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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > March 2017 > The vision thing

The vision thing

Roger Penrose is still defining the way we see the universe. But, in today’s world of ultra-specialised science, could a thinker of such breadth ever emerge again?

Scientists exhausted by the relentless demand to “demonstrate impact” and churn out peer-reviewed papers find ways of cheering themselves up. A popular consolation is to imagine reviewers’ reports on Einstein’s “grant application” for his work on special relativity, condemning his revolutionary thoughts as sheer speculation, devoid of any practical application, and worthy of no funding at all.

Lost golden ages are rarely as golden as we remember: back in 1905 Einstein wasn’t funded either, but still working in the Swiss patent office. The rueful jokes do, however, make a valid point about the way conservatism and bandwagon-riding often dictate progress in scientific careers today. Now you need polish, pizzazz, and state-of-the-art facilities. Gone are the days when it was possible to conduct cutting-edge experiments, as Ernest Rutherford did, with little more than sealing wax and string. But something has been lost in the face of the incessant need to score CV points, create spin-off companies, and descend into ever-narrower specialisms. The greatest of scientists, like physicist Erwin Schrödinger, have often thought profoundly outside their own particular specialisms; others, like Francis Crick, one half of the pair who unravelled the mysteries of DNA and partly inspired by Schrödinger, had the versatility to switch fields entirely.

Many virtues of that vanished age, before the intellectually narrowing pressures on today’s careers, are preserved in the person of the veteran British mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose—a theorist of black holes and quantum particles, sometime collaborator of Stephen Hawking, and an unlikely best-selling author. I met the 85-year-old don in the new Mathematical Institute at Oxford, where he is still cooking up challenging new ideas. You have to enter the building across a tiling scheme Penrose invented in the 1970s, which covers the courtyard in a pattern that seems to be orderly but can never quite repeat itself.

Although his insights are often fiendishly technical and expressed in eye-watering mathematics, Penrose is irrepressibly eclectic in his learning. He is given to mixing the insightful with the wildly speculative in a way that is almost unknown today, floating ideas that younger colleagues would never dare to—such as the notion that quantum mechanics might explain consciousness. Penrose shrugs off labels such as “maverick,” pleading that he is “much more accepting of conventional wisdom than most of the others I know.” It is hard to tell how much of this bemusement is real and how much a wry performance, but whatever it is that he seeks, it’s neither approval nor modish notoriety.

His career has traced the remarkable arc of physics over the second half of the 20th century, a period during which the baffling intricacies of general relativity have moved from the mathematical fringe of his discipline to its heart, culminating in the discovery of gravitational waves last year (in which he played no small part). He is a representative of the now near-extinct generation— which included John Wheeler, Murray Gell-Mann, Philip Anderson and Richard Feynman—who launched themselves into an unfamiliar universe armed only with their wits and imagination. They thought about whatever they fancied, and found threads that hinted at a unified concept of reality. They all seemed to have something insightful to say about pretty much any problem in physics.

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In Prospect’s March issue: Sam Tanenhaus, George Magnus and Dahlia Lithwick examine the state of America after Donald Trump’s first couple of weeks. Tanenhaus looks at the situation faced by the American press, Magnus looks at the state of global trade and Lithwick inspects the diminishing right to choice women face over abortion. Anne Perkins explores the rise of Theresa May through the political ranks and David Edmonds looks at how empathy affects our decision making. Also in this issue: Jay Elwes on Trump’s relationship with America’s intelligence agencies, Anita Charlesworth on the state of the NHS and Nick Cohen on what is done in the name of “the people” by politicians