Of Particular Significance

The Black Hole’s Tale

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 02/05/2014

[Inspiration strikes in odd ways and at strange times.  Don’t ask me why I wrote this, because I’ve no idea.  In any case I hope some of you enjoy it; and the science behind it is described here.]

Quantum Theory claims: “All tales are told!”
But gravity demurs; for Einstein’s bold
Equations show that black holes tell no tales
And keep their secrets hidden deep within.

So it remained til nineteen seventy-four
When Hawking’s striking calculation showed
That black holes aren’t exactly black: they glow!
They shrink, wither, and in a flash they die
And take their hidden secrets to their graves,
Killing Quantum Theory as they go.

And if you disagreed, and did believe
that black holes’ tales are written in their glow,
No matter; this kills Quantum Theory too,
For once inside, a story can’t come out,
And copying puts a quantum world in doubt.

Thus Hawking argued that he’d made it clear
That Quantum Theory had to be revised.
“But not so fast” cried Susskind and ‘t Hooft,
For Quantum Theory’s cleverer than you think;
T’was twenty years ago the claim was made
That black holes may be complementary:
While those who venture in do find the tales
Are written clearly in the black hole’s deep,
Those outside have a very different view.
They think the stories rest upon the edge
And later end up written in the sky.

So strange this sounds! And yet, it has been shown
That in a quantum world of certain type
The information stored within a space
Can also seem to be upon its face!

Consensus grew that Quantum Theory’s safe
And even Hawking painfully agreed
The argument was strong; nine years ago
He publicly announced his change of heart.

But still it wasn’t yet precisely clear
Just how it is that black holes disappear
Without undoing Quantum Theory’s base;
And then the AMPS collaboration found,
While trying to ensure the case was sound,
The complementary black hole in fact
Could not exist! At least not as we thought,
For when the tale’s half written in the sky
The black hole’s inside could no longer be,
And anyone who reached the edge would die.

“Firewall”, the cry rose from the crowd;
And troubling it was; such walls would flout
The principles that Einstein had set out
To underpin his theory of space and time
And gravity — the very one we used
To show black holes exist, and find them too.

So something’s wrong! But what? What must we change?
Which principle is it that we must revise?
Which equation fails, and in what guise?
Confusion spreads across the blackened skies…

Proposals have been made, but none is firm.
Among them Hawking’s recent; he suggests
A black hole’s even less black than he thought:
Not only does it faintly glow, it leaks
Like politicians, whispering its tales
In code; and thus whatever is inside
Gets out! Though in a highly scrambled form.
(So do not try to enter and return!)
These holes aren’t complementary; instead
Their inner stories are somehow released
Before the holes that store them are deceased.

But be not sure; for Hawking’s story’s vague
And many others have suggested ways
That current controversy may be stemmed.
Yet none of them seem likely soon to lift
The murky darkness that still makes us blind
And hides the truth from all of humankind.

© Matt Strassler February 5, 2014

Share via:


32 Responses

  1. Even Microsoft’s new CEO (not me;) finds relaxation by reading poetry.

    If I understood well, I probably wouldn’t have to say “damn hell”.
    Beginners struggle to grasp their mind around;
    Great poets are hardly found.
    Happy mediums sailing between hot and cold,
    Hail the charms they may hold.
    Quantum Theory is not dead;
    And Matt had the word spread.
    O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

  2. Sounds like you are happy and good or you. I often wax philosophical from the joy of what we are engaged in, that search for a unified theory of everything. Please stay happy, it is good for all.

  3. Matt: the poem is nice enough, but IMHO you need to address the physics here. The waterfall analogy is not supported by GR. There is no sense in which space falls inwards in a gravitational field – this Chicken Little myth persists because it’s promoted by people like Max Tegmark. So why doesn’t the light get out of a black hole? You’re standing with your vertical laser pointer on a gedanken planet. We make it smaller and denser, but at no point does the light beam bend round or slow down or fall back. You know about gravitational time dilation and the coordinate speed of light. You know the coordinate speed of light is said to be zero at the event horizon. You know that virtual particles aren’t actual particles that “pop” into existence. You know that there are no negative-energy particles. And you know that the coordinate speed of light applies to Hawking radiation too. IMHO when you do address the physics, you come to appreciate that this whole thing is hypothetical hustle, hyped into a “woo, paradox” soundbite that can be milked.

    1. Mr.Duffieldjohn, I think in GR, the curvature of spacetime is directly related to the energy and momentum of whatever matter and radiation are present. Black holes formed when the momentum is stopped – momentum is basic for mass-energy invariance, Gauge invariance. The solution of the Einstein field equations is valid for any mass “M”, so in principle (according to general relativity theory) a Schwarzschild black hole of any mass could exist if conditions became sufficiently favorable to allow for its formation.

      But due to cosmological constant is not zero, “M” (rest mass) cannot be formed – Thus the black hole also ? It is only a compactification ?

      But black hole formation is possible if “space time” formed by conservation of radiation (massless or nearly massless particles), succumb to its own POSITIVE PRESSURE like whirlpool – toggle between baryonic matter and non-baryonic matter ?

  4. Wonderful Prose, I suppose. Anyway I liked it. It does make some things a bit clearer, even more so.

  5. Loved your poem! It enclosed the whole controversy in a ‘fire-horizon’ nutshell.
    I read your blog all the time. It’s always informative and well presented. I don’t know how you find the time to do it, but I’m sure glad you do.
    Walter Davies

    1. “Bereft” is about as close as you’re likely to get. But in any case I did not want to be straining for rhymes in every couplet; better to let them arise as they fit.

  6. It’s brilliant Matt.
    “A target worthy of attack, proves it’s worth by fighting back”
    Piet Heijn

    Michel Beekveld

  7. Great information, which is deeply appreciated. However, under constructive criticism: it is very, very bad poetry.

    1. I’m a physicist, not a poet; that’s all.

      Also, the whole situation is somewhat ridiculous, and calls out for ridiculous poetry, rather than for something sublime.

      1. Beautiful poem Professor.
        Information is like energy, “cannot be created nor be destroyed” – but could be rearranged (un)like the harmonious increase in entropy in our universe – into decrease in entropy, but not backwards. Most probably rearranging of information wil end in chaos ?

  8. And Strassler came at last and told us all a tale:
    That the black hole perforce will always keep its veil!
    But if, some day, who knows, someone will prove him wrong
    He will forthwith rejoice and maybe write a song!

Leave a Reply


Buy The Book

A decay of a Higgs boson, as reconstructed by the CMS experiment at the LHC


It’s always fun and interesting when a measurement of an important quantity shows a hint of something unexpected. If yesterday’s results from DESI (the Dark

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 04/05/2024

I hope that a number of you will be able to see the total solar eclipse next Monday, April 8th. I have written about my

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 04/01/2024