The 2020 Physics Nobel Prize was announced this morning, with half going to Roger Penrose for his work on black holes, half to two astronomers (Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez) for their work mapping what is going on at the center of our galaxy. I know just about nothing about the astronomy side of this, but am somewhat familiar with Penrose’s work, which very much deserves the prize.
Penrose is a rather unusual choice for a Physics Nobel Prize, in that he’s very much a mathematical physicist, with a Ph.D. in mathematics (are there other physics winners with math Ph.Ds?). In addition, the award is not for a new physical theory, or for anything experimentally testable, but for the rigorous understanding of the implications of Einstein’s general relativity. While I’m a great fan of the importance of this kind of work, I can’t think of many examples of it getting rewarded by the Nobel prize. I had always thought that Penrose was likely to get a Breakthrough Prize rather than a Nobel Prize, still don’t understand why that hasn’t happened already.
Besides the early work on black holes that Penrose is being recognized for, he has worked on many other things which I think are likely to ultimately be of even greater significance. In particular, he’s far and away the person most responsible for twistor theory, a subject which I believe has a great future ahead of it at the core of fundamental physical theory.
In all his work, Penrose has shown a remarkable degree of originality and creativity. He’s not someone who works to make an advance on ideas pioneered by others, but sets out to do something new and different. His book “The Road to Reality” is a masterpiece, an inspiring original and deep vision of the unity of geometry and physics that outshines the mainstream ways of looking at these questions.
Congratulations to Sir Roger, and compliments to the Nobel prize committee for a wonderful choice!