Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Silence of the Oracles

When Stephen Hawking proposed that black holes give off radiation some years ago, the idea wasn’t very surprising to me. No physicist, obviously, I did have a liberal artsy appreciation of quantum mechanical tunneling, the principle behind Hawking radiation. Hawking’s new claim about black holes is much more opaque. He now says that he can solve an old paradox—a paradox he himself created, as it happens—by showing that black holes do not violate a basic rule of quantum physics by destroying all information about the particles that fall into them. But while information may indeed escape from black holes, damned little of it escaped from the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation. Apparently the argument’s got something to do with what actually occurs at the event horizon of a black hole—reports on scientific websites are very vague.

What amuses me about all this has nothing to do with the physics of it, about which I’m certainly not competent to comment, but about the popular presumption that Hawking’s change of heart on the issue is somehow decisive, presumably because he will once play poker with Newton, Einstein, and Data. Unfortunately, very bright and accomplished scientists make claims all the time that turn out to be false or, worse, foolish. Hawking, after all, is 61, an age at which famous scientists, their previous triumphs having grown stale, get enthusiastic about Vitamin C or Grand Unification or the Implicate Order or the successor to the Duotronic Brain. But maybe Hawking did solve the problem. I understand he managed to cheat on his wife despite being confined in a wheelchair with ALS. In comparison to that, psyching out black holes is trifling.

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