Who is Sir Roger Penrose and Why is He Famous?

Sir Roger Penrose is a British mathematical physicist whose contributions to science earned him a British knighthood.
Christopher McFadden

Sir Roger Penrose is widely considered one of the most important mathematical physicists of our time. His work on the properties of black holes, along with Stephen Hawking's, revolutionized our understanding of the nature of the universe. 

Here we examine Penrose's life and highlight some of his key contributions to science. 


Who is Roger Penrose?

Sir Roger Penrose, is a British mathematician, physicist, and relativist who is widely respected for his work on the basic features of black holes in the 1960s.

roger penrose bio
Source: Cirone-Musi/Wikimedia Commons

He was born in Colchester, England on the 8th of August 1931. His father, Lionel Penrose, was a geneticist and a leading expert in mental defects. 

His father's interests extended beyond his profession and included geometry which he often shared with his son. 

His brother, Oliver, is also a well-respected physicist and his other brother, Jonathan, is a Chess Grandmaster. 

Penrose enrolled and completed his undergraduate degree from University College, London. During his undergraduate studies, Penrose discovered a theorem concerning conic sections from which some of the basic theorems of projective geometry follow as special cases.

He obtained his Ph.D. in algebraic geometry from the University of Cambridge in 1957. Afterwhich he held various academic posts in various prominent universities in both the UK and the United States. 

"As part of his work for his doctorate, he rediscovered some important results in the theory of matrices. From 1964 to 1966 he was a reader in applied mathematics at Birkbeck College at the University of London, advancing to full professor in 1966." - biography.yourdictionary.com

Since 1973 Penrose has held the roles of Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford.

His most significant contributions to science are his work on general relativity and cosmology. For this, and his other work, Penrose was knighted in 1994 for his services to science.

Roger has also won many awards and prizes throughout his career. For example, he was awarded the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics which he shared with the great Stephen Hawking. 

This was awarded to them for their groundbreaking Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems

roger penrose black holes
Source: Cappan/iStock

His other prizes, awards, and honors include, but are not limited to: -

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  • The Adams Prize from Cambridge University and in 1971.
  • The Dannie Heineman Prize for Physics from the American Physical Society.
  • In 1972 he was elected to the Royal Society and in 1973 he succeeded in the prestigious Rouse Ball Chair of Mathematics at Oxford University.
  • The 1975 Royal Astronomical Society's Eddington Medal
  • He received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 2008.

What is Roger Penrose known for, and what did he


As we have already alluded to, Penrose is best known for his work on black holes

In the 1960s, working with Stephen Hawking, Penrose was able to prove that all matter within a black hole collapses into a single point, aka a singularity. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, this is "a geometric point in space where mass is compressed to infinite density and zero volume."

Mass is so concentrated at this point of space that even light photons are unable to escape the black hole's maw. 

For this reason, Penrose and Hawking were able to explain that even if we could recognize a black hole from its effects on neighbouring objects, we could never observe the interior of the black hole itself. 

Penrose was also able to develop a way of mapping regions of space-time that surround a black hole. Maps of this kind are generally called Penrose diagrams.

They are designed to allow someone to easily visualize the effect of gravity on an entity if it were to approach a black hole. Penrose was also able to discover something called Penrose tiling.

This is a set of shapes that can be used to cover a plane without using a repeating pattern. 

Penrose has also turned his hand to help define what is meant by consciousness. In two of his published books, The Emperor’s New Mind (1989) and Shadows of the Mind (1994), he argues that quantum mechanics is a fundamental component of it. 

Thanks to the former of these two books, Penrose became widely known to the public. It became a best-seller in both the UK and the U.S. and is widely considered one of the best books on modern science ever written. 

In his 2004 book, The Road to Reality he also provided an extensive overview of mathematics and physics. 

In 2010 he also proposed that the Big Bang is an endless and reoccurring event in his theory of conformal cyclic cosmology. He laid out his proposal in his 2010 book Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe

"What distinguished Roger Penrose among the physicists and mathematicians of his time was the breadth and depth in his work. Some of the essays that he wrote illustrate the attention that he gave to his intellectual ancestors, such as Sir Isaac Newton. His influence on his students was profound." - biography.yourdictionary.com

What does the Penrose triangle mean?

In the 1950s Penrose, with his father, devised the Penrose triangle or impossible triangle/tribar

Interestingly, the optical illusions appear to have first been developed by Oscar Reutersvärd in the 1930s. He was a Swedish graphic artist who has come to be known as the "father of the impossible figure". 

Oscar, according to anecdotes, doodled the shape during a Latin class when he was just 18. 

The optical illusion was later independently discovered, and popularised, by Lionel Penrose (Roger's father) and a younger Sir Roger Penrose. Penrose and Penrose published the illusion in the British Journal of Psychology in 1958.

Why is the Penrose triangle impossible?

roger penrose triangle
The Penrose Triangle. Source: illusionsindex.org

As you can see from the image above, this triangle looks ok on the surface but something is not quite right.

If you follow the shape of the triangle starting at the top point you should be able to note that the left side seems to extend away from you. Simultaneously the right side appears to extend towards you.

But they seem to lie on the same plane when they meet and are connected by the bottom vertices. How is this possible?

In the real world, of course, it isn't. It defies all established rules of geometry.

"The Penrose Triangle is an impossible figure (or impossible object or undecidable figure): it depicts an object which could not possibly exist. It is impossible for the Impossible Triangle to exist because in order for it to exist rules of Euclidean geometry would have to be violated." - illusionsindex.org 

Like most optical illusions, the work of M. C. Escher for example, you will see something which appears possible but is, in reality, completely farcical. 

roger penrose tiling
Example of Penrose tiling. Source: Inductiveload /Wikimedia Commons

7 takeaway facts about Roger Penrose

1. Roger Penrose was born on the 8th of August 1931.

2. Penrose's family is a very talented lot. His father was a well-respected geneticist, his brother is another renowned physicist and his other brother is a Chess Grandmaster. 

3. In the 1950s, Penrose and his father independently discovered the Impossible tribar or triangle optical illusion. It was published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1958.

4. Penrose worked alongside Stephen Hawking to work out some basic properties of black holes. For their work, the pair were awarded the 1988 Wolf Prize for Physics. 

5. Penrose was knighted in 1994 for his services to science. 

6. Penrose has three sons from his former marriage with an American Joan Isabel Wedge. His current wife, Vanessa Thomas is the director of Academic Development at Cokethorpe School and former head of mathematics at Abingdon School.

7. Apart from being an accomplished mathematician and physicist, Penrose has contributed to the advancement of theories of consciousness, quantum cosmology, the development of artificial intelligence, and other topics that explore the nature of physics, knowledge, and reality.