For me, today was a great disappointment. It was a more disappointing day than the day last year when we lost the 2013 Rugby Championship. The source of the disappointment: the announcement by Stephen Hawking that black holes don’t exist.
According to Hawking, while in classical theory there can be no escape of anything from a black hole, our old friend quantum theory does allow energy and information to escape, so there you are.
The concept of black holes has been around the scientific community for at least 200 or more years. In 1783, a Cambridge don, John Michell, wrote a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, about what he called ‘dark stars’. He pointed out that: “a star that was sufficiently massive and compact, would have such a strong gravitational field that light could not escape”.
Such objects are what we now call black holes, because that is what they are, black voids in space. Although we would not be able to see them, because the light from them would not reach us, we would still feel their gravitational attraction.
Actually the first use of the term ‘black hole’ in print was by journalist Ann Ewing in her article ‘Black Holes' in Space", dated 18 January 1964, which was a report on a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was reporting on the lecture given by John Wheeler in which it is said he used the term ‘black hole’ in a lecture, leading some to credit him with coining the phrase.
I loved the concept of black holes because they are stranger than anything that can be dreamt up by science fiction writers. I have watched dozens of lectures on YouTube and read numerous books, including Stephen Hawking’s classic ‘A Brief History of Time’, which was published in 1988 and has sold more than 10 million copies.
Hawking’s concepts of worm holes, time travel, multi universes, singularities, event horisons, Hawking radiation and black hole ‘haircuts’ all evolved out of his work on black holes and have been a great source of interest for me. Almost any physicist of note will mention black holes at some time or other. Hawking gave black holes a celebrity status of their own.
Dark holes are spoken about by the public although there are very few people who really understand either what they are or their mechanisms.
I remember my Mother used to call my brother’s very untidy bedroom a black hole, for once anything went into it, like dinner plates, cups, library books, hired DVDs, etc. there was very little chance of them coming out.
The concept of a black hole also gave rise to the term ‘singularity’, which is often used to describe the precise moment when the Big Bang occurred. The point at which all matter and energy is sucked into the black holes by increasingly more powerful gravitational forces as far as it can go (and who knows how far this is) is called a singularity.
This point is difficult to describe mathematically and, perhaps as something of a ‘cop out’ it is called a singularity. All equations trying to describe this point result in infinity, like infinitely small or infinitely dense. Singularity is the entity of matter and energy compressed into one point.
Quantum theory equations would be more appropriate, but unfortunately the mathematical link between classical theory and quantum theory appears to be a bridge too far to cross.
Not all physicists, however, agreed with Hawking, notably John Preskill, who in 1997 bet Hawking (I think the stake was $100) that information was not lost in black holes.
The implications of information being lost in black holes led to the Susskind-Hawking scientific ‘battle’, where Leonard Susskind publicly 'declared war' on Hawking's solution, with Susskind publishing a popular book about the debate in 2008 (The Black Hole War: My battle with Stephen Hawking to make the world safe for quantum mechanics).
The solution to the problem that concluded the battle is the holographic principle and the string theory interpretation of it by Susskind, which to me at any rate made everything that more difficult to understand, but alas that is Physics, nothing ever gets simpler only more complicated.
With the advent of larger and larger particle accelerators (like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland) researchers have found that creating microscopic black holes using particle accelerators requires less energy than previously thought. If physicists do succeed in creating black holes with such energies on Earth, the achievement could prove the existence of extra dimensions in the universe, and this could be very interesting: we may even find a universe in which the Springboks win the Rugby Championship).
When the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider, was coming online, scientists wondered if it might become a black hole ‘factory’ generating a black hole as often as every second. Particles zip at high speeds around the 27 kilometre circular atom smasher before colliding into one another to create explosive energies.
At its maximum, each particle beam that the LHC fires packs as much energy as a 400-ton train traveling at about 195 kilometre per hour. So far, researchers have detected no black holes at the Large Hadron Collider.
Still, theoretical interest in this possibility remains alive. Now, using supercomputers, researchers can simulate collisions among particles zipping near the speed of light and have shown that black holes could form at lower energies than previously thought.
So, are we going to miss the massive black holes as postulated by Hawking? I don’t think so, as with all the new technology we have today, and with all the ongoing debates and intellectual ‘wars’ between physicists and cosmologists, science and physics will continue to fascinate us for many more years to come.
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