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The information paradox is perhaps the most puzzling problem in fundamental theoretical physics today. It was discovered by Stephen Hawking 43 years ago, and until recently has puzzled many.

Starting in 2015, Stephen, Andrew Strominger and I started to wonder if we could understand a way out of this difficulty by questioning the basic assumptions that underlie the difficulties. We published our first paper on the subject in 2016 and have been working hard on this problem ever since.

The most recent work, and perhaps the last paper that Stephen was involved in, has just come out. While we have not solved the information paradox, we hope that we have paved the way, and we are continuing our intensive work in this area.

Physics is really about being able to predict the future given how things are now. For example, if you throw a ball, once you know its initial position and velocity, then you can figure out where it will be in the future. That kind of reasoning is fine for what we call classical physics but for small things, like atoms and electrons, the rules need some modifications, as described by quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, instead of describing precise outcomes, one finds that one can only calculate the probabilities for various things to happen. In the case of a ball being thrown, one would not know its precise trajectory, but only the probability that it would be in some particular place given its initial conditions.

What Hawking discovered was that in black hole physics, there seemed to be even greater uncertainty than in quantum mechanics. However, this kind of uncertainty seemed to be completely unacceptable in that it resulted in many of the laws of physics appearing to break down. It would deprive us of the ability to predict anything about the future of a black hole.

That might not have mattered – except that black holes are real physical objects. There are huge black holes at the centres of many galaxies. We know this because observations of the centre of our galaxy show that there is a compact object with a mass of a few million times that of our sun there; such a huge concentration of mass could only be a black hole. Quasars, extremely luminous objects at the centres of very distant galaxies, are powered by matter falling onto black holes. The observatory Ligo has recently discovered ripples in spacetime, gravitational waves, produced by the collision of black holes.

The root of the problem is that it was once thought that black holes were completely described by their mass and their spin. If you threw something into a black hole, once it was inside you would be unable to tell what it was that was thrown in.

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Category: Science