Roger Penrose at Rice, 1983-87

Many thanks to those who commented on Monday’s post, especially John Polking.  He pointed out that the bonus picture showed something called Penrose tiles, named for a mathematician who was at Rice briefly in the ’80s. Here they are:


Well, this was the first I’d heard of anything like this. It was interesting enough that I thought there might be something in the files about this guy. It turns out that there’s quite a bit–more than I could sort through today. Having Penrose come to Rice seems to have been quite a big deal. I found several newspaper articles with amusing headlines: “UK Math Whiz Arrives at Rice” and the like. Here he is in his office on campus:

Penrose office

What I can’t quite figure out is how he got here. There’s a good bit of correspondence dealing with specific arrangements for his appointment, much of it with Bill Gordon, who was provost at the time, but I haven’t yet seen anything that explains why he wanted to come. There has to be a reason. If anyone can fill me in, I’d appreciate it. The other thing I wonder about is whose idea it was to use this pattern in Brockman Hall.

There are a couple of good links to Penrose bios in Monday’s comments, but I also found this Thresher article about about him that appeared shortly after he arrived in 1983. (Yes, I know it’s crooked. I was in a hurry.)

Penrose Thresher

Just for kicks, here’s the front page of the same issue. Lots going on! Bad fonts too.

Penrose Thresher cover

Bonus: Also for kicks, here’s John Polking himself, trying to get a student squared away. The photo is undated but I’d guess it’s the ’80s. I don’t know what’s going on on that chalkboard but it looks ghastly.


Extra Bonus: In the spring, we get crowds of prospective students and their parents. In the summer it changes and there are crowds of school children. Here’s a bunch I ran across yesterday. They are fifth graders who were getting a tour from Susan Troutman of the Rice School Mathematics Project, one of our many great K-12 programs. I really love seeing these bright-eyed kids on campus.



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7 Responses to Roger Penrose at Rice, 1983-87

  1. Don Johnson says:

    What I remember is that Ronny Wells was the one who attracted Penrose to Rice. He also brought with him one of his students, Andrew Hodges, who had just written the definitive biography of Alan Turing. I remember Hodges’ talk on Turing well. Roger’s Scientia talk was, well, difficult to follow.

    • mattnoall says:

      Ronnie was, indeed the person Penrose came to visit and work with at Rice. The l was in intermittent correspondence with the Wells up untl his retirement and move to Germany. The last time I was at Rice (fall of 1981) I was visiting the Wells at home and he was showing me pictures of an earlier visit Penrose had made to them. Obviously a personal friend as well as a professional colleague.

      During that period, Ronnie was doing mathemetical physics with both Penrose and Hawking, and he was enthusically discussing his work and relationship with Penrose during my visit.

      If I remember, there was some sort of aricle in The Sallyport about the Penrose visit in that time frame, but that was some time ago.

  2. Keith Cooper says:

    My recollection is that he also spent a fair amount of time with Robert Bryant, one of the youngest people to attain the rank of Full Professor at Rice. Penrose stopped spending time at Rice about the time Bryant left.

  3. John Polking says:

    That “student” you see me with is actually Robert Bryant very early in his career at Rice. Unfortunately, Robert left Rice to go to Duke. Presently he is the Director of the Mathematics Research Institute in Berkeley, CA.

    It is true that Ronny Wells was the person who convinced Roger to spend half of each year at Rice. I do not know why Roger decided to end this relationship. Now he is Sir Roger Penrose, and he is considered to be one of the greatest mathematicians of his era. He is also given credit for extensive contributions to physics. The Penrose tiles, developed for purely mathematical reasons, became important in the discovery of quasicrystals.

  4. Lilypons says:

    It’s interesting to note from your picture of the Thresher front page, the story on Edward Potter’s retirement as Cashier. The end of the article (which happens to be on the page with the Roger Penrose article) mentions that Patty was to replace Potter as Cashier. Patty retired this year. Full circle. A nice association. Thanks.

  5. R Kimbro says:

    And the story about SRC and Brown going coed mentions SRC Master Bill Martin, who taught me Intro to Sociology, which I now teach, in the same classroom. 🙂

  6. Joan Rea says:

    It was, indeed, Ronnie Wells who persuaded Penrose to come to Rice. When I was Master of Wiess College (1984-89), Ronnie, Roger, and other friends from the Math Dept. came over for dinner several times during Roger’s time at Rice. We were fortunate to have him even for that short time.

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