This Feels Great!

Andrea Ghez accepting the 2020 nobel prize for physics

Andrea Ghez accepting the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics

You know, it is easy (and healthy) to be steadfastly cynical about the whole prize thing, but sometimes it is just great to simply cast that aside and get into the spirit of it. This is one such time. The Nobel Prize ceremony was today and you can watch the whole thing on YouTube here. (Physics starts at about 36 minutes in.) My interest was in the moments Andrea Ghez and Roger Penrose picked up (literally this year) their prizes for their wonderful work on black boles. The picture I was able to screen grab of Andrea in particular says it all.

I’ve met Andrea Ghez on an number of occasions (and communicated electronically on many more), usually because of our joint interest in making science accessible to the public through talks (where we first met during K C Cole’s excellent Categorically Not! series), TV shows (where we’ve sometimes connected behind the scenes, in the context of shows or films we’re both in, or thinking of being in), and so forth. All our interactions have been such a pleasure! For many years, one of my principal slides when talking about black holes is the little (< 1min) movie that her group made of the motion of stars they’d tracked over time to show them orbiting a dense massive object that we now know is a black hole. So I am just delighted to see her accept this prize.

Roger Penrose accepting the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics

Roger Penrose accepting the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics

Roger Penrose has been a key figure in my work, of course – so much of the precise language we discuss black holes with is due to him. I’m also SO pleased that I helped (earlier this Summer while co-advising (with Katie Mack) on a screenplay for a new show) get the Penrose process be a (named) integral part of a dramatic scenario to appear on your TV screens one day, I hope. But I should also mention that he played a part in the trajectory that my career took. He was (to my horror when I walked into the room because of his legend and stature in my mind) on the interview panel for the Lindemann fellowship that I (having indeed won it) used for my first postdoc, going off to the USA to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. What a nerve-wracking trial by fire that interview was!

Why was Penrose looming large in my mind as a graduate student? It wasn’t actually to do with Relativity and Black holes, as you might have guessed. It was to do with condensed matter physics. I’d spent a huge amount of my later undergraduate years obsessed with a (then) new discovery of a phase of matter called quasicrystals (see also here), and a key mathematical pattern people were interested at the time as a result was the Penrose tiling. I spent many many hours drawing two-dimensional Penrose tilings, and building out of cardboard portions of three-dimensional Penrose tilings. I lived and breathed Penrose tilings for years and never lost my love for (and obsession with) them (and the irrational number the golden mean) even when I turned my attention to particle physics, relativity and string theory for graduate school. So NOW you know why I was all of a shiver when Roger Penrose showed up on my interview committee for that Fellowship!

So anyway, it’s just great to see him accept the prize. I’ve met him only that one time (I think), but through his work, I’m simply a good-old-fashioned fan.

Congratulations to all the Nobel Prize winners this year, but the ones for Andrea and Roger have special meaning for me.


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