Meeting the king of the twistor
Graham spent last Thursday in Oxford with the great mathematician Roger Penrose, 82, inventor of the mathematical object known as the twistor. In a wide-ranging conversation, Penrose talked about his early life, his development as a scientist and his thoughts on the latest developments in fundamental physics.
Penrose recalls that he was not regarded as an especially quick student when he was at school, and blossomed only when he was studying mathematics at the University in Cambridge, where he was inspired by lectures from Hermann Bondi and Paul Dirac. It was Bondi who inspired Penrose’s interest in cosmology, and Dirac who stimulated his interest in geometrical approaches to problems in fundamental physics.
Like Dirac, Penrose is content to work outside the mainstream. ‘I am always follow my intuition and am not easily deflected by criticism.’ Only the welter of critical commentary on Penrose’s work on consciousness led him to withdraw from a field for a while. Although twistors were long peripheral to the work of most physicists, Penrose did not lose faith in them and was delighted to see Edward Witten’s path-breaking twistor string theory in 2003, and more recently the use of twistor diagrams by Nima Arkani-Hamed and collaborators in the work that led to the amplituhedron.
Apart from his remarkably creative contributions to mathematics, cosmology and physics, Penrose has achieved considerable success as a popular science writer, probably the only one to can get away with discussing challenging mathematics explicitly. He is currently putting the finishing touches to his forthcoming book Faith, Fashion and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe, based on lectures he gave at Princeton University in 2003.
Graham plans to include material from this intriguing interview in his next book, on mathematics and physics.