Monday, 8 February 2016

Black hole firewall paradox? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn

Image based on NASA image, credit ESA/NASA/SOHO
As someone who writes about physics and cosmology I occasionally get asked my opinion on something like the black hole firewall paradox. If I'm brutally honest (which I rarely am, because I'm far too polite) I will reply: 'I don't know. I don't care. It bores me stiff.'

In case you aren't sure what the paradox is, it emerges from a combination of quantum theory and general relativity (which don't go together, but hey), and relies on piling about four levels of mathematical supposition on top of each other to come to the conclusion that the information that could be considered to exist on the event horizon of a black hole can't (as it was hypothesised it did) represent all the information in the 3D interior with gravity included, and 'therefore' something passing through the event horizon would burn up. Simples.

This topic involves theorising about a phenomenon that almost certainly doesn't exist in the real universe, using physics that almost certainly doesn't apply. Now, medieval theologians are often maligned by suggesting they wasted their careers arguing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. They didn't - it's a myth. But physicists really have spent a reasonable amount of time and effort on this modern day equivalent. 

Personally I'm much more interested in science that helps us understand phenomena we know exist than I am in mathematically driven flights of fantasy. Show me some observational or experimental evidence for a firewall and I will get excited. But stare at your navel and make it up and I really don't care. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that theoreticians should be prevented from playing around with these ideas, just as mathematicians shouldn't be stopped from thinking about mathematical structures that have no relevance to the real world. But I do think us science writers give far too much exposure to this kind of thing.

So, how many angels do you reckon could dance on the head of a pin?

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