Goodbye Big Bang, hello black hole?
The black hole from Interstellar is based on current theory, but that theory may not match reality. And yet, in the woolly world of modern astrophysics, such personalities are not in short supply.
Despite what you saw in the movie Interstellar, black holes may not be black, and they may not be holes, either. Some theorists argue that the event horizon of a black hole — the boundary where light, matter and Matthew McConaughey vanish from our universe — is actually a brilliant, blistering inferno.
And a few agitators argue that the whole debate is off track because nature makes it impossible for black holes to form in the first place.
All of which might seem like so much theoretical navel-gazing, except that the debate over black holes is a proxy in a much grander battle.
Right now, physics is split in two: Quantum mechanics describes small, fast phenomena while general relativity describes large, slow ones. But in the extreme conditions around a black hole, time and space get so stretched that the two theories are forced to overlap.
As material dust in this illustration falls toward a black hole, it heats up and emits radiation. No one knows what happens next. The trouble began, like so many confounding concepts in modern physics, in the brain of Stephen Hawking. Given enough time, a black hole can evaporate completely.
In the current view, which Hawking helped formulate, every event in the universe contains quantum information. When objects fall into a black hole, they take their information with them.
Coherent information goes in, but what comes out is just noise — Hawking radiation is percent content-free. Falling into a black hole seems to destroy a slice of reality, which just makes no sense.
Hawking and other theorists began searching desperately for ways to prevent information from getting into the black hole in the first place, for ways to let it back out, or even for ways to make peace with the possibility that some information really can be lost forever.
As soon as an object gets pulled across the event horizon, it hits a firewall — an inferno so intense that it erases all the quantum information that object contained. Polchinski pictures the event horizon as a kind of quantum eraser that neatly makes the information paradox go away. The problem is that the rules of general relativity mandate physical continuity everywhere in the universe, even around a black hole.
There should be no gap in the experience of, say, a doomed astronaut falling across the event horizon. Or think of it this way: In relativity, the laws of physics look the same from all perspectives.
The astronaut may get squished and stretched on the way in, but should still observe physics operating normally. The firewall, on the other hand, is about as abnormal and discontinuous as it gets.
At this point, the story circles back to Hawking, who decided there must be a better way out.
In a short paper presented last year, he suggests that the event horizon is not a defined boundary at all, but rather a zone of chaos where space and time are completely scrambled. No specific physical event occurs there — no Polchinski firewall — but any information passing through is rendered completely meaningless.
Rather, he proposes that black holes are more like gray holes, defined by fuzzy edges that shed energy and garbled information. My brain was starting to hurt, so I called on Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study, a leading black hole theorist and a neutral third party.
Does he like the Hawking approach, then? When you are trying to solve the riddle of the black hole, nobody gets special treatment, not even Stephen Hawking. Event Horizon Denialists Here is where the deniers come in: If black holes keep sprouting paradoxes, the thinking goes, maybe the problem lies with our understanding of the black hole itself.Dive into the depths of astrology!
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