The mathematician shares his latest theories on quantum consciousness, the structure of the universe and how to communicate with civilisations from other cosmological aeons
EARLY in his career, the University of Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose inspired the artist M. C. Escher to create Ascending and Descending, the visual illusion of a loop of staircase that seems to be eternally rising. It remains a fitting metaphor for Penrose’s ever enquiring mind. During his long career, he has collaborated with Stephen Hawking to uncover the secrets of the big bang, developed a quantum theory of consciousness with anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff and won the Nobel prize in physics for his prediction of regions where the gravitational field would be so intense that space-time itself would break down, the so-called singularity at the heart of a black hole. Undeterred by the march of time – Penrose turned 91 this year – he is continuing to innovate, and even planning communications with future universes.
Michael Brooks: In 1965, near the start of your career, you used general relativity to make the first prediction of the existence of singularities, as in the centres of black holes. How did it feel to see the first photograph of a black hole more than half a century later?
Roger Penrose: If I’m honest, it didn’t make much impression on me because I was expecting these things by then. However, back when I first proved this [singularity] theorem, it was quite a curious situation: I was visiting Princeton to give a talk and I remember Bob Dicke – a well-known cosmologist, a very distinguished man – came and slapped me on the back and said, “You’ve done it, you’ve shown general relativity is wrong!” And that was quite a common view. I suspect that even Einstein would probably have had that …