16 July 2004

Hawking cracks black hole paradox

After nearly 30 years of arguing that a black hole destroys everything that falls into it, Stephen Hawking is saying he was wrong. It seems that black holes may after all allow information within them to escape. Hawking will present his latest finding at a conference in Ireland next week.

The about-turn might cost Hawking, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, an encyclopaedia because of a bet he made in 1997. More importantly, it might solve one of the long-standing puzzles in modern physics, known as the black hole information paradox.

It was Hawking's own work that created the paradox. In 1976, he calculated that once a black hole forms, it starts losing mass by radiating energy. This 'Hawking radiation' contains no information about the matter inside the black hole and once the black hole evaporates, all information is lost.

But this conflicts with the laws of quantum physics, which say that such information can never be completely wiped out. Hawking's argument was that the intense gravitational fields of black holes somehow unravel the laws of quantum physics.

Other physicists have tried to chip away at this paradox. Earlier in 2004, Samir Mathur of Ohio State University in Columbus and his colleagues showed that if a black hole is modelled according to string theory - in which the universe is made of tiny, vibrating strings rather than point-like particles - then the black hole becomes a giant tangle of strings. And the Hawking radiation emitted by this 'fuzzball' does contain information about the insides of a black hole.

The Man of Steel may have to abandon the black hole in his private office and go back to using plain old shredders to deal with children overboard, SIEX-X, the dangerous Tampa refugees he's admitted to Australia, the Manildra meeting he as sure his advisers had told him he did not attend, the qualifications to prewar Iraqi intelligence and a number of quantum politics anomalies.

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