I am afraid Phillip Ball's discussion with Professor Sir Roger Penrose (OM FRS) at the Sheldonian on Saturday morning completely undermined my worldview. I am not the greatest mathematician, astro-physicist or cosmologist, more an interested amateur. However I did think I had a grip on some basic principles such as Schrodinger's cat, but alas, Prof Penrose informed us that Schrodinger originally postulated this scenario as a means of highlighting the fundamental and still unresolved dichotomy of quantum mechanics. And I had totally bought into string theory and the many worlds theory having trotted through the Long Cosmos with Terry Pratchett.
Who would have thought at the outset that such a diminutive figure, sat amongst the splendours of a sunny Sheldonian, could have had such a devastating impact on my worldview and sense of perspective? And this seemed unlikely at the outset when Prof Penrose seemed diffident and reluctant to talk about his family and particularly their artistic endeavours, and how this had influenced his visual rather than algebraic mathematical approach. However, as the discussion moved to more scientific matters Prof Penrose was clearly more comfortable and effusive about this subject matter.
I was reminded of the popular phrase “Grammar: the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit". As clearly demonstrated during these discussions Prof Penrose clearly knows his shit and I clearly don't. And as became apparent Prof Penrose also knows everyone else in the field who know their stuff too; the conversation was littered with references to conversations, correspondence and lectures by the alumni of the field: Sciama, Hoyle, Bondi, Dirac, Hawking, Feynman, Rees, Finkelstein, Oppenheimer etc. And this trawl through Prof Penrose memories not only brought the complex scientific field he works in to life but gave insight into the personalities of the scientists he knows with some discussion of the links between faith in a theory as opposed to actual proof of a theory and the complex visualization and psychology involved in developing such ideas.
I was consoled that my belief, if not my total understanding, in the Big Bang and black holes, aligned with the views of Prof Penrose after all he postulated and subsequently proved many of the theories and much of the mathematics which elucidate these ideas. However, following his discussion of the problems of reconciling Newtonian physics with Quantum theory and the FAPP (for all practical purposes 'cheat') I realised that I should read or, more realistically, try to read Prof Penrose's new book Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe and not pick up the occasional nugget of astro-physics from watching The Big Bang Theory on TV and reading Mr Pratchett's science fiction. Once again a lecture at the Literary Festival has proved challenging and insightful.