Welcome to the weird, weird world of hyper-extreme Sheldon physics

It’s coming up for a century since Albert Einstein explained the entire ‘classical’ universe. Neatly, and in ways that have been tested every which way, without being disproven.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

He never did manage to reconcile quantum physics with his macro-level rules, but there’s no question that Einstein got it right about the big stuff. General Relativity, remember, is actually a theory of gravity. And everything about it has been checked out. Repeatedly.

Still, there are points where his rules break down. I mean, literally. Points. As in mathematical points. Places that have no diameter.

They’re called ‘singularities’, and they’re inside every black hole. We can’t see them, because the singularity is masked by the event horizon. This is the point where the escape velocity of the object exceeds lightspeed – meaning light doesn’t escape, hence the term ‘black hole’.

Einstein predicted that too. And the fact that the singularity was inside an event horizon was the proverbial Good Thing because, according to theory, all the physics we know and love break down at the singularity. There has been speculation they might act as a gate (‘Einstein-Rosen Bridges’). But to Einstein and most of those who came after, it was academic, because nothing could escape the event horizon.

Enter Stephen Hawking. In 1974 he argued that black holes MUST emit particles under quantum rules. Imagine a particle just inside the event horizon. Thanks to quantum uncertainty, it is both on one side and the other. When the wave function collapses, there is a chance that the black hole has radiated a particle.

Black holes, in short, evaporate thanks to quantum effects. It takes a while for stellar-mass holes (and they’d gain more mass than they lost, via matter spiralling into them). But the particle-size black holes possible in the CERN supercollider have a lifespan of a millionth of a second. Or less.

Hawking radiation, however, doesn’t resolve the other paradox of black holes – which is that they cause loss of ‘information’. It vanishes into an event horizon and is gone, violating energy conservation rules and the conservation of information in the physics sense – unitarianism. Various explanations have been offered, none of them entirely satisfactory because the black hole exists at the intersection between the two incompatible theories – General Relativity and quantum mechanics.

This week, Hawking suggested that the best answer to the paradox is to assume that an event horizon doesn’t exist. It merely appears to; in fact the information is re-radiated, chaotically.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
Artists impression of a GRB (which is extreme, but not weird extreme). Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

All this is weird. But wait, if you extend the theoretical thinking it can get way weirder.

According to Hawking’s early work, the universe – during the early milliseconds of the Big Bang – might have created a ‘naked’ singularity. Later he revised that idea and said it hadn’t.

But imagine if it had. Naked. A singularity unprotected by an event horizon. Anything could happen. In all probability it would emit particles. But it might emit a monkey with a typewriter, tapping out King Lear. Or Sauron. Or The Heart of Gold. Or something so wild and crazy we can’t comprehend it. The laws of physics – which include probability and the order of events – don’t exist in a singularity.

Feel like you’re trapped inside Dr Who?

Could it happen? In theory, the singularity would become a torus outside the event horizon on a black hole that spun fast enough. And there is a theory – ‘loop quantum gravity’ – which postulates that naked singularities could exist anyway. The theory’s unproven.

And as of this week there’s Hawking’s notion of no event horizon anyhow – turning ‘black holes’ into…well, probably rather more than fifty shades of grey.

Wild? Sure. Weird? Absolutely. But that’s extreme physics for you.

Pass me a bunch of fermions. I’m famished.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Including the awaited lightspeed-with-custard experiment. Watch this space.


21 thoughts on “Welcome to the weird, weird world of hyper-extreme Sheldon physics

  1. Dear Matthew,
    your learned discourse has prompted a question. If, as you say,” the other paradox of black holes – which is that they cause loss of ‘information’. It vanishes into an event horizon and is gone,” is true, then can it be possible for a black hole to develop intra-cranially? It would explain so much.

  2. “Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
    Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait…
    The Earth began to cool,
    The autotrophs began to drool,
    Neanderthals developed tools,
    We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
    Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries,
    That all started with the big bang!”

  3. Excellent breakdown of the breakdowns toward getting the vaunted Theory of Everything. Science is exciting because it will never be truly done finding out more, and some things it can’t possibly ever know.

    1. Thank you! Actually, I fear my brain might explode too, if I research too much more of the totally weird physics stuff! I figure these guys have to be pretty much off the wall to think it up – tres cool though.

    1. There’s the old adage that if you had an infinite number of monkeys randomly typing stuff, one of them would type Shakespeare. Mathematically, what would actually happen is that an infinite number of monkeys would do it. No upper limit to mathematical infinity…

    1. Any subset of infinity must also be infinity…The horror (for me anyway) being that by this logic the monkeys also type out an infinite number of Dan Brown novels… 🙂

  4. In my slightly ‘warped’ opinion, every hard-core physics post should contain at least one reference to erotica (even bad erotica) 😉 [[insert applause]]

  5. Believe it or not, when I read an article on Hawking’s latest reason regarding the event horizon, I thought of you, Matthew! I hoped you would post on it and voila! As for that naked singularity, oh the possibilities. Great post!

    1. Thank you! It’s one of my enthusiasms, physics. One of the greatest appeals is the apparent overlap between the science and whimsy. Yet the science is provable. As Haldane said, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine. It is stranger than we CAN imagine.

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