[Paleopsych] Observer: (Sir Roger) I can explain everything

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Tue Aug 17 14:33:57 UTC 2004

I can explain everything

    Distinguished mathematician Roger Penrose has written a thousand-page
    explanation of physics that rivals Newton's Principia in its scope and
    Robin McKie

    Sunday August 15, 2004

    There is a disconcerting moment in Hawking, the BBC2 drama about the
    wheelchair-bound Cambridge physicist, when a large, gormless young man
    announces to a startled barmaid: 'I think in a number of dimensions. I
    can't get back quickly for words or beer.' Later, the same nitwit is
    seen spouting scientific cliches at a open-air tutorial and then ends
    the programme cavorting round a railway station with Hawking (played
    by Benedict Cumberbatch), using umbrellas as props to reveal the
    secrets of space and time.

    In this way, Sir Roger Penrose, a founder of modern cosmology, one of
    the nation's intellectual heavyweights, and a collaborator with
    Stephen Hawking on the science of black holes, is presented to the
    public - as a pompous blabbermouth who cannot even order a pint.

    The reality, it should be noted, is very different and it says a great
    deal for the man - impish, intense and utterly lacking in
    self-importance - that he refrains from striking me after I raise the
    subject of Hawking during our meeting in the Tsar Bar in London's
    Langham Hotel, where he also shows himself perfectly capable of
    ordering a drink. 'Yes, I am in the programme in the sense that an
    actor [Tom Ward] plays someone with my name,' says Penrose, whose
    latest book, The Road to Reality (Cape £30, pp1,094), is published
    this month. 'The rest makes me cringe. I never said anything like that
    in a pub, I never spoke like that at a tutorial and the station scene
    with Hawking never happened.'

    Thus science is turned to fiction by TV producers who have no faith in
    its intrinsic fascination: scenes are manufactured and scientists made
    freaks or buffoons. Too bad if these are people who are interesting in
    their own right, a point perfectly exemplified by Penrose, whose
    mathematics inspired artist MC Escher, who has the distinction of
    suing a lavatory-paper maker over the misuse of scientific ideas, who
    has aroused the fury of evolutionary biologists for debunking their
    ideas about human consciousness, and whose latest book rivals Newton's
    Principia for its depth and ambition in its attempt to provide a
    complete account of the physical universe and its laws.

    It's an impressive list of achievements, a pedigree that is shared by
    the rest of the Penrose family. His father was an Oxford professor of
    genetics, his elder brother and only sister are academics, while
    Jonathan, the youngest Penrose, was British chess champion 10 times. A
    cerebral lot, though they are also highly artistic - Penrose's
    grandfather was a professional portrait painter and for family fun
    used to draw strange optical illusions on paper: winding staircases
    that neither ascended or descended, that sort of thing.

    After a chance meeting with Escher, the Dutch artist noted for his
    disconcerting, illusional artwork, Penrose sent him examples of his
    family's art, and these were adopted (and acknowledged) by the painter
    in some of his later work. Much of this involved interlocking grids of
    repeated figures - ducks and fish, for example - and Penrose later
    developed these ideas to create ways of covering surfaces with flat,
    geometric shapes that never repeat themselves: Penrose tiling, as it
    is now known.

    The mathematician would have forgotten his brainchild had his wife,
    Vanessa, not noticed the packet of Kleenex Quilted Toilet Tissues she
    had just bought in her local supermarket had a pattern that bore more
    than a passing resemblance to her husband's tiling. In fact, it had
    been appropriated by the company. Lawyers were called in. 'I should
    explain the loo-roll business except I cannot as there was an
    out-of-court settlement, a condition of which is that I am not allowed
    to talk about it,' says Penrose rather unhelpfully, though his smile
    suggests there was a happy outcome.

    In fact, Penrose made his name as an outstandingly brilliant
    mathematician, not from his topological work but from his forays into
    the esoteric land of quantum physics, working at Cambridge with
    Hawking on black holes, collapsed stars so dense even light cannot
    leave their surfaces. His was a reputation of quiet distinction until,
    a few years ago, he launched a furious attack on computer experts who
    were claiming their machines would become clever enough to develop
    minds. 'We will never make computers conscious,' he says, a point
    emphasised in his books, The Emperor's New Mind, and Shadows of the
    Mind. 'A computational device is incapable of developing a mind. We
    got consciousness not just by being clever.'

    These ideas went down badly with evolutionary biologists and
    philosophers like Daniel Dennett. To such researchers, the notion that
    humans are specially elevated because they suddenly came to possess
    consciousness stinks of godly intervention. 'Quite fallacious',
    'wrong', 'invalid' and 'deeply flawed' ran the reviews. Penrose sighs.
    'Yes, I got it in the neck. But these people were not listening to
    what I was saying. They were just shooting from the hip.'

    His consciousness books have led directly to The Road to Reality.
    'Colleagues liked my equations but not the contentious stuff about the
    mind and urged me to write a straightforward book on physics. I
    thought it would be a simple scissors job but it didn't work out that

    In the end, Penrose, who was 73 last week, produced a great, fat,
    black hole of a book that makes Bill Bryson's 600-page A Short History
    of Nearly Everything look like a theatre programme. It weighs more
    than 3lbs and its 1,094 pages are packed with equations and artwork -
    drawn freehand by Penrose - of Riemann surfaces, singularities and
    other mathematical oddities. It is a vast, formidable undertaking that
    covers the entire gamut of physics, from Greek astronomy to
    superstring theory.

    As one reviewer remarked: 'The book took Penrose eight years to
    complete, and it will take some readers just as long to understand
    him.' Certainly, the book has it all: calculus, quantum mechanics,
    relativity, the big bang, string theory and just about anything ever
    written that has a number in it. If you want to know what makes the
    universe tick, you will find it here. Not bad for a gormless
    lounge-bar poser.

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