Not many brothers make a big impact on the international stage for science and art. Lytton Strachey wrote history and his brother James was a psychiatrist. Then Aldous Huxley’s novels countered Julian’s biology. Last week-end I visited the Farley Farm House near Eastbourne, a museum to the memory of surrealist painter Roland Penrose (1900-1984), brother of geneticist Lionel (1898-1972).
Their father was a portrait painter who married into a rich family of Quakers. Roland went from Architecture at Cambridge near the end of the First World War to paint in France and he got to know artists including Picasso.
In 1939 he began a famous relationship with a talented American photographer Lee Miller. During the second war they developed techniques of camouflage, founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1947, bought Farley Farmhouse in 1949 and became famous hosts.
Lionel Penrose was also at Cambridge and as a psychiatrist in London worked on the genetics of mental retardation from 1939-1949. He and Margaret had four children who became a physicist (Roger), a mathematician, a geneticist and a chess player. In 1959 Lionel and Roger developed the idea of the unending staircase, the model for Roger’s friend MC Escher’s famous Ascending and Descending a year later. Lionel had been interested in impossible drawings for some time, and was convinced they might lead to some better understandings in the complex systems of biology.
Earlier, in 1957, his self-replicating system of jig-saw-type pieces fitted nicely with Watson and Crick’s DNA model four years before. If each piece reacted like the components of chain-like molecules of DNA or protein, then it meant that these important ingredients for life can build-up naturally. The process is that of a self-organied system: in the diagram below, just move the pieces in the first row drawn below from side to side and the shapes hook together automatically.
The idea has been used since to speculate how parts of longer chains might form DNA:
Maybe the Lionel Penrose models contain some brotherly influence of the surreal.