Sir Roger Penrose in conversation

24th February 2021

News, Alumni news

From his earliest memories of mathematical shapes and patterns to theories of consciousness and quasi-stellar objects, Roger Penrose shares his ideas with Wadham alumni in these fascinating discussions.

The more one probes reality the more one sees it is tied up with mathematics

Sir Roger Penrose

Play Sir Roger Penrose with the Warden Ken Macdonald QC

During an ‘in conversation’ event with the Warden of Wadham College, Ken Macdonald QC, Sir Roger Penrose, Emeritus Fellow and Nobel Prize-winner, spoke warmly of his time at Wadham and his career in Mathematics.

Some 400 Wadham alumni attended the virtual event which was followed by a recorded discussion between Sir Roger and Honorary Fellow Melvyn Bragg (History, 1958).

“I just fell in love with it [mathematics], certainly from the age of nine – probably earlier. But I had not thought of it as a career,” Roger told his audience.

Roger spoke of his older brother’s interest in Physics and Mathematics – “I learned a lot from him” and his father’s love of mathematics, particularly geometry. Walks with his father looking at plants would lead to discussions of Fibonacci numbers. And from a very young age Roger understood the importance of geometrical shapes.

“When I was young, six or seven, I could not stand spinach. I asked my nurse if I could eat half of it. When she was out of the room I took the patch of spinach and made it into an exact semi-circle without eating any of it …I don’t know whether you would consider that’s an interest in geometry!”

Discovering that 2+2=2x2 intrigued Roger leading to his learning algebra while at the same time he inherited a love of drawing from his father and grandfather, both talented artists. “I tend to draw all the drawings in my books, conveying mathematical and physical ideas in terms of pictures,” he said.

In conversation with Melvyn Bragg, Roger describes how he it was the impossibility at his school of studying Biology with Mathematics and Chemistry at A Level which led to  him giving up the idea of being a doctor and studying Physics, Maths and Chemistry instead.

Play Sir Roger Penrose with Melvyn Bragg

“When I went to University I found people thought very differently from me on the whole…I was very much on the visual side.” He describes how in the study of relativity he would express equations visually.  

This visual ability led to his design of the Penrose triangle and his fascination with the work of Escher which he came upon by chance at the Van Gogh Museum in Holland.  

 “A lot of the things I do seem which seem rather disconnected are actually connected,” he comments in answer to a question on whether he considers himself a polymath. And despite his love of science, the visual arts and writing, Roger admits to a “blind spot with poetry”.

“What is consciousness was almost a forbidden question by scientists – you shouldn’t dabble in that” he said. But as a graduate student at Cambridge, Roger attended lectures that were not focused on his specific studies and which sparked his interest in the question of what consciousness is. Attending lectures on general relativity and mathematical logic he learned that systems and rules embracing what you could see was true, but was not always provable, should be questioned. “The quality of understanding, one of the features of consciousness, is not a computational thing” he asserts.

Melvyn Bragg leads Roger through a fascinating discussion of Space Time, The Big Bang, Roger’s work with Stephen Hawking, religion and machine learning.

Throughout the discussions, Roger’s underlying love of Mathematics is clear. “The more one probes reality the more one sees it is tied up with mathematics,” he comments.

These events were organised with the support of the Oxford Mathematical Institute.

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