An Engineer In Too Deep: Review of the 2021 STAG Public Lecture with Sir Roger Penrose


On October 20th  I had the pleasure of attending the STAG (Southampton Theory, Astronomy and Gravitation) Research Centre’s annual public lecture at the Turner Sims concert hall.  Having neglected to inform ourselves as to the nature of what myself and my fellow course mate were attending, we were very pleasantly surprised to be introduced to a lecture by none other than Nobel Laureate Sir Roger Penrose, who would be discussing the research into black holes that had earned him the prize the year before.

Entering the theatre, I was immediately surprised at the number of people attending. Row upon row of eager PhD students and academics waiting in anticipation of a talk from one of the world’s biggest names in astrophysics. Knowing full well of our inferior capacity to understand the concepts that would be flying our way, we meagre engineers navigated our way to our specially reserved front row seats (perks of being a journalist for Wessex Scene) and tried to look at home amongst the brilliant minds surrounding us.

The next 90 minutes were a mental marathon, attempting to correlate the relatively limited physics I knew from A-Level and from certain engineering modules with the cutting-edge concepts being described to the room. It is an absolute credit to Sir Roger’s ability to articulate difficult ideas that I was still understanding the lecture after the first few slides, as we learnt how to interpret his diagrams depicting representations of 4-dimensional space-time. This quickly changed, however, and for the remainder of the lecture I relied on well-placed simplifications and summaries allowing me to understand the gist of the content.

We were taken on a journey to the start of the universe, comparing the complex geometry of the singularity at the beginning of the big bang with those of black holes, discussing theories of universes before our own and the questions raised when considering this. We were exposed to quantum theories of gravity, predictions for the end of the universe and casual stories of working alongside other great names like Stephen Hawking.

By the end of the lecture, I was left confused, headachy and in awe of the 90-year-old stood before us.  Knowing only too well that any attempt at a contribution to the Q&A would only end in embarrassment, we left it to the PhD students, but continued to feign understanding as we tried to keep up with the discussion.

We headed home with a renewed appreciation for the scale, complexity, and unknowns of our universe as well as for the legend that is Sir Roger Penrose, a man enamoured with the science, and for whom it is clearly a joy to share his passion.


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