Erasmus Medal for Sir Roger Penrose

5th October 2021

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Wadham Emeritus Fellow and Nobel Laureate Sir Roger Penrose has been awarded the 2020 Erasmus Medal.

  • Sir Roger Penrose receives his Erasmus medal from Professor Ole Petersen and Professor (Lord) Martin Rees.

    Sir Roger Penrose receives his Erasmus medal from Professor Ole Petersen and Professor (Lord) Martin Rees.

  • Sir Roger Penrose is presented with a Gömböc by Dr Ferenc Kumin, Ambassador of Hungary to the Court of St James's

    Sir Roger Penrose is presented with a Gömböc by Dr Ferenc Kumin, Ambassador of Hungary to the Court of St James's

  • Professor Penrose gives the 2021 (virtual) Heinz-Nixdorf Erasmus Lecture: Upside-Down: Revolutions in Physics, Old and New

    Professor Penrose gives the 2021 (virtual) Heinz-Nixdorf Erasmus Lecture: Upside-Down: Revolutions in Physics, Old and New

  • Wadham College Warden Robert Hannigan welcomes guests

    Wadham College Warden Robert Hannigan welcomes guests

  • Sir Roger Penrose with guests
  • Sir Roger Penrose with guests
  • Professors Martin Rees and Roger Penrose

    Professors Martin Rees and Roger Penrose

  • Sir Roger with the Warden, Robert Hannigan

    Sir Roger with the Warden, Robert Hannigan

  • Sir Roger Penrose with guests
  • Sir Roger Penrose
  • Guests at dinner with Sir Roger Penrose

At an event in Wadham’s Holywell Music Room Sir Roger was presented with the medal by Vice President of the Academia Europaea Professor Ole Petersen FRS MAE in the presence of the Warden, Robert Hannigan.

The Erasmus medal is awarded on the recommendation of an independent committee, to a member of Academia Europaea, who has maintained over a sustained period, the highest level of international scholarship and recognition by peers.

In his welcome address Robert Hannigan said: “Roger became a Fellow of Wadham in 1973 and, as you can imagine, we are immensely proud of his association with the College. But for me, it’s particularly fitting that this event takes place here in Wadham, a place that was a hub for scientific experimentation and thought in the 17th century... that era and this place that blurred the distinction between rigid disciplines and showed the power of creative thought and experimentation is a fitting backdrop today.”

Before the medal presentation Professor Martin (Lord) Rees FRS MAE, leading astrophysicist from the Cambridge University Centre for the Study Of Existential Risk, commended Roger’s outstanding research in pure mathematics and theoretical physics. 

Professor Penrose then gave the 2021 (virtual) Heinz-Nixdorf Erasmus Lecture: Upside-Down: Revolutions in Physics, Old and New

Following the lecture a limited edition Gömböc sculpture was presented to Sir Roger by His Excellency Dr Ferenc Kumin, Ambassador of Hungary to the Court of St James. 

The Gömböc is the world’s first convex, three-dimensional, homogeneous body that has exactly one stable and one unstable point of equilibrium. The Russian mathematician Wladimir Igorewitsch Arnold conjectured as early as the 1990s that such an object should exist, but it was not until 2006 that Gábor Domokos and Péter Várkonyi discovered and named it. 

The Penrose Gömböc, numbered as 1466, was made to honour Roger Penrose and mark his award of the Erasmus Medal. 1466 is the birthdate of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Read the medal citation

Roger Penrose has conducted outstanding research in pure mathematics and theoretical physics for more than 60 years. He is most widely acclaimed for his work on singularities, such as black holes, which he proved can arise from the gravitational collapse of massive, dying stars. 

He has also made important contributions that explore possible connections between physics and consciousness, and set these out in best-selling books such as The Emperor's New Mind (1989). 

Roger Penrose revolutionised the mathematical tools that we use to analyse the properties of spacetime. Previously, work on the curved geometry of general relativity had been confined to configurations with sufficiently high symmetry for Einstein's equations to be soluble explicitly, and by investigating small perturbations away from their symmetry. His more radical approach instead concentrated just on the topology of the space, or at most its conformal structure, since it is the latter — as determined by the lay of the lightcones — that determines the trajectories of light like geodesics, and hence their causal relationships. The importance of Penrose's epoch-making paper "Gravitational collapse and space-time singularities" was not only its result roughly 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). It also showed a way to obtain similarly general conclusions in other contexts, notably that of the cosmological Big Bang, which he dealt with in collaboration with Stephen Hawking. 

Roger invented twistor theory, a key tool in quantum theory. He proposed the cosmic censorship hypothesis — an idea of how the effects of the unpredictability of singularities are ‘hidden’ from us. Even his recreations have been creative: his discovery of a non-periodic form of tiling — Penrose tiling — has since been observed experimentally in quasicrystals. 

He has (with the possible exception of Hawking, for whom he was a mentor and collaborator) done more than anyone since Einstein, to deepen our understanding of space, time, and gravity. Moreover, alongside these ‘core’ efforts he has, throughout his long career, displayed exceptionally wide-ranging originality and intellectual energy; through his books and lectures he has been an immense cultural stimulus. He has already received many honours, but his wide-ranging and sustained career has the kind of breadth and impact renders him an especially distinguished recipient of the Erasmus Medal.

Read the abstract of Sir Roger’s presentation 'Upside-Down: Revolutions in Physics, Old and New'

The Copernican revolution tuned upside-down the prevailing view about the motions of the Earth and Sun, but it took Galileo’s dynamical understandings to explain why we do not feel the Earth’s motion, as in a carriage drawn by rapidly moving horses. The work of Kepler and Newton further refined this dynamics, but the speed of light, as explained by Maxwell’s 19th century electromagnetism seemed to pose a paradox, only finally resolved in the 20th century by Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. Yet that latter theory (GR) led to the seeming catastrophe of singularities in large-scale gravitational collapse. 

That same century gave us quantum mechanics (QM) for the physics of the small, and a common view is that, when correctly applied to GR, singularities would not arise. However, there are strong reasons to x-expect that this cannot suffice, and should be turned upside down, for GR to resolve inherent problems in QM, again turning upside down current viewpoints relating quantum measurement to conscious experience.

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