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Stephen Hawking’s latest physics pronouncements inspire wide attention

3 September 2015
But why so little public awareness of his late colleague Jacob Bekenstein?

Begin typing the name Bekenstein into Google’s general search box, and as soon as you reach the letter s, Google begins automatically supplying Bekenstein-based physics terms: Bekenstein limit, Bekenstein bound, Bekenstein–Hawking entropy.

But if you begin typing Bekenstein in a search at Google News, you get nothing until you finish typing the name and hit the Enter key. Even then you don’t get much.

When it comes to science’s world-leading standouts, the world perversely limits its attention and esteem. For good reasons, the world loves Stephen Hawking and loves to follow his physics. For mysterious reasons, the world hardly even recognizes his late colleague, competitor, and science-pantheon peer Jacob Bekenstein, who died on 16 August.

This scanting constitutes an information paradox. How can science be so important in human history, yet see so much of the information about its most important human agents routinely ignored? A black hole sometimes lies between science and society.

Information paradox? Black hole? C’mon—that’s just a corny borrowing of physics concepts to make a nonphysics point. As a cheap rhetorical trick, that borrowing ranks with the tedious overuse in nonphysics contexts of the terms uncertainty principle and quantum leap. But in this media report, the corny borrowing gets deliberately worse. Part of the point is that Hawking’s latest welcome round of public attention centers on his recent pronouncements concerning the actual, physical concept of the black hole information paradox.

The attention started after Hawking’s public appearances in Stockholm in late August, just about when a paltry few Bekenstein obituaries appeared in major media. Transcribed words from a nine-minute online clip from a scientific seminar show Hawking beginning this way:

Forty years ago I wrote a paper, braved on the predictability in gravitational collapse, in which I claimed there would be loss of predictability of the final state if a black hole evaporated completely. This was because one could not measure the quantum state of what fell into the black hole. The loss of information would have meant the outgoing radiation is in a mixed state and the S-matrix was not unitary. The paper was very controversial. It was rejected by the Physical Review and accepted only after much argument and a delay of a year. Since the publication of the paper, the AdS/CFT correspondence has shown there is no information loss. This is the information paradox. How does the information of the quantum state of the in-falling particles reemerge in the outgoing radiation? This has been an outstanding problem in theoretical physics for the last forty years. Despite a large number of papers, see the AMPS firewall paper for a list, no satisfactory resolution has been advanced. I propose that the information is stored, not in the interior of the black hole as one might expect, but on this boundary, the event horizon, in the form of supertranslations of the horizon. This is a form of holography, recording the state of a four-dimensional region on its boundary, the horizon.

At the end, Hawking sums up: “The information about in-going particles is returned, but in a chaotic and useless form. This resolves the information paradox. For all practical purposes the information is lost.”

A sampling of ensuing headlines shows the welcome extent of this latest round of Hawking’s media attention:

* Huffington Post: “Stephen Hawking’s new black hole idea may blow your mind.”

* Guardian: “Stephen Hawking: ‘If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There’s a way out.’ Physicist says information sucked into a black hole may emerge in another universe.”

*Also in the UK, at the Express, things got a bit energized with this headline: “Professor Stephen Hawking: black holes could be portals to a PARALLEL UNIVERSE.” The subhead exclaimed, “FALLING into a black hole in space could send you into a PARALLEL UNIVERSE rather than simply swallowing you up, Professor Stephen Hawking has sensationally claimed.”

* Newsweek quoted from Hawking’s public lecture in Stockholm: “Stephen Hawking: ‘Black holes ain’t as black as they were painted.’”

* Salon reprinted a Scientific American piece under the headline “Stephen Hawking hasn’t solved the black hole paradox just yet: The physics world is abuzz with the cosmologist’s latest discovery. It may have gotten a little carried away.”

* The Los Angeles Times also headlined skepticism: “Stephen Hawking says he’s solved a black hole mystery, but physicists await the proof.”

* The century-old Christian Science Monitor went further: “Is Stephen Hawking’s latest black hole theory full of holes? Stephen Hawking’s latest black hole pronouncement is being dismissed by some physicists as merely a capitulation to established string theory.”

Meanwhile, the few obituaries covering the loss of Hawking’s peer Bekenstein at least made clear why he should have been better known.

In Israel, Haaretz assertively headlined, “The Israeli scientist who taught Stephen Hawking a thing or two about black holes.” At the New York Times, MIT physics-educated science writer Dennis Overbye opened by calling Bekenstein “a physicist who prevailed in an argument with Stephen Hawking that revolutionized the study of black holes, and indeed the nature of space-time itself.” In the Washington Post’s obituary, under a headline that included the phrase “towering theoretical physicist,” the opening extolled him for having “used the power of thought to explore the invisible objects that are ranked among the wonders of the universe—black holes.”

At Scientific American, Jennifer Ouellette declared Bekenstein one of science’s name-recognition-lacking “brilliant minds grappling with the knotty implications of black hole physics.” Part of her ending merits quoting here:

Some of the biggest ideas in theoretical physics in the last 40 years came about because of Bekenstein’s insights—things like Hawking radiation, the black hole information paradox, the holographic principle, and the ongoing debate over the so-called black hole firewall paradox. All of which could ultimately help physicists to devise a full working theory of quantum gravity—something that can take into account the requirements of both general relativity and quantum mechanics, which thus far just haven’t played well together.

That’s a pretty damned impressive impact for someone you’ve probably never heard of.

In a 2014 review, the Times’s Overbye blasted the Hawking biography movie The Theory of Everything for omitting the crucial Bekenstein dimension in Hawking’s career. Overbye’s recent obituary elaborated on that:

Dr. Bekenstein’s greatest achievement came in the early 1970s, when he was a graduate student at Princeton and got into a feud with Dr. Hawking, the celebrated physicist and expert on black holes.

Black holes are the prima donnas of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that space wraps itself completely around some object, causing it to disappear as a black hole. Dr. Bekenstein suggested in his Ph.D. thesis that the black hole’s entropy, a measure of the disorder or wasted energy in a system, was proportional to the area of a black hole’s event horizon, the spherical surface in space from which there is no return. According to accepted physical laws, including Dr. Hawking’s own work, neither entropy nor the area of a black hole could ever decrease.

Raphael Bousso, of the University of California, Berkeley, who was both a student of Dr. Hawking’s and a friend of Dr. Bekenstein’s, called Dr. Bekenstein’s proposition “among the most daring, yet elegant, arguments that I’ve seen in physics.”

Dr. Hawking denounced the idea. According to classical physics, anything with entropy had to have a temperature, and anything with a temperature—from a fevered brow to a star—must radiate heat and light with a characteristic spectrum. But a black hole could not radiate, and thus it could have no temperature and therefore no entropy.

Or so everybody thought until 1974, when Dr. Hawking did a prodigious calculation including quantum theory, the strange rules that govern the subatomic world, and was shocked to find particles coming away from the black hole, indicating that it was not so black after all.

Afraid he had made a mistake, Dr. Hawking, as he wrote in his book “A Brief History of Time,” kept his calculation quiet at first. “I was afraid,” he said, “that if Bekenstein found out about it, he would use it as a further argument to support his ideas about the entropy of black holes, which I still did not like.”

He was finally convinced, Dr. Hawking wrote, when he recognized that the radiation from the black hole would have the same characteristic heat spectrum as heat, just as Dr. Bekenstein’s theory had implied.

Today it is called Bekenstein-Hawking radiation, and its discovery is considered a landmark in the quest, so far unfinished, to fulfill the Einsteinian dream of a unified theory of both the gravity that bends the cosmos and the quantum chaos that lives inside of it, so-called quantum gravity.

Overbye emphasized that Bekenstein’s honors included two that often precede the Nobel Prize (which of course can go only to people still alive): the Wolf Prize and the American Physical Society’s Einstein Prize. He also quoted high praise from distinguished sources—for example, this: “Lee Smolin, a theorist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, said, ‘No result in theoretical physics has been more fundamental or influential than his discovery that black holes have entropy proportional to their surface area.’”

It’s corny to indict the scanting of world-leading physics standouts by borrowing and inevitably distorting physics terms. But then, maybe it’s also corny to wish what many in and around science often do wish: that some of the world’s apparently limitless esteem for celebrities could be shifted to some of the scientists whose work, over time, illuminates much and enables pretty much everything.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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