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Thursday, 9 June 2022, 6:00PM - 7:00PM
The Old Library, Guildhall

The Journey from Black-Hole Singularities to a Cyclic Cosmology

Sir Roger Penrose

The Sir Thomas Gresham Annual Lecture


The “singularity theorems” of the 1960s demonstrated that large enough celestial bodies, or collections of such bodies, would, collapse gravitationally, to “singularities”, where the equations and assumptions of Einstein’s general relativity cannot be mathematically continued. Such singularities are expected to lie deep within what we now call black holes. Similar arguments (largely by Stephen Hawking) apply also to the “Big-Bang” picture of the origin of the universe, but whose singularity has a profound structural difference, resulting in the 2nd law of thermodynamics, whereby “randomness” in the universe increases with time. It is hard to see how any ordinary procedures of “quantization” of Einstein’s theory can resolve this contrasting singularity conundrum,

Yet, a deeper understanding of the special nature of the Big Bang is obtained from the perspective of conformal geometry, removing the distinction between “big” and “small, and whereby the Big-Bang singularity, unlike those in black holes, becomes non-singular, and can be regarded as the conformal continuation of a previous “cosmic aeon”, leading to the picture of conformal cyclic cosmology (CCC) according to which the entire universe consists of a succession of such cosmic aeons, each of whose big bang is the conformal continuation of the remote future of a previous aeon. Some recently observed effects provide some remarkable support for this CCC picture.


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Roger Penrose at Festival della Scienza

Sir Roger Penrose is a British mathematician and relativist who in the 1960s calculated many of the basic features of black holes.

After obtaining a Ph.D. in algebraic geometry from the University of Cambridge in 1957, Penrose held temporary posts at a number of universities in both England and the United States. From 1964 to 1973 he served as reader and eventually professor of applied mathematics at Birkbeck College, London. From 1973 he held the Rouse-Ball Chair of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. 

In 1969, with Stephen Hawking, Penrose proved that all matter within a black hole collapses to a singularity, a geometric point in space where mass is compressed to infinite density and zero volume. Penrose also developed a method of mapping the regions of space-time surrounding a black hole. Such a map, which is called a Penrose diagram, allows one to visualize the effects of gravitation upon an entity approaching a black hole. He also discovered Penrose tiling, in which a set of shapes can be used to cover a plane without using a repeating pattern.

Penrose became interested in the problem of defining consciousness and wrote two books in which he argued that quantum mechanics is needed to explain the conscious mind—The Emperor’s New Mind (1989) and Shadows of the Mind (1994). He also wrote The Road to Reality (2004), an extensive overview of mathematics and physics. In Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe (2010), Penrose posited his theory of conformal cyclic cosmology, formulating the Big Bang as an endlessly recurring event. He received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 2008.

He was knighted for his services to science in 1994. For his work on black holes, he was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics, alongside American astronomer Andrea Ghez and German astronomer Reinhard Genzel.


Image by Festival della Scienza licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

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