"What if the world was so strange that we could never hope to understand it?and science was wasting its time trying to do so??
These and certain bold statements made by Stephen Hawking of Big Bang theory fame upturned the scientific community about thirty years ago. It was suggestions like these that made people question Hawking?s scientific grounding. Until recently, his work with black holes provoked one of the greatest intellectual battles in recent times ?the greatest scientists in the world versus himself.
But first, a little background information.
Black holes?a point in space at which matter is incessantly pile driven together into a tiny volume of space, a point from which even light cannot escape. Hawking realized that to come to a complete understanding of the Universe, he would have to unravel the mysteries of the black hole. It was the period from the early 70s to the early 80s that became known as the ?Golden Age? of black hole research during which Hawking and his fellow physicist embarked on an expedition?to tame the black hole.
The more Hawking worked on black hole theories, the more he realized that there was something missing in the picture?all previous work on this subject dealt with large scale universe modeled physics. He set out to combine particle quantum mechanics and Einstein?s relativity to explain the intense gravity at the heart of a black hole. This act did more than cause a stir in the scientific community.
What Hawking?s equations were showing him was that something was coming out of the black hole! But this contradicted every scientific theory of black holes at the time. However, the more Hawking delved into the matter, the more he was convinced that he was right. He perceived radiation coming out of a black hole?Hawking radiation?something that would make a black hole disintegrate and eventually disappear.
Although Hawking?s theories about black hole evaporation were revolutionary, they soon came to be widely accepted. All was well in the scientific community until Hawking felt that this work had far more fundamental consequences. Hawking argued that it wasn?t just the black hole that disappeared. He said that all the information about everything that had ever been inside the black hole disappeared, too.
Hawking presented his ideas to some of the world?s leading physicists, but only one particle physicist?Leonard Susskind, who would soon become one of his leading antagonists?grasped the grandiose implications of his theory. He knew that Hawking?s ?breakdown of predictability? applied not only to black holes but to all processes in physics.
The ramifications are immense?if sub-atomic black holes exist about us right now?however insignificant or unperceivable they seem to the naked eye, then they are eating away at our information! If this is true then with every bit of information that is disappearing we are losing parts of our selves! Emotion, intellect, experience?nothing is sensible - nothing is preserved. If information is lost then we cannot predict the future, we cannot determine the outcome of our experiments, we cannot be sure of the past and the very nature of reality is brought into question.
If Hawking was right then, Susskind argued that there would not be any direct link between cause and effect. Then science cannot be trusted?physics would become impotent.
Arguments effectively boiled down into two sides. Susskind?s camp believed that Hawking was wrong and that information could not be lost - and on the other, Hawking?s camp believed that physics would have to be re-written to take into account the uncertainty about information that Hawking had uncovered.
For 20 years, arguments raged. Then a paper by a young Argentinean mathematician known as Juan Maldacena emerged, seemingly confirming Hawking?s proposal as flawed. This didn?t deter Hawking who, as a result of failing health, set to work with a young research student, Christophe Galfard, to try to pick apart the Maldacena paper. They were unsuccessful until Hawking fell ill. However, from what his doctors were sure was his death bed, stubborn Hawking emerged with a resolution to his own problem.
He claimed to have solved the information paradox. But to the surprise of many in the audience, he announced that he was not at the conference to disprove Susskind or defend his long-held view. Instead, he was there to bury the issue. In what ensued, he stated that information did not absolutely disappear or get lost. Instead information continuously passed into a parallel universe. He also proposed that information did not get lost in those universes in which black holes did not exist?ignoring the problem completely!
Over two years have passed since the conference and Hawking has still not presented a fully worked mathematical proof to back up his ideas.
If he succeeds in completing a proof that convinces his colleagues, he will not only have solved one of the most difficult problems in physics, but he will have produced ground-breaking work at the very end of his career, perhaps surpassing even his hero Albert Einstein.