Professor Sir Roger Penrose

Professor Sir Roger Penrose, Honorary Fellow and alumnus of St John’s College Cambridge and honorary doctor of the University, has jointly won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.

His ground-breaking proof of the formation of black holes is a landmark contribution

Heather Hancock

Penrose is an emeritus professor at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford. He becomes the 110th affiliate of the University of Cambridge to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences made the announcement this morning (6th October).

According to the Nobel Prize website: “Penrose used ingenious mathematical methods in his proof that black holes are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” 

Einstein himself did not believe that black holes really existed. But in January 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death, Penrose proved that black holes really can form and described them in detail. His ground-breaking article, published in January 1965, continues to be viewed as the most important contribution to the general theory of relativity since Einstein.

David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said: “The discoveries of this year’s Laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects. But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under the extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black hole”.

Penrose arrived at St John’s in 1952 as a graduate student and completed his PhD thesis on tensor methods in algebraic geometry in 1957. He remained at the College as a Research Fellow until 1960 and was elected as an Honorary Fellow in 1987. Penrose is the College's sixth Nobel prize-winner in Physics and tenth Nobel laureate overall. Heather Hancock, current Master of St John’s, said: “We are delighted to see Sir Roger Penrose receive the recognition and accolade of the Nobel Prize for his outstanding contribution to physics. His ground-breaking proof of the formation of black holes is a landmark contribution to the application of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. We offer our warmest congratulations to Roger.”

In the 1970s, Penrose collaborated with Cambridge’s Stephen Hawking and in 1988, they shared the Wolf Foundation Prize for Physics for the Penrose–Hawking singularity theorems. 

Prof Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, said: “Penrose is amazingly original and inventive, and has contributed creative insights for more than 60 years. There would, I think, be a consensus that Penrose and Hawking are the two individuals who have done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge of gravity. (Other key figures would include Israel, Carter, Kerr, and numerous others.) Sadly, this award was too much delayed to allow Hawking to share the credit with Penrose.

“It was Penrose, more than anyone else, who triggered the renaissance in relativity in the 1960s through his introduction of new mathematical techniques. He introduced the concept of a 'trapped surface’. On the basis of this concept, he and Hawking (more than a decade younger) together showed that the development of a singularity - where the density 'goes infinite' - was inevitable once a threshold of compactness had been crossed (even in a generic situation with no special symmetry). This crucial discovery firmed up the evidence for a big bang, and led to a quantitative description of black holes.”

Penrose shares the 2020 Physics Nobel with Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez who developed methods to see through the huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust to the centre of the Milky Way. Stretching the limits of technology, they refined new techniques to compensate for distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, building unique instruments and committing themselves to long-term research. Their work has provided the most convincing evidence yet of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

Professor Penrose was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge in 2020.

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