Famed physicist Stephen Hawking announced last week there are no black holes—at least not the way we think of them. His new, not-yet-peer-reviewed paper says the idea of an event horizon—the point of no escape—violates quantum mechanics and therefore does not exist. In doing away with the event horizon, Hawking claims to have solved the firewall paradox, one of the most pressing problems in modern physics.
First, some background. Stephen Hawking is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist and the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge University. His work in quantum mechanics and general relativity is a cornerstone of modern physics and has made him one of the most famous scientists of the past century.
Much of Hawking’s research has centered around black holes. Originally a mathematical oddity of Einstein’s theories of relativity, black holes are objects so massive not even light can escape them. These massive gravity wells warp the fabric of spacetime itself, slowing time to standstill as they draw in everything in reach. As they emit no light, black holes can be observed only through their gravity, often through gravitational lensing. The event horizon is the theoretical point of no return, the boundary past which it becomes impossible for light to escape. Or so we thought… (To learn more about black holes, check out 10 Mind-Blowing Secrets of Outer Space—the highlight of my blogging career).
The conflict arises when we pair Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics. According to general relativity, the event horizon should be a rather uneventful region of empty space. When we look at the same picture with quantum field theory, though, we find a much different reality. Quantum theory predicts a massive blaze lurking within the horizon, a firewall where information is torn apart by a frenzy of subatomic particles. This problem, called the firewall paradox, is a massive subject of debate within the physics community and offers what some have called a menu from hell: one of the most established pillars of physics— quantum field theory, unitarity, or Einstein’s equivalence principle—is wrong.
According to Hawking, however, this might not be the case. In his new, not-yet-peer-reviewed paper, the physicist does away with the idea of the event horizon, replacing it with a so-called “apparent horizon.” This new boundary fluctuates with the quantum events inside it, changing shape and location around the black hole. Hawking claims so long as the region behind this apparent horizon is a chaotic mess of information (not quite a firewall, but close to one), both quantum theory and general relativity can coexist. In proposing the apparent horizon and its accompanying storm of information, the paper eliminates the existence of a firewall entirely.
This solution has already drawn the attention of the physics community, though most are reserving judgment until the paper has been peer-reviewed. What Hawking has ultimately tried to do is reconcile the increasing gap between the quantum world and the rest of physics, particularly Einstein’s theory gravity. Discord between established principles and new quantum mechanics has played a central role in physics over the past century, causing theorists to abandon many long-held principles. Hawking’s proposal may sound crazy, but it’s the crazy ideas that drive discovery.
That’s my take, at least. What are your thoughts? Has Hawking gone off the deep end? Is anyone an expert in quantum field theory, unitarity, or Einstein’s equivalence principle? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. As always, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. That small click really helps me out! Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday! IT’S FREE!
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Comment question of the week
Could one of the three pillars really be wrong? Or do we just not understand enough to piece together what is going on?