Roger Penrose Biography

Sir Roger Penrose is an English mathematical physicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science. He is currently the Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, England. Despite initially struggling with mathematics as a child, Penrose overcame his difficulties with the support of his academically gifted family and developed a strong interest in the subject. He went on to earn his doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge and began his academic career, holding temporary positions in various universities in the UK and USA. Penrose’s passion for astrophysics led him to collaborate with Stephen Hawking on the groundbreaking Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems. Additionally, he has made significant contributions to the field, with many concepts named after him. Penrose is also a prolific author, with one of his most popular books being The Emperor’s New Mind.

Quick Facts

  • British Celebrities Born In August Also Known As: Sir Roger PenroseAge: 92 Years, 92 Year Old Males
  • Family:Spouse/Ex-: Vanessa Thomas, Joan Isabel Wedgefather: Lionel Penrosemother: Margaret Leathessiblings: Jonathan Penrose, Oliver Penrose, Shirley HodgsonBorn Country: England
  • Physicists
  • Philosophers
  • More Factseducation: University College London, St John’s College, Cambridgeawards: 1990 – Albert Einstein Medal 1988 – Wolf Prize in Physics 2008 – Copley Medal 1985 – Royal Medal 1966 – Adams Prize 1971 – Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics 1975 – Eddington Medal 1989 – Dirac Medal of the Institute of Physics 2004 – De Morgan Medal 2006 – Dirac Medal for the Advancement of Theoretical Physics 1991 – Naylor Prize and Lectureship

Childhood & Early Life

Sir Roger Penrose was born on 8 August 1931, in Colchester, a historic market town located in Essex, England. His father, Lionel Sharples Penrose, was a noted psychiatrist and a medical geneticist, who carried out groundbreaking work on the genetics of intellectual disability. His mother, Margaret Penrose, was a doctor.

He was born second of his parents’ four children. His elder brother, Oliver Penrose, is a noted theoretical physicist while his younger brother, Jonathan Penrose, is a psychologist and a Chess Grandmaster. His younger sister, Shirley Victoria Hodgson is a geneticist.

In 1939, the family traveled to Philadelphia, USA, possibly for a short visit; but decided to stay back because of the oncoming war. Eventually, they settled down in London, a city located in the southwestern Ontario, Canada, where Roger started attending school.

Although initially he showed little promise in mathematics, growing up in an intellectually lively family, he soon overcame his difficulties. His older brother, Oliver, who was very intelligent and way ahead at school, greatly helped him in this.

His father, who was Director of Psychiatric Research at Ontario Hospital, took great interest in mathematics, particularly geometry. His mother was also greatly interested in the subject. Under their combined influence, Roger too became highly interested in mathematics.

Shortly after the Second World War ended in 1945, the family returned to England, where Roger was enrolled at the University College School (UCS Hampstead). There too, his interest in mathematics continued to grow, learning calculus from his father before it was taught at school.

When it was time to decide which subjects to study in the final two years, he chose mathematics over biology, a decision that did not go down well with his parents. They liked the subject, but only as an auxiliary and had planned a medical career for their second son.

After graduating from school, he entered University College London with mathematics. While studying there, he discovered a theorem on conic sections from which some basic theorems of projective geometry could be derived.

After graduating from University College London with a First Class B.Sc. degree in Mathematics, he enrolled at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. Here, he started research work in mathematics under John A. Todd, eventually earning his PhD degree on his thesis, ‘tensor methods in algebraic geometry’ in 1958.

In 1954, he attended a conference in Amsterdam, where he came across an exhibition of Escher’s work. Inspired by them, he worked with his father to design a staircase that simultaneously loops up and down. In 1955, he rediscovered what is now known as Moore-Penrose Inverse.

Career

In 1958, Roger Penrose began his career, holding number of temporary posts in various universities across UK and USA. Concurrently, he started publishing important papers like ‘The apparent shape of a relativistically moving sphere’ (1959), ‘A spinor approach to general relativity’ (1960) and ‘Imbedding of manifolds in euclidean space’ (1961).

In 1964, he was appointed a reader in applied mathematics at Birkbeck College at the University of London. During this period, his attention was drawn to astrophysics and he started undertaking many groundbreaking works.

In 1965, he published Penrose singularity theorem, establishing that a singularity must occur in a gravitational collapse. In the following year, he was promoted to the post of full professor.

In 1969, he worked with Stephen Hawking to prove that all matter within a black hole collapses to a singularity; a geometric point in space where mass is compressed to infinite density and zero volume. It later became known as Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems.

In 1971, he discovered ‘spin network’ and defined it as a kind of diagram in which each line segment represents the world line of a “unit”. Later the networks have been used to study skein modules and character varieties, which correspond to spaces of connections.

In 1973, he moved to Oxford University, where he held the Rouse-Ball Chair of Mathematics until his retirement in 1999. Meanwhile in 1974, he made another of his famous discoveries, the Penrose tiling. Initially, it consisted of aperiodic set of six prototiles; but later he reduced the number to two.

After retiring from regular service he became emeritus professor at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, a position he continues to hold. He is also an emeritus fellow of Wadham College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Visiting Positions

Concurrently with working at Birkbeck College, Roger Penrose held several part-time visiting positions, teaching at Yeshiva, Princeton and Cornell Universities in 1966-1967. From 1983 to1987, he taught at Rice University, Houston. From 1988 to 1993, he was Distinguished Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Syracuse University. Thereafter, he became Francis and Helen Pentz Distinguished Visiting Professor of Physics and Mathematics at the Pennsylvania State University, USA.

Major Works

Roger Penrose is best known to the general public for his 1989 book, The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and The Laws of Physics, which hypothesizes that quantum mechanics plays an essential role in the understanding of human consciousness. In 1990, he received Royal Society Science Books Prize for it.

Awards & Achievements

Roger Penrose has received several awards for his works. They include Adams Prize from Cambridge University, Dannie Heineman Prize from the American Physical Society, Naylor Prize of the London Mathematical Society, Dirac Medal and Prize of the British Institute of Physics, De Morgan Medal by the London Mathematical Society, Copley Medal etc.

Jointly with Stephen Hawking, he has also received the Wolf Foundation Prize for Physics, the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society Royal Medal.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and a Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences. That apart, he has received honorary degree from several established universities across the globe.

Roger Penrose was knighted for his services to science in 1994 and received the Order of Merit in 2000.

Family & Personal Life

In 1959, Roger Penrose married Joan Isabel Wedge, with whom he has three sons. Later he married Vanessa Thomas, director of Academic Development at Cokethorpe School, and has a son with her.

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