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Stephen Hawking: 'There are no black holes'

Notion of an 'event horizon', from which nothing can escape, is incompatible with quantum theory, physicist claims.

 

Most physicists foolhardy enough to write a paper claiming that “there are no black holes” — at least not in the sense we usually imagine — would probably be dismissed as cranks. But when the call to redefine these cosmic crunchers comes from Stephen Hawking, it’s worth taking notice. In a paper posted online, the physicist, based at the University of Cambridge, UK, and one of the creators of modern black-hole theory, does away with the notion of an event horizon, the invisible boundary thought to shroud every black hole, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.

In its stead, Hawking’s radical proposal is a much more benign “apparent horizon”, which only temporarily holds matter and energy prisoner before eventually releasing them, albeit in a more garbled form.

“There is no escape from a black hole in classical theory,” Hawking told Nature. Quantum theory, however, “enables energy and information to escape from a black hole”. A full explanation of the process, the physicist admits, would require a theory that successfully merges gravity with the other fundamental forces of nature. But that is a goal that has eluded physicists for nearly a century. “The correct treatment,” Hawking says, “remains a mystery.”

Hawking posted his paper on the arXiv preprint server on 22 January1. He titled it, whimsically, 'Information preservation and weather forecasting for black holes', and it has yet to pass peer review. The paper was based on a talk he gave via Skype at a meeting at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California, in August 2013 (watch video of the talk).

Fire fighting

Hawking's new work is an attempt to solve what is known as the black-hole firewall paradox, which has been vexing physicists for almost two years, after it was discovered by theoretical physicist Joseph Polchinski of the Kavli Institute and his colleagues (see 'Astrophysics: Fire in the hole!').

In a thought experiment, the researchers asked what would happen to an astronaut unlucky enough to fall into a black hole. Event horizons are mathematically simple consequences of Einstein's general theory of relativity that were first pointed out by the German astronomer Karl Schwarzschildin a letter he wrote to Einstein in late 1915, less than a month after the publication of the theory. In that picture, physicists had long assumed, the astronaut would happily pass through the event horizon, unaware of his or her impending doom, before gradually being pulled inwards — stretched out along the way, like spaghetti — and eventually crushed at the 'singularity', the black hole’s hypothetical infinitely dense core.

But on analysing the situation in detail, Polchinski’s team came to the startling realization that the laws of quantum mechanics, which govern particles on small scales, change the situation completely. Quantum theory, they said, dictates that the event horizon must actually be transformed into a highly energetic region, or 'firewall', that would burn the astronaut to a crisp.

This was alarming because, although the firewall obeyed quantum rules, it flouted Einstein’s general theory of relativity. According to that theory, someone in free fall should perceive the laws of physics as being identical everywhere in the Universe — whether they are falling into a black hole or floating in empty intergalactic space. As far as Einstein is concerned, the event horizon should be an unremarkable place.

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