly interested in physics.

Academic Career

Penrose spent the academic year 1956-57 as an Assistant Lecturer in Pure Mathematics at Bedford College, London and was then appointed as a Research Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge. During his three-year fellowship, he married Joan Isabel Wedge in 1959.

Before the fellowship ended Penrose was awarded a NATO Research Fellowship which enabled him to spend the years 1959-61 at Princeton and Syracuse University. He returned to work as a research associate at King’s College, London for two years before returning to the United States to take a position in 1963-64 as a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He later held visiting positions at Yeshiva, Princeton and Cornell during 1966-67 and 1969.

In 1964, Penrose was appointed as a Reader at Birkbeck College, London and, two years later, he was promoted to Professor of Applied Mathematics.

In 1972, Penrose was the Francis and Helen Pentz Distinguished Visiting Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Pennsylvania State University

In 1973, he was appointed Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, a position he held until become emeritus in 1998. That year he was appointed Gresham Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London.

In 1983, Penrose was invited to teach at Rice University in Houston, by the then provost Bill Gordon. He worked there from 1983 to 1987.

Today, Penrose remains emeritus professor at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute and Honorary Fellow and honorary doctor at Cambridge.


From the early days in his career he published numerous articles that were recognized for their brilliance. In 1964, Kip Thorne of Caltech said, “Roger Penrose revolutionized the mathematical tools that we use to analyze the properties of spacetime.”

In his paper, “Gravitational collapse and space-time singularities,” Penrose explained that if an object such as a dying star implodes beyond a certain point, then nothing can prevent the gravitational field getting so strong as to form some kind of singularity, a geometric point in space where mass is compressed to infinite density and zero volume.

It was in the context of gravitational collapse that the contribution of Penrose was most decisive, starting with his 1969 cosmic censorship conjecture, to the effect that any ensuing singularities would be confined within a well-behaved event horizon surrounding a hidden space-time region, which Princeton physicist John Wheeler referred to as a “black hole,” leaving a visible exterior region with strong but finite curvature, from which some of the gravitational energy may be extractable by what is known as the Penrose process, while accretion of surrounding matter may release further energy that can account for astrophysical phenomena such as quasars.

Encyclopedia Britannica noted that “Penrose also developed a method of mapping the regions of space-time surrounding a black hole. (Space-time is a four-dimensional continuum comprising three dimensions of space and one of time.) Such a map, which is called a Penrose diagram, allows one to visualize the effects of gravitation upon an entity approaching a black hole. He also discovered Penrose tiling, in which a set of shapes can be used to cover a plane without using a repeating pattern.”

In 2004, Penrose released The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, a 1,099-page comprehensive guide to the laws of Physics that includes an explanation of his own theory. The Penrose Interpretation predicts the relationship between quantum mechanics and general relativity, and proposes that a quantum state remains in superposition until the difference of space-time curvature attains a significant level.

Thoughts on Consciousness

Penrose has written several books on the connection between fundamental physics and human (or animal) consciousness. In The Emperor’s New Mind (1989), he argues that known laws of physics are inadequate to explain the phenomenon of consciousness. Penrose proposes the characteristics this new physics may have and specifies the requirements for a bridge between classical and quantum mechanics (what he calls correct quantum gravity).

He argues that computers today are unable to have intelligence because they are algorithmically deterministic systems. He argues against the viewpoint that the rational processes of the mind are completely algorithmic and can thus be duplicated by a sufficiently complex computer. This contrasts with supporters of strong artificial intelligence, who contend that thought can be simulated algorithmically. He bases this on claims that consciousness transcends formal logic.

Marvin Minsky, a leading proponent of artificial intelligence, argued that Penrose “tries to show, in chapter after chapter, that human thought cannot be based on any known scientific principle.” Minsky’s position is exactly the opposite – he believed that humans are, in fact, machines, whose functioning, although complex, is fully explainable by current physics.”

Penrose responded to criticism of The Emperor’s New Mind with Shadows of the Mind (1994), and The Large, the Small and the Human Mind (1997). His views remain a minority view in scientific circles.

Nobel Prize

In 2020, Penrose shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez. The Nobel Prize Committee recognized Penrose for his use of “ingenious mathematical methods” to prove “black holes are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” Einstein did not believe black holes exist, but, in January 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death, he demonstrated they can form. “At their heart, black holes hide a singularity in which all the known laws of nature cease,” according to the prize announcement. The article he wrote explaining his findings “is still regarded as the most important contribution to the general theory of relativity since Einstein.”

Upon learning of his award, Penrose said, “It is a huge honor to receive this Prize. In 1964 the existence of Black Holes was not properly appreciated. Since then they have become of increased importance in our understanding of the Universe and I believe this could increase in unexpected ways in the future.”

Other Honors

In 1971, he was awarded the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics.

In 1972, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1975, Stephen Hawking and Penrose were jointly awarded the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

In 1985, he was awarded the Royal Society Royal Medal.

In 1988, along with Stephen Hawking, he was awarded the Wolf Foundation Prize for Physics in 1988.

In 1989, he was awarded the Dirac Medal and Prize of the British Institute of Physics.

In 1990, Penrose was awarded the Albert Einstein Medal for outstanding work related to the work of Albert Einstein by the Albert Einstein Society.

In 1991, he was awarded the Naylor Prize of the London Mathematical Society.

From 1992 to 1995, he served as President of the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation.

In 1994, Penrose was knighted for services to science. In the same year he was also awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Science) by the University of Bath, and became a member of Polish Academy of Sciences.

In 1998, he was elected Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences.

In 2000, he was appointed to the Order of Merit.

In 2004, he was awarded the De Morgan Medal for his wide and original contributions to mathematical physics.

In 2005, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Warsaw University and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium).

In 2006, he received a similar honor from the University of York.

In 2006, he also won the Dirac Medal given by the University of New South Wales.

In 2008, Penrose was awarded the Copley Medal.

In 2011, Penrose was awarded the Fonseca Prize by the University of Santiago de Compostela.

In 2012, Penrose was awarded the Richard R. Ernst Medal by ETH Zürich for his contributions to science and strengthening the connection between science and society.

In 2015, Penrose was awarded an honorary doctorate by CINVESTAV-IPN (Mexico).

He is also a Distinguished Supporter of Humanists UK and one of the patrons of the Oxford University Scientific Society.

Family life

Penrose is married to Vanessa Thomas, director of Academic Development at Cokethorpe School and former head of mathematics at Abingdon School, with whom he has one son. He has three sons from a previous marriage to American Joan Isabel Penrose (née Wedge), whom he married in 1959.

Sources: “Sir Roger Penrose,” Wikipedia;
“Roger Penrose,” MacTutor;
“Roger Penrose,” Encyclopedia Britannica, (Updated October 6, 2020);.
“Oxford Mathematician Roger Penrose jointly wins the Nobel Prize in Physics,” Oxford University, (October 6, 2020);
“The Nobel Prize in Physics 2020,” Press Release, The Nobel Prize, (October 6, 2020).

Photo: Cirone-Musi, Festival della Scienza licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.