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Information Loss (Roger Penrose)

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Roger Penrose in conversation with Howard Burton

You might think that a blog post about Roger Penrose that’s called “Information Loss” would necessarily involve black holes, entropy, and Hawking radiation, perhaps also touching on bets over encyclopedias and all that.

Not this time. Instead, I’d like to talk about a more everyday sort of information problem: how best to communicate science. I’ve been puzzling about this issue for as long as I can remember: first as a keen undergraduate anxious to share the sorts of things I was learning, and later as a physics graduate student trying to describe the essentials of my tiny corner of understanding to anyone who might listen. I always had a lingering sense of frustration that, somehow, I was unable to coherently capture the fundamental aspects of what attracted me, and what frustrated me, about physics. But I thought it was just me.

Years later, when I found myself running Perimeter Institute, I tried again: taking advantage of our robust scientific visitor program to put together a series of monthly public lectures of internationally renowned physicists.

The surrounding citizenry responded with unequivocal enthusiasm. Our brand new lecture theatre quickly proved to be too small, and we were forced to steadily move to larger and larger venues, eventually settling on a nearby school auditorium that had a capacity of 550. We filled it almost every night. The speakers, meanwhile, were often scientific superstars who took their task of public engagement very seriously.

It should have worked well. But it didn’t. Most of the talks were far too complex for the non-expert, irretrievably losing them after 3-5 minutes. Meanwhile, those watching who did have some measure of technical understanding were invariably frustrated by the overuse of hand-waving metaphor, leaving them with little concrete to take away from the experience. At least half the audience routinely rushed away right before question time, anxious to avoid the inevitable deluge of those loudly declaring how their pet theory clearly proves both the speaker, and Einstein (of course), dead wrong.

And yet, month after month, people kept coming back, desperately hoping for a glimpse inside the scientific temple. It all struck me as an emphatically missed opportunity: all these well-intentioned souls braving a dark, snowy, night to listen to a passionate specialist talk about her work, and coming away with next to nothing at all that they might be able to coherently explain to the person sitting next to them.

Years later still, I tried yet again. The problem, I concluded after a small amount of experimentation, lay principally in the format: most of the time lectures simply aren’t well-suited to substantively convey information across significantly unequal levels of expertise. Instead, experts should be engaged in an informal dialogue where they could repeatedly be stopped, questioned, and forced to clarify their ideas in order to make them comprehensible to their objective, inexpert, interlocutor.

Hence Ideas Roadshow was born. And my (admittedly biased) assessment is quite a positive one, as over a hundred top researchers have now willingly sat down beside me in front of the cameras to discuss their passions, motivations, and frustrations in a way that can be later highlighted for all to contemplate, wrestle with, and enjoy.

Roger Penrose was one of those people. A few years ago I visited him in Oxford to discuss his latest theory of cosmology, Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC), as described in his popular book Cycles of Time.

I knew going in that many people had problems with Roger’s views on this issue. Some were incensed that he chose to unveil the lion’s share of his ideas through a popular book instead of a series of peer-reviewed papers, while others disagreed strongly with his claim that cosmic microwave background (CMB) data supported his theory by revealing so-called “circles in the sky.”

But I didn’t really care about any of that. My aim was to highlight the core concern that had motivated Roger to create his theory in the first place: his long-time befuddlement at how the universe could have begun in such a peculiar state of low entropy with gravity somehow “turned off”. Anyone following Roger’s career knows that this question of the early universe and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is something that he’s long been worried about, and CCC is merely his latest attempt to address it. I had naturally been keen to highlight these concerns, and was quite pleased that, when all was said and done, I was later able to capture his thoughts, as per the following clip:

Buttressed by a sense of having finally achieved some semblance of pedagogical success, I decided to drastically up the ante and hold a live conversational event with Roger. After all, I figured, if such unique windows into Roger’s thinking could be captured during a private, filmed discussion, imagine what might be able to be achieved in the crackling ambience of a live event? Perhaps I had finally solved the troubling academic communication puzzle once and for all: public enlightenment through rigorous Socratic methodology?

And so, earlier this month, I met with Roger in central London’s Conway Hall to discuss his latest book, Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe. Even by Roger’s daunting standards, this is a hugely challenging book, spanning superstring theory, foundations of quantum mechanics, cosmic inflation, twistor theory, and a good deal more besides.

Conway Hall London Thinks November 2016 HIGH RES 23.JPG

Photo by Darren Johnson, iDJ Photography

I waded through it as carefully as I could. The sheer scale of the task before me seemed little short of impossible: I could have easily spent years going through some of the arguments carefully simply in order to better educate myself about the topics at hand, but I pushed all that to the back of my mind. After all, I had discovered the silver pedagogical bullet of conversational interaction: on stage, I would skillfully extract some concrete, intelligible nuggets for the motivated layperson to come away with. The secret, I confidently told myself, was to keep things simple: aim for 5 rough-and- ready takeaways that every person could leave the theatre with, along with, time permitting, a few additional valuable insights (e.g. asking Roger to shed some light on the reasons for his ongoing fascination with conformal geometry, complex manifolds, and the compelling uniqueness of four dimensional Lorentzian space-time).

I should have known better, of course. One obvious sign of the sheer insanity of my quest was that, of all the reviews of Roger’s new book I had encountered, only one – that of Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit (see here) – even gave a clear sense of what the book was actually about. Peter is a very experienced physics communicator and a most knowledgeable fellow, but if he was just about the only who seemed up to the task of summarizing Roger’s reflections in a written review for a largely technical audience, what hope was there for me to get Roger himself to summarize everything on stage in real time?

Not much.

And so it proved to be. Of course, pulled by the Penrose name, many people of all backgrounds were in attendance (I caught a glimpse of former PI colleague and physics blogger Sabine Hossenfelder who was passing through London at the time and graciously dropped by). At the end of 90 minutes, I had, by the most charitable reckoning, identified only 2-3 of my 5 planned “takeaways”, and even those in an admittedly muddled manner. When the questions came they principally focused on Roger’s views on consciousness and aspects of cosmological fine-tuning and the anthropic principle, topics that played no real role in either his new book or our on-stage conversation (although at some point I had, for some mysterious reason, stupidly opted to allude to his controversial work on microtubules and quantum consciousness – as if the current slate of topics wasn’t somehow large enough). Most of the audience duly began to stream towards the exits.

So what’s the moral to the story? Well, different people will naturally draw their own conclusions, but for me the important lesson is that, to best extract core ideas from technical material, the conversational format should be invoked in intimate surroundings, focused on a relatively narrow topic, and coupled with an extensive amount of detailed post-production. In other words, if you want to know what’s bothering Roger Penrose about entropy, the big bang and the Second Law, why he felt motivated to develop CCC and what that theory is all about, you should watch our carefully-produced videos and/or read the associated eBook, The Cyclic Universe, together with – of course – Roger’s own book, Cycles of Time.

And if you want to get a clear sense of why he doesn’t like superstring theory, what specifically troubles him about quantum mechanics, and what twistor theory is all about, you should definitely pick up a copy of Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe and read through it as slowly and meticulously as you can.

Meanwhile, if you’re curious about how Roger’s looking these days, check out our recent live conversation on YouTube. Just don’t expect to learn very much.


For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Roger Penrose, click here.  All Ideas Roadshow videos are available for individual purchase or by subscription ($10/month, $100/year), while all eBooks are available for purchase on Amazon.  Institutional subscriptions are offered through our Academic, School and Public Library portals.

Part 1 of our long-format discussion with Roger is now freely available on iTunes, while the revised edition of our eBook with Roger, The Cyclic Universe, is available on Amazon. Roger’s latest book Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe was published this year by Princeton University Press.


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