Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Hawking stuns scientists with new black hole theory

INFORMATION ESCAPES The physicist lost a bet after admitting that he had been wrong to assume that black holes destroy everything that is sucked into them


Professor John Preskill, right, on Wednesday shows a baseball encyclopedia he won in a bet with Professor Stephen Hawking, lower left, that all matter does not disappear after entering a black hole. They were both at a physics conference in Dublin.


"I want to report that I think I have solved a major problem in theoretical physics." With those words the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking opened a lecture at a scientific conference in Dublin on Wednesday which, in true Hawking style, overturned decades of scientific thinking, thrilled many of his academic peers and left everyone else scratching their heads.

Speaking to an audience of more than 600 physicists and dozens of the world's media, Hawking said he now believed that black holes, the mysterious massive vortexes formed from collapsed stars, do not destroy everything that is sucked into them. Instead, an abstract quantity called "information," which de-scribes the core characteristics of every type of particle, leaks from the black hole over time.

The announcement marks a U-turn from Hawking, who had argued that anything swallowed by a black hole was forever hidden from the outside universe. It has also lost him one of the most famous bets in science: in 1997 Hawking and physicist Kip Thorne made a wager with John Preskill at the California Institute of Technology, who insisted that information carried by an object entering a black hole was not destroyed.

"I'm now ready to concede the bet," Hawking said. An encyclopedia was to be chosen by the winner.

"John is all-American, so naturally he wants an encyclopedia of baseball. I had great difficulty finding one over here, so I offered him an encyclopedia of cricket as an alternative," Hawking said. "But John wouldn't be persuaded of the superiority of cricket."

The about-turn ends a 30-year personal struggle for Hawking. In 1974, while formulating new equations in an attempt to unite the heavyweight ideas of quantum mechanics and general relativity, he realized that black holes must emit heat, now known as Hawking radiation. The problem was that this radiation would carry energy away, meaning the black hole would gradually evaporate and then disappear in a final explosive outburst -- taking the crucial information with it. This contradicts the fundamental laws of quantum physics, which insist the information can never be fully wiped out.

While several physicists over the years offered solutions to this paradox, Hawking believed that the intense gravity inside a black hole somehow unravelled the quantum laws. More intriguingly, he suggested that the vanishing information might travel through the black hole to a parallel universe -- planting the seeds for a staple of science fiction.

"There is no baby universe branching off as I once thought," Hawking admitted. "I'm sorry to disappoint science fiction fans but if information is preserved there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes. If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form which contains the information about what you were like."

His calculations suggest the surface of the black hole, the event horizon, has fluctuations that let the information escape.

"It is great to solve a problem that has been troubling me for nearly 30 years, even though the answer is less exciting than the alternative I suggested," he said.

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