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Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Birkbeck Scientist

Professor Sir Roger Penrose OM, was a awarded the prestigious prize for research he conducted at Birkbeck in the 1960s.

Professor Roger Penrose
Professor Roger Penrose

Professor Sir Roger Penrose OM was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work carried out at Birkbeck in the 1960s that demonstrated that black holes were an inevitable consequence of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

The award, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm yesterday (Tuesday 6October) is shared with Professors Rheinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their experimental discovery of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

Penrose was appointed Reader of Applied Mathematics at Birkbeck in 1964 and made Professor two years later. In between these events, in 1965, he published a seminal mathematical proof that a singularity in space-time will occur in a gravitational collapse of a massive star. It is for this work that he has today been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Such singularities, where space-time ceases to exist and from which light cannot escape, were first popularised “black holes” in the late 1960s by the Princeton physicist John Wheeler.

Although the mathematical possibility of gravitationally collapsed massive objects had been thought to be a potential consequence of General Relativity since 1916, the idea that they might actually exist only formed slowly. A particular problem was that the mathematical analysis of the equations was extremely difficult. Only very special cases such a perfectly spherical objects could be analysed, and consequently most scientists were sceptical that such a thing could be created in the real world.

In his 1965 paper Penrose "revolutionised the mathematical tools that we use to analyse the properties of spacetime" - Kip Thorne the 2017 Nobel Laureate (for the discovery of gravitational waves). Instead of trying to solve equations for specific cases, Penrose used the mathematical tools of topology, which describe the properties of general curved surfaces to show that regardless of their shape all sufficiently massive stars would almost inevitably collapse to a single point – a singularity - when they died .

Penrose’s new mathematical approach also created a new era for the study of the consequences of General Relativity. Later in the 1960s Penrose extended his work to consider the properties of black holes and their formation, and in 1970 working with Stephen Hawking demonstrated that a singularity also applied to the origin of the whole universe in the Big Bang. Since 1973, Penrose has been Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and is widely known for his popular books on science.

Professor David Latchman, Vice Chancellor of Birkbeck said: “I am delighted to congratulate Professor Roger on his outstanding achievement. Following his employment at Birkbeck Professor Roger was made a Fellow in 1996, and it is superb to see him receive such recognition for his work. Birkbeck has a long tradition of contributing to the field of science and I’m sure this will serve as a source of pride and inspiration for many in the science community.”

Dr Mark Williams, Director of the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology's Biophysics Centre at Birkbeck commented: "It’s always an honour as a present member of staff to reflect on the long and continuing tradition of outstanding science here at Birkbeck. This the fourth Birkbeck scientist to receive the Nobel Prize and I believe the first where all the work for the Prize was done here at Birkbeck. Penrose tells the story that he was crossing the road walking into Birkbeck, talking to a colleague, when he suddenly had an inspiration of how to solve the gravitational collapse problem. He was then able to write his Nobel prize winning article in just a few months. We can all hope for such inspirations!"


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