Tag Archives: black holes

Learning Lessons From Black Holes

My post about what Hawking is and isn’t saying about black holes got a lot of readers, but also some criticism for having come across as too harsh on what Hawking has and hasn’t done. Looking back, I think there’s some merit in the criticism, so let me try to address it and flesh out one of the important issues.

Before I do, let me mention that I’ve almost completed a brief introduction to the “black hole information paradox”; it should be posted within the next day, so stay tuned for that IT’S DONE!  It involves a very brief explanation of how, after having learned from Hawking’s 1974 work that black holes aren’t quite black (in that they slowly radiate particles), physicists are now considering whether black holes might even be less black than that (in that they might slowly leak what’s gone inside them, in scrambled form.)

Ok. One of the points I made on Thursday is that there’s a big difference between what Hawking has written in his latest paper and a something a physicist would call a theory, like the Theory of Special Relativity or Quantum Field Theory or String Theory. A theory may or may not apply to nature; it may  or may not be validated by experiments; but it’s not a theory without some precise equations. Hawking’s paper is two pages long and contains no equations. I made a big deal about this, because I was trying to make a more general point (having nothing to do with Hawking or his proposal) about what qualifies as a theory in physics, and what doesn’t. We have very high standards in this field, higher than the public sometimes realizes.

A reasonable person could (and some did) point out that given Hawking’s extreme physical disability, a short equation-less paper is not to be judged harshly, since typing is a royal pain if you can’t even move. I accept the criticism that I was insensitive to this way of reading my post… and indeed I thereby obscured the point I was trying to make.  I should have been more deliberate in my writing, and emphasized that there are many levels of discussions about science, ranging across cocktail party conversation, wild speculation over a beer, a serious scientific proposal, and a concrete scientific theory. The way I phrased things obscured the fact that Hawking’s proposal, though short of a theory, still represents serious science.

But independent of Hawking’s necessarily terse style, it remains the case that his scientific proposal, though based on certain points that are precise and clear, is quite vague on other points… and there are no equations to back them up.  Of course that doesn’t mean the proposal is wrong!  And a vague proposal can have real scientific merit, since it can propel research in the right direction. Other vague proposals (such as Einstein’s idea that “space and time must be curved”) have sometimes led, after months or years, to concrete theories (Einstein’s equations of “General Relativity”, his theory of gravity.) But many sensible-sounding vague proposals (such as “maybe the cosmological is zero because of an unknown symmetry”) lead nowhere, or even lead us astray. And the reason we should be so sensitive to this point is that the weakness of a vague proposal has already been dramatically demonstrated in this very context.

The recent flurry of activity concerning the fundamental quantum properties of black holes (which unfortunately, unlike their astrophysical properties, are not currently measurable) arose from the so-called firewall problem. And that problem emerged, in a 2012 paper by Almheri, Marolf, Polchinski and Sully (AMPS, for short), from an attempt to put concrete equations behind a twenty-year-old proposal called “complementarity”, due mainly to Susskind, Thoracius and Uglom; see also Stephens, ‘t Hooft and Whiting.

As a black hole forms and grows, and then evaporates, where is the information about how it formed?  And is that information lost, copied, or retained? (Only if it is retained, and not lost or copied, can standard quantum theory describe a black hole.) Complementarity is the notion that the answer depends on the point of view of the observer who’s asking the question. Observers who fall into the black hole think (and measure!) that the information is deep inside. Observers who remain outside the black hole think (and measure!) that the information remains just outside, and is eventually carried off by the Hawking radiation by which the black hole evaporates.  And both are right!  Neither sees the information lost or copied, and thus quantum theory survives.

For this apparently contradictory situation to be possible, there are certain requirements that must be true. Remarkably, a number of these have been shown to be true (at least in special circumstances)! But as of 2012, some others still had not been shown. In short, the proposal, though fairly well-grounded, remained a bit vague about some details.

And that vagueness was the Achilles heel that, after 20 years, brought it down.

The firewall problem pointed out by AMPS shows that complementarity doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t work because one of its vague points turns out to have an inherent and subtle self-contradiction. [Their argument is far too complex for this post, so (at best) I’ll have to explain it another time, if I can think of a way to do so…]

By the way, if you look at the AMPS paper, you’ll see it too doesn’t contain many equations. But it contains more than zero… and they are pithy, crucial, and to the point. (Moreover, there are a lot more supporting equations than it first appears; these are relegated to the paper’s appendices, to keep the discussion from looking cluttered.)

So while I understand that Hawking isn’t going to write out long equations unless he’s working with collaborators (which he often does), even the simplest quantitative issues concerning his proposal are not yet discussed or worked out. For instance, what is (even roughly) the time scale over which information begins leaking out? How long does the apparent horizon last? It would be fine if Hawking, working this out in his head, stated the answers without proof, but we need to know the answers he has in mind if we’re to seriously judge the proposal. It’s very far from obvious that any proposal along the lines that Hawking is suggesting (and others that people with similar views have advanced) would actually solve the information paradox without creating other serious problems.

When regarding a puzzle so thorny and subtle as the black hole information paradox, which has resisted solution for forty years, physicists know they should not rely solely on words and logical reasoning, no matter how brilliant the person who originates them. Progress in this area of theoretical research has occurred, and consensus (even partial) has only emerged, when there was both a conceptual and a calculational advance. Hawking’s old papers on singularities (with Penrose) and on black hole evaporation are classic examples; so is the AMPS paper. If anyone, whether Hawking or someone else, can put equations behind Hawking’s proposal that there are no real event horizons and that information is redistributed via a process involving (non-quantum) chaos, then — great! — the proposal can be properly evaluated and its internal consistency can be checked. Until then, it’s far too early to say that Hawking’s proposal represents a scientific theory.

Did Hawking Say “There Are No Black Holes”?

Media absurdity has reached new levels of darkness with the announcement that Stephen Hawking has a new theory in which black holes do not exist after all.

No, he doesn’t.

[Note added: click here for my new introduction to the black hole information paradox.]

First, Hawking does not have a new theory… at least not one he’s presented. You can look at his paper here — two pages (pdf), a short commentary that he gave to experts in August 2013 and wrote up as a little document — and you can see it has no equations at all. That means it doesn’t qualify as a theory. “Theory”, in physics, means: a set of equations that can be used to make predictions for physical processes in a real or imaginary world. When we talk about Einstein’s theory of relativity, we’re talking about equations. Compare just the look and feel of Hawking’s recent note to Einstein’s 1905 paper on the theory of special relativity, or to Hawking’s most famous 1975 paper on black holes; you can easily see the difference without understanding the content of the papers.

The word “theory” does not mean “speculations” or “ideas”, which is all that is contained in this little article. Maybe that’s what theory means at a cocktail party, but it’s not what “theory” means in physics.

Second, what Hawking is addressing in this note is the precise level of blackness of a black hole… in short, whether the name “black hole” for the objects we call black holes is really appropriate. But simply the fact that black holes aren’t quite black isn’t new. In fact it was Hawking himself who became famous in 1974-1975 for pointing out that in a world with quantum physics, typical black holes cannot be precisely black — so it’s not true that nothing ever comes out of a black hole. Black holes must slowly radiate elementary particles, a process we call Hawking radiation.

From day 1, Hawking’s observation posed puzzles about how conflicting requirements of quantum theory and Einstein’s gravity would be resolved, with quantum theory demanding that all information that fell into the black hole be neither destroyed nor copied, and Einstein’s gravity insisting that there is no way that the information of what went into a black hole can ever come out again, even if the black hole evaporates and disappears. The assumption of the community has long been that the 1970s calculation that Hawking did, while largely correct, leaves out a small, subtle effect that resolves the puzzle. The question is: what is the nature of that subtle effect?

No one, including Hawking, has posed a satisfactory answer. And that is why we keep hearing about black holes again and again over the decades, most recently in the context of the “firewall paradox”. In his recent paper, Hawking, like many of his colleagues, is proposing another possible answer, though without demonstrating mathematically that his proposal is correct.

But did Hawking really say “There are no black holes”, or didn’t he??

Talk about taking things out of context!!! Here’s what Hawking actually said.

First he suggests that the edge of a black hole — called its “event horizon”, a very subtle concept when you get into the details — really isn’t so sharp once quantum effects are considered. Many people have suggested one version or another of this possibility, which would represent a small but critical correction to what Hawking said in the 1970s (and to what people understood about black holes even earlier).

And then Hawking writes…

“The absence of event horizons mean that there are no black holes – in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity.”

Notice the final clause, which is omitted from the media reports, and is absolutely necessary to make sense of his remark. What he means is that black holes are very, very slightly (though importantly) less black than he said in his 1974 paper… because the things that fall into the black hole do in some sense eventually come back out as the black hole evaporates. I say “in some sense” because they come out thoroughly scrambled; you, for example, if you fell in, would not come back out, even though some of the elementary particles out of which you are made might eventually do so.

And then he says

“There are however apparent horizons which persist for a period of time.”

Translation: for an extremely long time, what we call a black hole will behave in just the way we have long thought it does. In particular, there is no change in any of the astrophysics of black holes that astronomers have been studying in recent decades. The only issue is what happens as a black hole begins to evaporate in a serious way, and when you look very, very carefully at the details of the Hawking radiation, which is very difficult to do.

“This suggests that black holes should be redefined as metastable bound states of the gravitational field.”

In short: In Hawking’s proposal, it’s not that the objects that you and I would call “black holes” don’t exist!  They are still there, just with a new name, doing what we’ve been taught they do except in some fine-grained detail. Not that this fine-grained detail is unimportant — it’s essential to resolving the quantum vs. gravity puzzle.  But an ordinary person watching or exploring near a black hole would notice no difference.

Notice also all of this is a proposal, made in words; he has not shown this with mathematics.

In short, although Hawking is, with many of his colleagues, working hard to resolve the puzzles that seem to make quantum theory conflict with Einstein’s theory of gravity in this context, he’s not questioning whether black holes exist in the sense that you and I would mean it. He’s addressing the technical issue of exactly how black they are, and how the information contained in the things that fall in comes back out again. And since he’s just got words, but not math, to back up his suggestions, he’s not convinced his colleagues.

Meanwhile, the media takes the five words “There Are No Black Holes” and creates almost pure fiction, fiction that has almost nothing to do with the reality of the science. Well done, media, well done. Sometimes you’re just like a black hole: information comes in, and after being completely scrambled beyond recognition, comes back out again through a mysterious process that makes no sense to anyone. Except that in your case, it’s very clear that information is lost, and misinformation is created.

Hey! That’s a new theory of black holes! (I’ll write a 2-page paper on that this afternoon…)

Two Days of Polchinski Puzzles

One of the most prominent theoretical physicists of our time, Professor Joe Polchinski of the University of Santa Barbara, who has made lasting contributions to our understanding of quantum field theory, of gravity, and of string theory, gave a couple of talks at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton this week.  The two presentations manifested a certain amusing (anti-)parallel; the first was on a puzzle that was thought to have been mostly solved 20 years ago, but turns out to have only been partly resolved; the second was related to a puzzle that was thought to have been solved last year, but turns out to have been partly solved over 20 years ago.

In the middle of all of this, it was announced that Polchinski was one of several people awarded one of these new-fangled Fundamental Physics Prizes that are getting lots of attention — specifically, one of the Frontiers Prizes, if you’re keeping score.  You can read about that elsewhere.  Here we’ll try to keep our focus on the science. Continue reading