Photo: Marcela Rogante/Unsplash.
Earlier this month, Roger Penrose was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in physics for establishing that the formation of black holes was a “robust prediction” of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravitation.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Penrose’s contributions to theoretical physics stretch across its entire breadth. His singularity theorems introduced a new, mathematically precise definition of a spacetime singularity, making their study amenable to fundamentally new and far-reaching methods of analysis.
His later work on twistor theory anticipated more recent and exciting developments in high-energy physics that view fundamental concepts like locality (the notion that objects are affected by events only in their immediate neighbourhood) as arising out of more fundamental properties of abstract geometrical spaces. A playfulness, clarity and elegance underlies all of Penrose’s work, which has been remarkably creative as well as fertile.
Indeed, many of the articles that detailed Penrose’s achievements in the days following the announcement describe him as a singularly creative individual, and this may be a good opportunity to reflect on the seldom-discussed role of creativity in the process of discovering truths about the natural world. On this count, I want to reflect on what it feels like to see something creative happen in my field. That is, I speak not to the essence of but to the experience of creative thought.
In a way, it is not too different from other walks of life. Joy is central to – and perhaps even an essential feature of – the experience of creativity. At a circumstantial level, this will resonate with many of us who have had the pleasure of listening to a seminar or reading a book that has helped clarify and explain the world to us. Each of us can surely attest to the wry smile or private chuckle that accompanies the dawn of comprehension.
Perhaps then it is helpful to ask: what makes things funny in the first place? This question has had different answers across different historical epochs. As early as Cicero, in De Oratore, we read that the “most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.”
This is a germinal indication that perhaps incongruity is characteristic of humour. Think of the last joke you heard. The set-up told a story, and established expectations (of the story, its characters, their behaviour, etc.) in the mind of the listener. These expectations are violated by the punchline, which in an instant establishes in the mind of the listener another, parallel story which had always existed but had not been considered. The dissonance between these two stories, and the fact that we changed tracks, seems to cause us to break out in laughter.
The Scottish poet-philosopher James Beattie elaborated on this idea. He held in An Essay on Laughter and Ludicrous Composition (1776) that laughter is born out of a “view of things incongruous united in the same assemblage”. Very helpfully, Beattie supplies a rather remarkable and extended description: humorous laughter is forged in the crucible of “two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them.”
While this may seem frivolous, this description bears a striking resemblance to the notion of what Gaston Bachelard would have called an ‘epistemological rupture’ or, more familiarly, what Thomas Kuhn would have called a paradigm shift. That is, it is similar to the way science proceeds from one historical epoch to the next: via the resolution of contradictions.
In the course of development of a science, one inevitably encounters anomalous findings that can’t be accounted for by appealing to the paradigm that holds sway over the current epoch. These anomalies or contradictions must be resolved if science is to continue successfully explaining the natural world, and this resolution takes the form of a new paradigm that propels the science forward, thus extending its explanatory power, while simultaneously marking a sharp break from its older, less developed form. The result of this process is the establishment of a new scientific paradigm.
For example, James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetic theory placed electromagnetism firmly at odds with Newtonian mechanics: it seemed to indicate that light moved at the same speed no matter what how fast one was moving relative to it, and at odds with the Galilean notion of relativity, which would have things appear to move slower if one ran alongside them. This contradiction required the development of the special theory of relativity: it reproduced Newton’s predictions at speeds much smaller than that of light, and is perfectly compatible with Maxwell’s equations as well.
This resolution of the contradiction between Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetic theory also forced us to revise our understanding of space and time as woven together into a continuum, marking a sharp break with Newtonian physics. Two ‘incongruous parts’ that are ‘united in one complex object’.
If we imagine the growth of our collective understanding as if it were analogous to the set-up in a joke, then understanding the true nature of things is analogous to hearing the punchline. In both cases, the moment of realisation is often accompanied by laughter.
Of course, it is not just the revolutionary moments in science that have something amusing about them. Normal science, in the Kuhnian sense, can also inspire joy and approbation, especially in those circumstances when it devises new methods, new ways of thinking that further the development of the dominant paradigm. And Penrose’s work has done that repeatedly.
This may be the simplest way I know to communicate what a creative physicist is: one whose work inspires joyous laughter. One might even say it’s funny because it’s true.
Madhusudhan Raman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. The views expressed here are the author’s own.