“I used to think Nobel Laureates were other people”
Nobelprize.org met physicist Roger Penrose on 4 March 2021. We spoke to him about growing up, how his passion for maths developed and why he finds it so surreal to be a Nobel Laureate.
Could you tell us a bit about when you were a child? Did you always want to go into science and be a scientist?
Roger Penrose: I think science in some sense. Both my parents were medical and I was one of three brothers. I had a sister who came along a lot later, but for a long time I was just one of three. My parents had given up on my older brother. He was obviously going to be a physicist or something. My younger brother was obviously going to play chess. He became British chess champion a record ten times. So they decided I was going to be the one to carry on the medical profession. And I thought so too. We used to do tests and things and it came out that I was going to be a doctor.
I think it was when I was about 16 when we had to decide what we were going to do in the final two years at school. Each one had to go and talk to the headmaster. He said, “What do you want to do in your final two years?” And I think what I said was biology, chemistry, and mathematics. And he said, “No, you can’t do that combination. If you want to do mathematics, you can’t do biology. If you want to do biology, you can’t do mathematics, make your choice.”
At that stage, I had fallen in love with mathematics and so I said chemistry, physics, and mathematics. So that was my future completely changed from my medical career. When I went home, my parents were both very annoyed. They thought I had been keeping bad company.
So your passion was mathematics. I understand, however, that you struggled with maths as a very young child?
I think that’s a slight misunderstanding. I was slow. I was very slow and I was not quick at doing arithmetic. I remember particularly, when I was in Canada during the war years when I was about eight. The teacher there, she had little mental tests and you had to do a mental arithmetic – add seven, multiply by three, subtract four. I would simply lose track very quickly. She thought I was very stupid and decided to move me down. Finally, she got rid of me by moving me into high grade three. I think she just didn’t get on with me.
I did have a very understanding teacher a year or so later. He realised that I was just being very slow. He insightfully decided that he would allow me as long as I liked to do the test. I can remember looking out of the window and seeing people in the playground and I was still struggling with my test.
Then I did very well. It was really just that I used to have to work. I didn’t remember my tables very well – I had to work them out each time. I really wanted to know what was going on rather than just parroting what I’d been taught. I just didn’t remember these things. Whereas when I was allowed to think about it, then I did much better. So I think to say I was not good at mathematics is misleading.
What was it about mathematics that particularly drew you to it?
A lot of it was geometry. I remember in particular, again when I was in Canada, I don’t remember what age. There was, I think it was a sink top, which was tiled with regular hexagons. I asked my father: suppose this pattern went on and on and on and went all the way around the world, could it cover the whole world with that pattern? So he said, no, you can’t do that with hexagons, but you could do it with pentagons. And this was the dodecahedron. I spent a lot of time making models with my father. We used to make polyhedron or truncated ones and different kinds of polyhedra.
I think my father was a big influence on me. He was a scientist – he worked in human genetics, it wasn’t mathematic, but he definitely had a feeling for mathematics, particularly geometry. We used to talk a lot about that.
Do you feel like your family environment – maybe you felt a bit competitive with your brothers – influenced you to take the path that you ended up going down?
Yes. I think it was not so much the competitive aspect – that was there but I don’t think that was what it was. It was more just the science for itself. I remember at one stage, my father, he had a telescope, which he liked to look at the sky and he showed me the rings of Saturn. And then, wow. I’d seen it in pictures but to see it’s real, out there, was something special.
Is that when your interest in the universe started?
Yes. I think so. I think my father knew quite a lot of astronomy, but, of course there wasn’t much cosmology known at that time. I picked up a lot more of that later on.
How important do you think bouncing ideas off your father was to you?
I think it was very important to me. It was strange because my brother certainly taught me a lot more specifically about physics. But it was particularly my relation with my father which developed these interests. He liked to play with things. There was no boundary between what he did for fun and what was his profession. He used to make puzzles for little children and things like that so he was very good in that way. It was partly also to do with his profession. I remember he made a very complicated slide rule, which had all sorts of conditions. You had to slide all these different rods together and then you went through to the bottom and you’ve got the diagnosis. It was very much playfulness on his part. So what with his serious profession and his playfulness there was no borderline between the two. I think that rubbed off on me very much.
You have had a very long and successful career in science. What do you think you need to have or do in order to be a successful scientist?
Admit you’re wrong when you are wrong, is one. That is important and I think a lot of people aren’t prepared to do that.
Gosh it’s very difficult. People are so different and often say to me what do you recommend? And I say, well it depends on you – do what excites you. Of course you might be going up the wrong track, but this happens a lot.
I would say generally do what excites you, not just what you think you should be doing. That’s certainly the factor with me. It’s difficult because you’ve got to earn a living after all. And it may be that you have to do something which isn’t quite what your ambition is. I don’t know whether that’s a very good moral always, but it seemed to work with me.
I heard that you have a lot of blackboards around your house in case inspiration strikes. Are you always thinking and coming up with ideas?
Always is not the correct statement, but I do have a blackboard. I can see it right where I’m sitting in the study. And I have a portable whiteboard, which I sometimes put behind me if I’m talking to somebody and they want to illustrate something on the board. And I have a whiteboard in the bedroom, which I should clean off actually, because it’s got something on there which keeps on distracting me when I look at it.
Sometimes I get an idea, which I forget you see. I remember the other day it wasn’t so long ago when I woke up in the night thinking I had an idea. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll remember that idea for sure.’ I went to sleep, woke up the next morning and I thought ‘Didn’t I have an idea in the night which I was sure I would remember?’ So I had to go through very carefully to try and resurrect what that idea was. I think I did resurrect that one. I do keep a notebook within arm’s length when I’m in bed so I write something down. It doesn’t often happen.
What do you do in your downtime? Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of work?
It’s difficult to find time for hobbies now because there’s so many things I’ve got to do. Particularly with a Nobel Prize there’s so many things that I was working on I’ve got to put on hold for a bit.
I don’t know which you call a hobby and which you’ve don’t… I do draw sometimes. I drew a Christmas card, which was developed from the tribar. It was an impossible object, but it was a different kind. So that was Christmas card I sent out to people.
There’s this thing called the campaign for drawing, which I haven’t done much for recently, but I used to. They wanted to have people who belong to it to draw pictures, which they would sell at auction. So I drew a diagram, it was close to the Christmas card one, which was not one I’d drawn before. And this was sold at the auction I think for nearly £2000. I was quite surprised. This was for a hospice, it was a charity.
I like doing things like that. My notebooks, particularly the old ones, are crowded with all sorts of weird looking drawings I used to do. I don’t know if surrealistic is that the right word, they’re all distorted forms of one kind or another.
You’ve written quite a few popular science books. Do you think it’s important to make your work accessible for other people? Do you find that you benefit from it as well?
Yes. I think that’s true. Both ways. Yes. I certainly have felt that it’s worth trying to get express ideas also visually, because as you say that’s a lot of the way I think. Most of the books I’ve written, all the illustrations I’ve drawn myself. So, in fact, most of my artwork as anything that’s published is in those illustrations in books.
After a long scientific career, how does it feel to be a Nobel Laureate?
That’s a tricky question. I used to think Nobel Laureates were other people. ‘The establishment’ kind of people. And that was not me. I did things outside the establishment. I hadn’t expected to get a Nobel Prize but a lot of people, my colleagues, friends of mine said, ‘Oh yes, no, you’re bound to get one.’ I didn’t think this. So it was a bit strange.
It’s difficult question because I certainly had attached the idea a bit more to the establishment and I think of myself not as part of the establishment, but the Nobel Prize makes one part of it in a sense, which is an interesting experience.
It is a bit surreal.
And finally, can we ask you what is your favourite thing about the universe?
Everything. Oh gosh, now, that’s a tricky one. I think I like the way it fits in with general relativity. I would certainly say that. Quantum mechanics is amazing. The trouble is, as I keep saying, it’s not quite right. There will be something just as beautiful when we get it right which has to do with the collapse of the wave function. Quantum mechanics has this self-inconsistency about it. It’s what Schrödinger made this huge point about. That’s why he talked about his cat in the box. He just wanted to show the absurdity of his own equation that leads you to this absurdity.
General relativity I think I would have to say, but you see, there are a lot of observational things about the universe, which are amazing. It’s a very hard question to answer.
Let me put it more generally: the way the physical world ties in with mathematics. Not so much just general relativity. How you see when you get it right the mathematics fits with the physical world in such a beautiful way. Yes, that’s it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First published: April 2021
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