I’ve been detecting just a bit of battle-weariness on the intertubes today. I’ve got a bunch more gun posts up my sleeve, but I can see how a diet of lead, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, might wear a little thin. So here’s an olive-branch — something to feed your head, completely sorrow free.
My science writing buddy Jennifer Ouellette (my interview with her here) has a really excellent piece up at ScientificAmerican.com on a new puzzle roiling theoretical physics. She writes about a paradox raised by a re-examination of an idea in black-hole physics long thought settled.
The question that prompted the latest discussion is what happens when you have a couple — people for now, by convention Bob and Alice — wandering through the cosmos. But then, as Jennifer writes:
The adventurous, rather reckless Alice jumps into a very large black hole, leaving a presumably forlorn Bob outside the event horizon — a black hole’s point of no return, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.
Conventionally, physicists have assumed that if the black hole is large enough, Alice won’t notice anything unusual as she crosses the horizon. In this scenario, colorfully dubbed “No Drama,” the gravitational forces won’t become extreme until she approaches a point inside the black hole called the singularity. There, the gravitational pull will be so much stronger on her feet than on her head that Alice will be “spaghettified.”
Now a new hypothesis is giving poor Alice even more drama than she bargained for. If this alternative is correct, as the unsuspecting Alice crosses the event horizon, she will encounter a massive wall of fire that will incinerate her on the spot. As unfair as this seems for Alice, the scenario would also mean that at least one of three cherished notions in theoretical physics must be wrong.
From that pyrotechnic foundation, Jennifer then tells a fascinating story that both gives an account of the confusion and excitement this line of thought has produced — and along the way, provides a nice insight into the style of thought that (some) theoreticians use to pursue ideas far into the deep.
So, if you’ve had enough of murder and mayhem here on this vale of tears, here’s a chance to take yourself quite a good way out of the everyday.
Now, no post like this would be complete without (a) the appropriate sound track, and (b) given that I’ve invited you into the hairy realm of quantum mechanics, a cat picture:
This one illustrates why I feel a moral obligation not to fold laundry prematurely.