Saturday, 28 November 2020

Beauty above all (2020)

A wonderful essay in the Times Literary Supplement (HERE) by Graham Farmelo, about the 2020 Nobel prize winner Roger Penrose (b. 1931). Penrose won 1/2 of this years Physics prize, "for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity." 

Farmelo's essay brings to life the human dimensions of Penrose's work and his style of thinking. It manages to convey to a lay reader like me, some sense of the wonderful intellectual challenges that theoretical physicists engage with every day.

Farmelo explains that, "As do all mathematically-minded researchers in physics, Penrose values above all beauty in a new theory, whether or not it appears at first to account for observations and measurements". In reference to String theory, a fashionable field in modern theoretical physics, Farmelo notes that, "..Penrose thought it was so horrible, and so ugly, that it made him feel ill". 

Image: The Planetary Systems. A wood engraving attributed to Holbein in the German translation of the "Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius, Augsburg edition, 1537. From  Science and literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1878). By Paul Lacroix Jacob. Bickers & Son, London.