Will Stephen Hawking win a Nobel Prize

Nobel Price for physics : From Stephen Hawking's shadow

Roger Penrose is a name that has a special ring to it in the ears of physicists and mathematicians. When he fell in the livestream from Stockholm yesterday in the late morning after a few words in Swedish, the not-so-well-informed asked themselves whether he already has a Nobel Prize - or whether he is now getting the second.

For many others who are familiar with mathematics and physics, it was a long-awaited, almost liberating moment to hear that the now 89-year-old is now being honored in this way.

To want to describe in a generally understandable way what his important contributions to physics and mathematics are and on which trains of thought they are based is quite an impossibility.

Things of real or supposed impossibility, however, were exactly what much of Roger Penrose's previous research life was about. In his early twenties, for example, he developed a geometric object called the Penrose triangle after him.

Inspiration for M.C. Escher

It consists of three bars that seem to be at right angles to each other, but are still connected to form a triangle. According to Euclidean geometry, that doesn't work at all, and it actually is. Penrose described it as "an impossibility in its purest form". Suggestions from him inspired the graphic artist M.C. Escher on some of his equally “impossible” depictions, such as the famous “waterfall”, where water seems to flow in a cycle uphill and downhill at the same time.

The search for the supposedly impossible, but also for mathematical simplicity - which at the same time meant beauty for him, especially when it emerged unexpectedly - should remain a leitmotif for him. Non-physicists and mathematicians may be familiar with his name from popular science books, but above all from the popular writings of another astrophysicist: in Stephen Hawking's autobiography he is probably mentioned more often than any other by his colleagues.

Singularities

With Hawking, Penrose also worked on the theory of singularities and black holes.

This work too has something to do with impossibility. According to Penrose, singularities exist, i.e. the most extreme conceivable places where the curvature of space-time is infinite and thus, to put it simply, no natural law applies any more, with mathematical certainty. But observing these places, which include the interior of black holes, directly is, according to him, just as mathematically justified, impossible. For this he invented the beautiful term "cosmic censorship".

While general relativity predicted the existence of black holes, Einstein himself did not believe that these objects and the singularities within them really existed. In fact, in 1965, Penrose was the first to “prove” mathematically - and worthy of the Nobel Prize - that they result naturally as a consequence of the theory of relativity. This did not prove their existence, but Penrose paved the way for their proof decades later. In the meantime there are even the first “photos” of such an object.

Tribute to Hawking

Hawking never got the Nobel Prize. But his contributions are mentioned several times both in the committee's explanations on the scientific background of the Penrose Prize and in those for Genzel and Ghez. The 2020 award is therefore also a little bit of a posthumous Nobel tribute to the most famous and popular physicist of the last few decades, who would have loved to have received it himself. But he also brings Penrose out of Hawking's shadow. For a long time, many physicists felt that this was above the at least equally ingenious, versatile and creative Penrose. Now the impossible, singular, beautiful happened for him after all.

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