‘Surely you are joking, Professor Penrose?’

June 1, 2005
I have to report that I am seriously wounded from reading Penrose’s headache-generating math and from carrying his weighty tome around in my book bag.

I have to report that I am seriously wounded from reading Penrose’s headache-generating math and from carrying his weighty tome around in my book bag.

In recent years, we have seen a number of ­attempts, both highly popular and highly ­academic, to explain the nature of the universe as we know it today. First came Stephen Hawking’s masterful A Brief History of Time (224 pages). Then came a popular volume from the American journalist and travel writer Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (560 pages).

Somewhat surprisingly, both these books became best-sellers and are still among the top ten on most science book lists. And, most important, neither of these books require an advanced degree in mathematics or theoretical physics (but a good science dictionary would come in handy).

Now here comes the latest (and heaviest) blast from the spires of academia, The Road to ­Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, (1099 pages), by Sir Roger Penrose, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University (Knopf, New York, NY, $40). Penrose is to Oxford as Hawking is to Cambridge, one might say. And now, with this heavy volume, the battle is joined.

So now the doughty Penrose has brought his heavy mathematical guns to bear on the likes of the (relatively) young upstarts Hawking and Bryson. Does the battleship Penrose have the cannons to blow these two frigates out of the water? The battle is joined but not yet resolved.

As the Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said to his officers before the battle of Waterloo, “Hard pounding, gentlemen; let’s see who pounds the longest.” I have to report that I am seriously wounded from reading Penrose’s headache-generating math and from carrying his weighty tome around in my book bag. I had to give up the battle and retire behind the lines, so to speak.

I would suggest that you might want to read the preface to this book very thoroughly before you plunk down forty bucks (plus tax) for it at your local bookshop. In the preface, Penrose tries to define a fraction (such as 3/8) and does so in terms of the mathematical concept of an equivalence class. This will sort out the nonmathematical sheep from the more mathematically astute goats. If you are happy with these pages, by all means proceed to the bookstore’s checkout counter. And then go directly to the pharmacy for some Extra-Strength Excedrin. You are a better person than I.

But, rather than admitting complete defeat, I resolved to approach Penrose differently in the vague hope that I could find a way of preparing myself to scale the mathematical heights of his new book. In desperation, I turned to a series of three lectures given by Penrose at Princeton University in October 2003, Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe.

These lectures are available on rather well-produced streaming video (www.princeton.edu/webmedia/lectures/). The lectures proceed in a typically British self-deprecating manner with a set of crudely drawn overhead transparencies. No ­Masters-of-the-Universe types of Powerpoint presentations here, I’m afraid. Sir Roger prefers his own scrawls to those of the professional slide preparers.

That was a couple of months ago. I did feel somewhat better prepared after listening to several hours of Penrose at the lectern, but I’m still not willing to dig into hypercomplex numbers or manifold calculus, to say nothing of Lagrangian formalism or Hamiltonian dynamics.

Penrose claims that nonmathematical readers can skip the first 400 or so pages. I plan to do just that. I remember reading somewhere that Penrose took eight years to complete this book. I feel that I may take eight years to digest Sir Roger’s magnum opus. Or, maybe, by reading the second half of the book, I could do it in four years. Don’t watch for results in this space any time soon.

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