From The Guardian: “Black holes and soft hair: why Stephen Hawking’s final work is important”

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From The Guardian

Malcolm Perry, who worked with Hawking on his final paper, explains how it improves our understanding of one of universe’s enduring mysteries.

10 Oct 2018
Ian Sample

Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair was completed in the days before the physicist’s death in March.

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An artist’s impression of a star being torn apart by a black hole. Photograph: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Stephen Hawking by Jason Bye/REX/Shutterstock

The information paradox is perhaps the most puzzling problem in fundamental theoretical physics today. It was discovered by Stephen Hawking 43 years ago, and until recently has puzzled many.

Starting in 2015, Stephen, Andrew Strominger and I started to wonder if we could understand a way out of this difficulty by questioning the basic assumptions that underlie the difficulties. We published our first paper on the subject in 2016 and have been working hard on this problem ever since.

The most recent work, and perhaps the last paper that Stephen was involved in, has just come out. While we have not solved the information paradox, we hope that we have paved the way, and we are continuing our intensive work in this area.

Physics is really about being able to predict the future given how things are now. For example, if you throw a ball, once you know its initial position and velocity, then you can figure out where it will be in the future. That kind of reasoning is fine for what we call classical physics but for small things, like atoms and electrons, the rules need some modifications, as described by quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, instead of describing precise outcomes, one finds that one can only calculate the probabilities for various things to happen. In the case of a ball being thrown, one would not know its precise trajectory, but only the probability that it would be in some particular place given its initial conditions.

What Hawking discovered was that in black hole physics, there seemed to be even greater uncertainty than in quantum mechanics. However, this kind of uncertainty seemed to be completely unacceptable in that it resulted in many of the laws of physics appearing to break down. It would deprive us of the ability to predict anything about the future of a black hole.

That might not have mattered – except that black holes are real physical objects. There are huge black holes at the centres of many galaxies. We know this because observations of the centre of our galaxy show that there is a compact object with a mass of a few million times that of our sun there; such a huge concentration of mass could only be a black hole. Quasars, extremely luminous objects at the centres of very distant galaxies, are powered by matter falling onto black holes. The observatory Ligo has recently discovered ripples in spacetime, gravitational waves, produced by the collision of black holes.

The root of the problem is that it was once thought that black holes were completely described by their mass and their spin. If you threw something into a black hole, once it was inside you would be unable to tell what it was that was thrown in.

These ideas were encapsulated in the phrase “a black hole has no hair”. We can often tell people apart by looking their hair, but black holes seemed to be completely bald. Back in 1974, Stephen discovered that black holes, rather than being perfect absorbers, behave more like what we call “black bodies”. A black body is characterised by a temperature, and all bodies with a temperature produce thermal radiation.

If you go to a doctor, it is quite likely your temperature will be measured by having a device pointed at you. This is an infrared sensor and it measures your temperature by detecting the thermal radiation you produce. A piece of metal heated up in a fire will glow because it produces thermal radiation.

Black holes are no different. They have a temperature and produce thermal radiation. The formula for this temperature, universally known as the Hawking temperature, is inscribed on the memorial to Stephen’s life in Westminster Abbey. Any object that has a temperature also has an entropy. The entropy is a measure of how many different ways an object could be made from its microscopic ingredients and still look the same. So, for a particular piece of red hot metal, it would be the number of ways the atoms that make it up could be arranged so as to look like the lump of metal you were observing. Stephen’s formula for the temperature of a black hole allowed him to find the entropy of a black hole.

The problem then was: how did this entropy arise? Since all black holes appear to be the same, the origin of the entropy was at the centre of the information paradox.

What we have done recently is to discover a gap in the mathematics that led to the idea that black holes are totally bald. In 2016, Stephen, Andy and I found that black holes have an infinite collection of what we call “soft hair”. This discovery allows us to question the idea that black holes lead to a breakdown in the laws of physics.

Stephen kept working with us up to the end of his life, and we have now published a paper that describes our current thoughts on the matter. In this paper, we describe a way of calculating the entropy of black holes. The entropy is basically a quantitative measure of what one knows about a black hole apart from its mass or spin.
While this is not a resolution of the information paradox, we believe it provides some considerable insight into it. Further work is needed but we feel greatly encouraged to continue our research in this area. The information paradox is intimately tied up with our quest to find a theory of gravity that is compatible with quantum mechanics.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity is extremely successful at describing spacetime and gravitation on large scales, but to see how the world works on small scales requires quantum theory. There are spectacularly successful theories of the non-gravitational forces of nature as explained by the “standard model” of particle physics. Such theories have been exhaustively tested and the recent discovery of the Higgs particle at Cern by the Large Hadron Collider is a marvellous confirmation of these ideas.

Yet the incorporation of gravitation into this picture is still something that eludes us. As well as his work on black holes, Stephen was pursuing ideas that he hoped would lead to a unification of gravitation with the other forces of nature in a way that would unite Einstein’s ideas with those of quantum theory. Our work on black holes does indeed shed light on this other puzzle. Sadly, Stephen is no longer with us to share our excitement about the possibility of resolving these issues, which have now been around for half a century.

The origins of the puzzle can be traced back to Albert Einstein. In 1915, Einstein published his theory of general relativity, a tour-de-force that described how gravity arises from the spacetime-bending effects of matter, and so why the planets circle the sun. But Einstein’s theory made important predictions about black holes too, notably that a black hole can be completely defined by only three features: its mass, charge, and spin.

Nearly 60 years later, Hawking added to the picture. He argued that black holes also have a temperature. And because hot objects lose heat into space, the ultimate fate of a black hole is to evaporate out of existence. But this throws up a problem. The rules of the quantum world demand that information is never lost. So what happens to all the information contained in an object – the nature of a moon’s atoms, for instance – when it tumbles into a black hole?

“The difficulty is that if you throw something into a black hole it looks like it disappears,” said Perry. “How could the information in that object ever be recovered if the black hole then disappears itself?”

In the latest paper, Hawking and his colleagues show how some information at least may be preserved. Toss an object into a black hole and the black hole’s temperature ought to change. So too will a property called entropy, a measure of an object’s internal disorder, which rises the hotter it gets.

The physicists, including Sasha Haco at Cambridge and Andrew Strominger at Harvard, show that a black hole’s entropy may be recorded by photons that surround the black hole’s event horizon, the point at which light cannot escape the intense gravitational pull. They call this sheen of photons “soft hair”.

“What this paper does is show that ‘soft hair’ can account for the entropy,” said Perry. “It’s telling you that soft hair really is doing the right stuff.”

It is not the end of the information paradox though. “We don’t know that Hawking entropy accounts for everything you could possibly throw at a black hole, so this is really a step along the way,” said Perry. “We think it’s a pretty good step, but there is a lot more work to be done.”

Days before Hawking died, Perry was at Harvard working on the paper with Strominger. He was not aware how ill Hawking was and called to give the physicist an update. It may have been the last scientific exchange Hawking had. “It was very difficult for Stephen to communicate and I was put on a loudspeaker to explain where we had got to. When I explained it, he simply produced an enormous smile. I told him we’d got somewhere. He knew the final result.”

Among the unknowns that Perry and his colleagues must now explore are how information associated with entropy is physically stored in soft hair and how that information comes out of a black hole when it evaporates.

“If I throw something in, is all of the information about what it is stored on the black hole’s horizon?” said Perry. “That is what is required to solve the information paradox. If it’s only half of it, or 99%, that is not enough, you have not solved the information paradox problem.

“It’s a step on the way, but it is definitely not the entire answer. We have slightly fewer puzzles than we had before, but there are definitely some perplexing issues left.”

Marika Taylor, professor of theoretical physics at Southampton University and a former student of Hawking’s, said: “Understanding the microscopic origin of this entropy – what are the underlying quantum states that the entropy counts? – has been one of the great challenges of the last 40 years.

“This paper proposes a way to understand entropy for astrophysical black holes based on symmetries of the event horizon. The authors have to make several non-trivial assumptions so the next steps will be to show that these assumptions are valid.”

Juan Maldacena, a theoretical physicist at Einstein’s alma mater, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, said: “Hawking found that black holes have a temperature. For ordinary objects we understand temperature as due to the motion of the microscopic constituents of the system. For example, the temperature of air is due to the motion of the molecules: the faster they move, the hotter it is.

“For black holes, it is unclear what those constituents are, and whether they can be associated to the horizon of a black hole. In some physical systems that have special symmetries, the thermal properties can be calculated in terms of these symmetries. This paper shows that near the black hole horizon we have one of these special symmetries.”

See the full article here .

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