Skip to content

By Roger Highfield on

Sir Roger Penrose: From Hawking points to unconscious computers

Roger Highfield, Science Director, discusses the work of Sir Roger Penrose, the latest Science Museum Group Fellow.

When it comes to his views on cosmology and consciousness, no-one can accuse our new Science Museum Group Fellow of being dull.

On the evening Sir Roger Penrose received his award, the Nobel prize winner talked about how to make the universe a less boring place and, as a bonus, reminded us why he believes computers cannot recapitulate the workings of the human mind.

At the Royal Society, during an event organised by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute of Berkeley, California, Sir Roger received his Science Museum Group fellowship from Dame Mary Archer, who cited his work on black holes with Stephen Hawking; on ‘impossible objects’ with his father Lionel Penrose and the artist M C Escher; and his contribution to Pattern Pod in the Science Museum.

Sir Roger Penrose recieves his SMG Fellowship from Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the SMG Board of Trustees

In a subsequent conversation with David Eisenbud, Director of the Institute, Sir Roger once again challenged the standard view of cosmology, that the universe underwent “inflation”, a brief but exceptionally intense expansion just after the Big Bang, leading to the very uniform cosmos that we observe around us.

The cosmos will continue to expand until stars die, then much of the matter will be dragged into black holes which in turn will evaporate after a long time through a phenomenon called Hawking Radiation, until they “go pop” to leave a universe dominated by photons (particles of light).

Because he was ‘worried about how boring the universe would be,’ Sir Roger, based at the Mathematical institute, University of Oxford, in 2005 unveiled a rival theory known as “conformal cyclic cosmology” (CCC), which he discussed in a Science Museum event in 2018, which posits that at this point, the universe begins to look much as it did at its start, setting the stage for the next Big Bang.

The universe cycles from one aeon to the next, according to the cyclic model developed by Sir Roger, who thinks visually – his science is not just equations and numbers.

Perhaps that is because he hails from an artistic family, notably his paternal grandfather, James Doyle Penrose, an Irish painter, and his uncle, Roland Penrose member of the British surrealist movement.

The conformal geometry in Sir Roger’s model – which he pointed out can be seen in representations of infinity by M C Escher – applies to particles of light, along with the remote future and big bang of each aeon, when the squashing of the cold low-density remote future matches the stretching of the hot dense big bang of the following aeon.

Sir Roger’s drawing of cyclic universes © University of Oxford

The model has not excited his peers, alas. However, he said there is now experimental evidence for his theory, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in an analysis of the “echo of the Big Bang”, known as the cosmic microwave background radiation.

A survey revealed numerous hot spots around eight times the diameter of the full moon and up to 30 times the average nearby temperature variations.

Image of the six most prominent hot spots © University of Oxford

These spots were overlooked previously owing to the conventional belief that the early exponentially expanding inflationary phase of the universe should have washed away any such features.

Sir Roger’s theory suggests why there is one exception due to the supermassive black holes in an aeon’s remote future, which would each have almost completely swallowed its surrounding galactic cluster, before eventually evaporating into Hawking radiation after something like 10 to the power of 100 years.

According to his theory, which has been disputed, all this radiated energy leaks through into the succeeding aeon at what he calls a “Hawking point” and it is these shadows of black holes that he believes form the hotspots in the microwaves left over from the Big Bang.

Sir Roger is also well known for his non boring views on consciousness, and his doubts that machines could be conscious, building on an interest in the human brain that dates back to his school days:

‘Both my parents were medical…they had decided that I was going to be the one to carry on their profession. I was going to open peoples’ heads up and look at how their brains worked’.

Though his love of mathematics would take precedence, his interest was rekindled at university when he came across studies of the limits of computation using step by step procedures, or algorithms, by the mathematicians Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel:

‘I thought there had to be some way of transcending computability, that what we seem to be able to perceive in mathematics are things that are outside computable systems.’

Although many assume that the workings of the world can be captured by algorithms and computer programs, the work of Turing and Gödel show this is not true: ‘There are features of physical laws …which go outside the computable laws that we know,’ said Sir Roger, who believes the answer to the conundrum of consciousness lies in quantum mechanics, the theory that applies to the subatomic world, notably a mysterious phenomenon called wavefunction collapse.