If I can teach one lesson to all of you, it’s this: be precise. In physics, we try to state what we mean as precisely as we can. If we can’t state something precisely, that’s a clue: maybe what we’re trying to state doesn’t actually make sense.
Someone recently reached out to me with a question about black holes. He was confused about how they were described, about what would happen when you fall in to one versus what we could see from outside. Part of his confusion boiled down to a question: “is the center really an infinitely small point?”
I remembered a commenter a while back who had something interesting to say about this. Trying to remind myself of the details, I dug up this question on Physics Stack Exchange. user4552 has a detailed, well-referenced answer, with subtleties of General Relativity that go significantly beyond what I learned in grad school.
According to user4552, the reason this question is confusing is that the usual setup of general relativity cannot answer it. In general relativity, singularities like the singularity in the middle of a black hole aren’t treated as points, or collections of points: they’re not part of space-time at all. So you can’t count their dimensions, you can’t see whether they’re “really” infinitely small points, or surfaces, or lines…
This might surprise people (like me) who have experience with simpler equations for these things, like the Schwarzchild metric. The Schwarzchild metric describes space-time around a black hole, and in the usual coordinates it sure looks like the singularity is at a single point where r=0, just like the point where r=0 is a single point in polar coordinates in flat space. The thing is, though, that’s just one sort of coordinates. You can re-write a metric in many different sorts of coordinates, and the singularity in the center of a black hole might look very different in those coordinates. In general relativity, you need to stick to things you can say independent of coordinates.
Ok, you might say, so the usual mathematics can’t answer the question. Can we use more unusual mathematics? If our definition of dimensions doesn’t tell us whether the singularity is a point, maybe we just need a new definition!
According to user4552, people have tried this…and it only sort of works. There are several different ways you could define the dimension of a singularity. They all seem reasonable in one way or another. But they give different answers! Some say they’re points, some say they’re three-dimensional. And crucially, there’s no obvious reason why one definition is “right”. The question we started with, “is the center really an infinitely small point?”, looked like a perfectly reasonable question, but it actually wasn’t: the question wasn’t precise enough.
This is the real problem. The problem isn’t that our question was undefined, after all, we can always add new definitions. The problem was that our question didn’t specify well enough the definitions we needed. That is why the question doesn’t have an answer.
Once you understand the difference, you see these kinds of questions everywhere. If you’re baffled by how mass could have come out of the Big Bang, or how black holes could radiate particles in Hawking radiation, maybe you’ve heard a physicist say that energy isn’t always conserved. Energy conservation is a consequence of symmetry, specifically, symmetry in time. If your space-time itself isn’t symmetric (the expanding universe making the past different from the future, a collapsing star making a black hole), then you shouldn’t expect energy to be conserved.
I sometimes hear people object to this. They ask, is it really true that energy isn’t conserved when space-time isn’t symmetric? Shouldn’t we just say that space-time itself contains energy?
And well yes, you can say that, if you want. It isn’t part of the usual definition, but you can make a new definition, one that gives energy to space-time. In fact, you can make more than one new definition…and like the situation with the singularity, these definitions don’t always agree! Once again, you asked a question you thought was sensible, but it wasn’t precise enough to have a definite answer.
Keep your eye out for these kinds of questions. If scientists seem to avoid answering the question you want, and keep answering a different question instead…it might be their question is the only one with a precise answer. You can define a method to answer your question, sure…but it won’t be the only way. You need to ask precise enough questions to get good answers.