The Impossible Man

Roger Penrose and the Cost of Genius

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By Patchen Barss

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The first biography of the dazzling and painful life of Nobel Prize–winning physicist Roger Penrose

As a little boy, Roger Penrose and his father discovered a sundial in a clearing behind their home. In that machine made of light, shadow, and time, six-year-old Roger discovered a “world behind the world” of transcendently beautiful geometry, beginning a journey toward becoming one of the world’s most influential mathematicians, philosophers, and physicists.  
In the years to come, Penrose earned a Nobel Prize, a knighthood, and dozens of other prestigious honors. He proved the limitations of general relativity, and he set a new agenda for theoretical physics. However, as Patchen Barss documents in The Impossible Man, success came at a price. Penrose’s longing for knowledge was matched only by his inability to understand those around him, and he struggled to connect with friends, family, and especially the women in his life. His final years have been spent alone with his research, intentionally cut off from the people who loved him.  
Erudite and deeply moving, The Impossible Man intimately depicts the relationship between Penrose the scientist and Roger the human being. It reveals the tragic cost—to himself and those closest to him—of Roger Penrose’s extraordinary life. 
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  • "One day in 1965 Roger Penrose is crossing a London street and suddenly his imagination is working in four dimensions. The result is an insight that transforms Einstein’s relativity theorem. Patchen Barss writes lyrically about this scientific quest, but he also explores the frail human side of Penrose’s journey. The result is a page-turner reminiscent of James Gleick’s Genius, the best-selling biography of Richard Feynman. The Impossible Man is a stunning achievement."
    Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize winning author of American Prometheus
  • “Patchen Barss uses the skills of a fine novelist to tell the story of one of the true giants of 20th century mathematics and physics, Roger Penrose, in a biography that reveals the complex and compelling character of the man alongside the importance of his contributions to geometry, relativity, and a wide range of other fields. The biography that Penrose deserves.”
    David N. Schwartz, author of The Last Man Who Knew Everything
  • "Phenomenal: Blisteringly candid, elegiac and utterly compelling, The Impossible Man strips away the myths to expose the frailties and foibles of a mathematical genius who inspired generations. A new landmark of scientific biography."
    Ananyo Bhattacharya, author of The Man from the Future
  • "A cosmic romance, at once intimate and grande. The Impossible Man is charming and gripping, edifying and soulful, a lot like Roger Penrose himself."
    Siobhan Roberts, author of Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway

On Sale
Nov 12, 2024
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Patchen Barss

About the Author

Patchen Barss is a Toronto-based science journalist who has contributed to the BBC, Nautilus magazine, Scientific American, and the Discovery Channel (Canada), as well as to many science and natural history museums. His previous books include The Erotic Engine: How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication, from Gutenberg to Google, and Flow Spin Grow: Looking for Patterns in Nature

Learn more about this author