Monday, May 7, 2007

Stephen Hawking: The Singular and the Singularity

I have an earlier blog that mentions my life-long fascination with astronomy, the universe, and the mysteriousness of it all, which seems to me to become even more mysterious and fascinating the more we learn with the new, larger telescopes and computers and all. That's my take on the whole thing, just a deep appreciation of the vast unknown -- I'm not a physicist by a heckuva long shot, and any books about the subject are very hard for me to read, though I do try. I've read most of Hawking's A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, for example, though I don't pretend to have understood or retained a lot of it.

A couple of nights ago I watched a program on the Discovery Channel about Stephen Hawking and his most recent challenge to his fellow physicists re black holes. Hawking first made his reputation in physics about 30 years ago when he delineated a theory on the existence of black holes, and he coined the phrase "the singularity" to apply to a black hole. His theory was proven mathematically and then by observation a number of years later, with the Hubble telescope and even better with the Chandra. Hawing also coined the term "event horizon" which is where, so far as black holes go, things get tricky -- because once anything, even light, crosses the event horizon the gravity becomes so dense it can never escape. There is or was a paradox to Hawking's original theory, paradox because although his elegant equation works, it doesn't agree with one of the basic laws of physics, the equally-elegant one about conservation of energy: E=MC squared. The big question is, what happens to the matter that gets drawn into a black hole, into the singularity, where does it go? Hawking's answer was that the matter that gets sucked into a black hole eventually disappears from the universe, as in poof! Gone forever. Remember this was 30 years ago.

The other physicists did not like this one bit. They proceeded to spend a great deal of time proving him wrong over those 30 intervening years, and one of them (whose name I forget, sorry, no offense meant) eventually came up with an equation that would do it. In a recent survey of physicists as to who among themselves would they consider of importance in the previous century, Hawking's name did not make the list. It seems that he had been sufficiently wrong about his matter being destroyed in black holes theory that they have just dumped him.

Now, in the 21st Century, this Discovery Channel program said that Stephen Hawking has come up with a revision of his black hole theory, and they showed how he did it and what he did about it. A part of that was letting us the viewers know that Hawking was very ill last year and almost died. I think most people know that Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis aka Lou Gehrig's Disease, when he was still a young man. At that time he was given two years to live, but the man is my age and still with us. He is a genuine living miracle; he's also a great mind tragically trapped in a seriously malfunctioning body. By the time he was taken to the hospital with pneumonia his scant command over his muscles had disintegrated to the point that he can no longer reliably control the finger he used to use for typing on his computer. Now all he can do is get maybe one letter he wants, and then his research associate has to guess where he wants to go with it, with Hawking confirming or negating the guess by facial twitches that are themselves extremely hard to read. It is excruciating to watch on television. When Hawking was in the hospital for a couple of months recovering from pneumonia, the program tells us his body was slowly healing while his mind was altogether elsewhere. He was re-thinking his position on what happens when matter crosses the event horizon and enters the singularity.

When Stephen Hawking recovered from pneumonia and came home from the hospital, he began the long, laborious (for both of them) process of communicating to his research assistant all that he had worked out in his head. Then he sent a message to an international meeting of physicists, saying that he wanted to appear and to present a paper to them at their big meeting, and of course they made room and put him on the agenda. What he announced was: "I was wrong. I made a mistake thirty years ago." He now believes that when matter -- which the physicists call "information" for reasons that are too complex for me to really understand all that well much less explain here -- enters the singularity, it may appear to be destroyed in our universe, but somewhere in an alternate universe, that does not happen. The one cancels out the other, and so on the whole throughout all existence, matter/information is not destroyed. Then he challenged his fellow physicists to come up with the equations that will either prove or disprove it.

I frankly do not really care all that much what happens to matter/information when it enters a singularity. But I did and do care enormously that this singular man went before the ultimate group of his peers and said in his computer voice, which is the only voice he has left and even that, tenuously, "I was wrong. I made a mistake." And that is exactly what he said, I heard it with my own ears via The Discovery Channel's videotaping the conference.

Today's physicists seem to me much like alchemists of yore, though they aren't concocting anything, they're only scribbling numbers and letters on a blackboard. They're making equations that prove what's in their heads, instead of mixing stuff in retorts, grinding things in mortars. Because there have been physical discoveries made that confirm their equations -- the existence of black holes being one -- physicists believe they have an exclusive handle on reality. And maybe they do.

But I doubt it.

Here is what I find when I go intuiting things in my head without having the ability to create equations to go with them: Black holes are the ultimate engines that drive the universe; that is why they exist at the centers of galaxies, as has now been observed and photographed. They suck everything in, but they spew it back out at some point in the form of energy. Maybe they spew their energy back out in a different universe, I don't know. Maybe if you were to enter a black hole yourself, you really would come out on the other side of it and be somewhere different, if not better. The one thing I have always remembered best about Stephen Hawking, comes to me in his computer voice: "If we could understand the singularity, then we would know the mind of God."

Now I can add to that, "I was wrong. I made a mistake," in that same voice.

Now that is a great man.

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