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Tech Q&A

Roger Penrose

Describe your latest project.
When you say "project," does that refer to the things that I am currently thinking about, such as book proposals that I have made but where I haven't started writing? Or scientific research projects that have been going on for decades but where progress has been grindingly slow? Or does this refer to a crazy idea that I had less than six months ago on cosmology? Or does it refer to the book (The Road to Reality) that I recently wrote, and which still needs material put on the web for the solutions to the exercises in the book?

The lecture that I'm giving at Terry Bristol's do in Portland in March has the title "Before the Big Bang: A Radical New Perspective." This refers to the "crazy idea" referred to above. The idea provides an outlandish (and surprising) proposal for what went on "before the Big Bang," and which, if actually true, would go a long way to explaining one of the supreme puzzles of cosmology, to do with the origin of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Of course, there is a reasonable chance that the idea is just nonsense, but something pretty wild has to be true! Beyond that, I'm not prepared to say, just at the moment.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Nothing much inspires me to write. If it did, I'd write faster, no doubt. But occasionally I get an idea that I feel the need to explain to people. If I get stuck (which is not infrequently), then I just have to will myself to write down any old rubbishy way of saying what I want to say. Then I work away again and again to improve it until it's acceptable. But then again, occasionally, if I'm lucky, I get a bit excited and things just take off for a while and hardly need to be changed at all. I have no way of telling which it will be, nor can I tell very well when I look at it later which it was.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
No great inspiration from schoolteachers, though I had one math teacher who was quite inspiring, I think. More came from my family, especially from my father who was a scientist (human genetics), and also from my older brother, who later became one (mathematical physics). At Cambridge I got lots of inspiration (Dirac, Bondi, etc., and my close friend Dennis Sciama — they inspired me to pursue physics, whereas my official Ph.D. was in pure mathematics).

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
Good God, what on Earth is that? I think I have heard of the term "geek" before, but not the "Geek Test." For all I know, I could be a geek. Or am I thinking of a nerd? But isn't a nerd someone wrapped up with computers? That's not me.

Chess or video games?
Absolutely not. I don't do video games (unless you count the odd game of patience). And I was immunized against chess at a young age by my kid brother, who was too good. Later he became British Chess Champion ten times.

What do you do for relaxation?
Play with my five-year-old son.

What's your favorite blog right now?
Now you've got me. I think I've heard of a "blogger," but what on Earth is a "blog"?

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Douglas Adams, I know of course, as he was British, and I am a fan; but you had me worried about Scott Adams, whom I'd never heard of. I thought maybe that he's a distinguished author whom I should have known about, so I looked him up on Google.... Yes, I have seen Dilbert, I think, but I can't remember anything about the strip. If you ask me about American cartoonists that I greatly admire, then it's the Gar(r)ys: Trudeau and Larson.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
I never read much as a kid. Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells's science fiction a little later.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Most make us more miserable, such as TV, air travel, computers, and the Internet (although all of these do have a few positive values). Antibiotics sometimes help. Oh, yes, good quality music on CDs — that's a plus.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Probably Galileo, before he had his troubles with the church, of course. How fascinating to have the mysteries of the heavens just begin to reveal themselves.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
Best was math, though I was unbelievably slow. Worst was geography, I think.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Be better programmed. It does incredibly stupid things and freezes up on me for no apparent reason.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
More gadgets, but they are not always an improvement. (Sometimes they make life more difficult, like the incredible number of incomprehensible buttons on modern radios, with labels I can't read or whose function I can't understand when I finally get out my magnifying glass to read them. What happened to the good old-fashioned knob that you just turn? Oh yes, and the unbelievable controls on showers. What's wrong with two simple taps, hot and cold?) Maybe there will be some really significant changes, but I'd be surprised if these occur during my remaining lifetime.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
Presumably the U.S. (But it would be interesting to see how this might be affected if we look at countries of origin or places of education of important scientists.) In ten years? Well, China is certainly determined to get ahead, and so is India, but they have a very long way to go.

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