Tag Archives: hawking

We Didn’t Deserve Hawking

I don’t usually do obituaries. I didn’t do one when Joseph Polchinksi died, though his textbook is sitting an arm’s reach from me right now. I never collaborated with Polchinski, I never met him, and others were much better at telling his story.

I never met Stephen Hawking, either. When I was at Perimeter, I’d often get asked if I had. Visitors would see his name on the Perimeter website, and I’d have to disappoint them by explaining that he hadn’t visited the institute in quite some time. His health, while exceptional for a septuagenarian with ALS, wasn’t up to the travel.

Was his work especially relevant to mine? Only because of its relevance to everyone who does gravitational physics. The universality of singularities in general relativity, black hole thermodynamics and Hawking radiation, these sharpened the questions around quantum gravity. Without his work, string theory wouldn’t have tried to answer the questions Hawking posed, and it wouldn’t have become the field it is today.

Hawking was unique, though, not necessarily because of his work, but because of his recognizability. Those visitors to Perimeter were a cross-section of the Canadian public. Some of them didn’t know the name of the speaker for the lecture they came to see. Some, arriving after reading Lee Smolin’s book, could only refer to him as “that older fellow who thinks about quantum gravity”. But Hawking? They knew Hawking. Without exception, they knew Hawking.

Who was the last physicist the public knew, like that? Feynman, at the height of his popularity, might have been close. You’d have to go back to Einstein to find someone who was really solidly known like that, who you could mention in homes across the world and expect recognition. And who else has that kind of status? Bohr might have it in Denmark. Go further back, and you’ll find people know Newton, they know Gaileo.

Einstein changed our picture of space and time irrevocably. Newton invented physics as we know it. Galileo and Copernicus pointed up to the sky and shouted that the Earth moves!

Hawking asked questions. He told us what did and didn’t make sense, he showed what we had to take into account. He laid the rules of engagement, and the rest of quantum gravity came and asked alongside him.

We live in an age of questions now. We’re starting to glimpse the answers, we have candidates and frameworks and tools, and if we’re feeling very optimistic we might already be sitting on a theory of everything. But we haven’t turned that corner yet, from asking questions to changing the world.

These ages don’t usually get a household name. Normally, you need an Einstein, a Newton, a Galileo, you need to shake the foundations of the world.

Somehow, Hawking gave us one anyway. Somehow, in our age of questions, we put a face in everyone’s mind, a figure huddled in a wheelchair with a snarky, computer-generated voice. Somehow Hawking reached out and reminded the world that there were people out there asking, that there was a big beautiful puzzle that our field was trying to solve.

Deep down, I’m not sure we deserved that. I hope we deserve it soon.

You Can’t Smooth the Big Bang

As a kid, I was fascinated by cosmology. I wanted to know how the universe began, possibly disproving gods along the way, and I gobbled up anything that hinted at the answer.

At the time, I had to be content with vague slogans. As I learned more, I could match the slogans to the physics, to see what phrases like “the Big Bang” actually meant. A large part of why I went into string theory was to figure out what all those documentaries are actually about.

In the end, I didn’t end up working on cosmology due my ignorance of a few key facts while in college (mostly, who Vilenkin was). Thus, while I could match some of the old popularization stories to the science, there were a few I never really understood. In particular, there were two claims I never quite saw fleshed out: “The universe emerged from nothing via quantum tunneling” and “According to Hawking, the big bang was not a singularity, but a smooth change with no true beginning.”

As a result, I’m delighted that I’ve recently learned the physics behind these claims, in the context of a spirited take-down of both by Perimeter’s Director Neil Turok.


My boss

Neil held a surprise string group meeting this week to discuss the paper I linked above, “No smooth beginning for spacetime” with Job Feldbrugge and Jean-Luc Lehners, as well as earlier work with Steffen Gielen. In it, he talked about problems in the two proposals I mentioned: Hawking’s suggestion that the big bang was smooth with no true beginning (really, the Hartle-Hawking no boundary proposal) and the idea that the universe emerged from nothing via quantum tunneling (really, Vilenkin’s tunneling from nothing proposal).

In popularization-speak, these two proposals sound completely different. In reality, though, they’re quite similar (and as Neil argues, they end up amounting to the same thing). I’ll steal a picture from his paper to illustrate:


The picture on the left depicts the universe under the Hartle-Hawking proposal, with time increasing upwards on the page. As the universe gets older, it looks like the expanding (de Sitter) universe we live in. At the beginning, though, there’s a cap, one on which time ends up being treated not in the usual way (Lorentzian space) but on the same footing as the other dimensions (Euclidean space). This lets space be smooth, rather than bunching up in a big bang singularity. After treating time in this way the result is reinterpreted (via a quantum field theory trick called Wick rotation) as part of normal space-time.

What’s the connection to Vilenkin’s tunneling picture? Well, when we talk about quantum tunneling, we also end up describing it with Euclidean space. Saying that the universe tunneled from nothing and saying it has a Euclidean “cap” then end up being closely related claims.

Before Neil’s work these two proposals weren’t thought of as the same because they were thought to give different results. What Neil is arguing is that this is due to a fundamental mistake on Hartle and Hawking’s part. Specifically, Neil is arguing that the Wick rotation trick that Hartle and Hawking used doesn’t work in this context, when you’re trying to calculate small quantum corrections for gravity. In normal quantum field theory, it’s often easier to go to Euclidean space and use Wick rotation, but for quantum gravity Neil is arguing that this technique stops being rigorous. Instead, you should stay in Lorentzian space, and use a more powerful mathematical technique called Picard-Lefschetz theory.

Using this technique, Neil found that Hartle and Hawking’s nicely behaved result was mistaken, and the real result of what Hartle and Hawking were proposing looks more like Vilenkin’s tunneling proposal.

Neil then tried to see what happens when there’s some small perturbation from a perfect de Sitter universe. In general in physics if you want to trust a result it ought to be stable: small changes should stay small. Otherwise, you’re not really starting from the right point, and you should instead be looking at wherever the changes end up taking you. What Neil found was that the Hartle-Hawking and Vilenkin proposals weren’t stable. If you start with a small wiggle in your no-boundary universe you get, not the purple middle drawing with small wiggles, but the red one with wiggles that rapidly grow unstable. The implication is that the Hartle-Hawking and Vilenkin proposals aren’t just secretly the same, they also both can’t be the stable state of the universe.

Neil argues that this problem is quite general, and happens under the following conditions:

  1. A universe that begins smoothly and semi-classically (where quantum corrections are small) with no sharp boundary,
  2. with a positive cosmological constant (the de Sitter universe mentioned earlier),
  3. under which the universe expands many times, allowing the small fluctuations to grow large.

If the universe avoids one of those conditions (maybe the cosmological constant changes in the future and the universe stops expanding, for example) then you might be able to avoid Neil’s argument. But if not, you can’t have a smooth semi-classical beginning and still have a stable universe.

Now, no debate in physics ends just like that. Hartle (and collaborators) don’t disagree with Neil’s insistence on Picard-Lefschetz theory, but they argue there’s still a way to make their proposal work. Neil mentioned at the group meeting that he thinks even the new version of Hartle’s proposal doesn’t solve the problem, he’s been working out the calculation with his collaborators to make sure.

Often, one hears about an idea from science popularization and then it never gets mentioned again. The public hears about a zoo of proposals without ever knowing which ones worked out. I think child-me would appreciate hearing what happened to Hawking’s proposal for a universe with no boundary, and to Vilenkin’s proposal for a universe emerging from nothing. Adult-me certainly does. I hope you do too.

What’s in a Conjecture? An ER=EPR Example

A few weeks back, Caltech’s Institute of Quantum Information and Matter released a short film titled Quantum is Calling. It’s the second in what looks like will become a series of pieces featuring Hollywood actors popularizing ideas in physics. The first used the game of Quantum Chess to talk about superposition and entanglement. This one, featuring Zoe Saldana, is about a conjecture by Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind called ER=EPR. The conjecture speculates that pairs of entangled particles (as investigated by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen) are in some sense secretly connected by wormholes (or Einstein-Rosen bridges).

The film is fun, but I’m not sure ER=EPR is established well enough to deserve this kind of treatment.

At this point, some of you are nodding your heads for the wrong reason. You’re thinking I’m saying this because ER=EPR is a conjecture.

I’m not saying that.

The fact of the matter is, conjectures play a very important role in theoretical physics, and “conjecture” covers a wide range. Some conjectures are supported by incredibly strong evidence, just short of mathematical proof. Others are wild speculations, “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” ER=EPR is, well…somewhere in the middle.

Most popularizers don’t spend much effort distinguishing things in this middle ground. I’d like to talk a bit about the different sorts of evidence conjectures can have, using ER=EPR as an example.


Our friendly neighborhood space octopus

The first level of evidence is motivation.

At its weakest, motivation is the “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” line of reasoning. Some conjectures never get past this point. Hawking’s chronology protection conjecture, for instance, points out that physics (and to some extent logic) has a hard time dealing with time travel, and wouldn’t it be convenient if time travel was impossible?

For ER=EPR, this kind of motivation comes from the black hole firewall paradox. Without going into it in detail, arguments suggested that the event horizons of older black holes would resemble walls of fire, incinerating anything that fell in, in contrast with Einstein’s picture in which passing the horizon has no obvious effect at the time. ER=EPR provides one way to avoid this argument, making event horizons subtle and smooth once more.

Motivation isn’t just “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” though. It can also include stronger arguments: suggestive comparisons that, while they could be coincidental, when put together draw a stronger picture.

In ER=EPR, this comes from certain similarities between the type of wormhole Maldacena and Susskind were considering, and pairs of entangled particles. Both connect two different places, but both do so in an unusually limited way. The wormholes of ER=EPR are non-traversable: you cannot travel through them. Entangled particles can’t be traveled through (as you would expect), but more generally can’t be communicated through: there are theorems to prove it. This is the kind of suggestive similarity that can begin to motivate a conjecture.

(Amusingly, the plot of the film breaks this in both directions. Keanu Reeves can neither steal your cat through a wormhole, nor send you coded messages with entangled particles.)


Nor live forever as the portrait in his attic withers away

Motivation is a good reason to investigate something, but a bad reason to believe it. Luckily, conjectures can have stronger forms of evidence. Many of the strongest conjectures are correspondences, supported by a wealth of non-trivial examples.

In science, the gold standard has always been experimental evidence. There’s a reason for that: when you do an experiment, you’re taking a risk. Doing an experiment gives reality a chance to prove you wrong. In a good experiment (a non-trivial one) the result isn’t obvious from the beginning, so that success or failure tells you something new about the universe.

In theoretical physics, there are things we can’t test with experiments, either because they’re far beyond our capabilities or because the claims are mathematical. Despite this, the overall philosophy of experiments is still relevant, especially when we’re studying a correspondence.

“Correspondence” is a word we use to refer to situations where two different theories are unexpectedly computing the same thing. Often, these are very different theories, living in different dimensions with different sorts of particles. With the right “dictionary”, though, you can translate between them, doing a calculation in one theory that matches a calculation in the other one.

Even when we can’t do non-trivial experiments, then, we can still have non-trivial examples. When the result of a calculation isn’t obvious from the beginning, showing that it matches on both sides of a correspondence takes the same sort of risk as doing an experiment, and gives the same sort of evidence.

Some of the best-supported conjectures in theoretical physics have this form. AdS/CFT is technically a conjecture: a correspondence between string theory in a hyperbola-shaped space and my favorite theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills. Despite being a conjecture, the wealth of nontrivial examples is so strong that it would be extremely surprising if it turned out to be false.

ER=EPR is also a correspondence, between entangled particles on the one hand and wormholes on the other. Does it have nontrivial examples?

Some, but not enough. Originally, it was based on one core example, an entangled state that could be cleanly matched to the simplest wormhole. Now, new examples have been added, covering wormholes with electric fields and higher spins. The full “dictionary” is still unclear, with some pairs of entangled particles being harder to describe in terms of wormholes. So while this kind of evidence is being built, it isn’t as solid as our best conjectures yet.

I’m fine with people popularizing this kind of conjecture. It deserves blog posts and press articles, and it’s a fine idea to have fun with. I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with the Bohemian Gravity guy doing a piece on it, for example. But for the second installment of a star-studded series like the one Caltech is doing…it’s not really there yet, and putting it there gives people the wrong idea.

I hope I’ve given you a better idea of the different types of conjectures, from the most fuzzy to those just shy of certain. I’d like to do this kind of piece more often, though in future I’ll probably stick with topics in my sub-field (where I actually know what I’m talking about 😉 ). If there’s a particular conjecture you’re curious about, ask in the comments!

Don’t Watch the Star, Watch the Crowd

I didn’t comment last week on Hawking’s proposed solution of the black hole firewall problem. The media buzz around it was a bit less rabid than the last time he weighed in on this topic, but there was still a lot more heat than light.

The impression I get from the experts is that Hawking’s proposal (this time made in collaboration with Andrew Strominger and Malcom Perry, the former of whom is famous for, among other things, figuring out how string theory can explain the entropy of black holes) resembles some earlier suggestions, with enough new elements to make it potentially interesting but potentially just confusing. It’s a development worth paying attention to for specialists, but it’s probably not the sort of long-awaited answer the media seems to be presenting it as.

This raises a question: how, as a non-specialist, are you supposed to tell the difference? Sure, you can just read blogs like mine, but I can’t report on everything.

I may have a pretty solid grounding in physics, but I know almost nothing about music. I definitely can’t tell what makes a song good. About the best I can do is see if I can dance to it, but that doesn’t seem to be a reliable indicator of quality music. Instead, my best bet is usually to watch the crowd.

Lasers may make this difficult.

Ask the star of a show if they’re doing good work, and they’re unlikely to be modest. Ask the average music fan, though, and you get a better idea. Watch music fans as a group, and you get even more information.

When a song starts playing everywhere you go, when people start pulling it out at parties and making their own imitations of it, then maybe it’s important. That might not mean it’s good, but it does mean it’s worth knowing about.

When Hawking or Strominger or Witten or anyone whose name you’ve heard of says they’ve solved the puzzle of the century, be cautious. If it really is worth your attention, chances are it won’t be the last you’ll hear about it. Other physicists will build off of it, discuss it, even spin off a new sub-field around it. If it’s worth it, you won’t have to trust what the stars of the physics world say: you’ll be able to listen to the crowd.

No, Hawking didn’t say that a particle collider could destroy the universe

So apparently Hawking says that the Higgs could destroy the universe.


I’ve covered this already, right? No need to say anything more?

Ok, fine, I’ll write a real blog post.

The Higgs is a scalar field: a number, sort of like temperature, that can vary across space and time. In the case of the Higgs this number determines the mass of almost every fundamental particle (the jury is still somewhat out on neutrinos). The Higgs doesn’t vary much at all, in fact it takes an enormous (Large Hadron Collider-sized) amount of energy to get it to wobble even a little bit. That is because the Higgs is in a very very stable state.

Hawking was pointing out that, given our current model of the Higgs, there’s actually another possible state for the Higgs to be in, one that’s even more stable (because it takes less energy, essentially). In that state, the number the Higgs corresponds to is much larger, so everything would be much more massive, with potentially catastrophic results. (Matt Strassler goes into some detail about the assumptions behind this.)

For those who have been following my blog for a while, you may find these “stable states” familiar. They’re vacua, different possible ways to set up “empty” space. In that post, I may have given the impression that there’s no way to change from one stable state, one “vacuum”, to another. In the case of the Higgs, the state it’s in is so stable that vast amounts of energy (again, a Large Hadron Collider-worth) only serve to create a small, unstable fluctuation, the Higgs boson, which vanishes in a fraction of a second.

And that would be the full story, were it not for a curious phenomenon called quantum tunneling.

If you’ve heard someone else describe quantum tunneling, you’ve probably heard that quantum particles placed on one side of a wall have a very small chance of being found later on the other side of the wall, as if they had tunneled there.

Using their incredibly tiny shovels.

However, quantum tunneling applies to much more than just walls. In general, a particle in an otherwise stable state (whether stable because there are walls keeping it in place, or for other reasons) can tunnel into another state, provided that the new state is “more stable” (has lower energy).

The chance of doing this is small, and it gets smaller the more “stable” the particle’s initial state is. Still, if you apply that logic to the Higgs, you realize there’s a very very very small chance that one day the Higgs could just “tunnel” away from its current stable state, destroying the universe as we know it in the process.

If that happened, everything we know would vanish at the speed of light, and we wouldn’t see it coming.

While that may sound scary, it’s also absurdly unlikely, to the extent that it probably won’t happen until the universe is many times older than it is now. It’s not the sort of thing anybody should worry about, at least on a personal level.

Is Hawking fear-mongering, then, by pointing this out? Hardly. He’s just explaining science. Pointing out the possibility that the Higgs could spontaneously change and end the universe is a great way to emphasize the sheer scale of physics, and it’s pretty common for science communicators to mention it. I seem to recall a section about it in Particle Fever, and Sean Carroll even argues that it’s a good thing, due to killing off spooky Boltzmann Brains.

What do particle colliders have to do with all this? Well, apart from quantum tunneling, just inputting enough energy in the right way can cause a transition from one stable state to another. Here “enough energy” means about a million times that produced by the Large Hadron Collider. As Hawking jokes, you’d need a particle collider the size of the Earth to get this effect. I don’t know whether he actually ran the numbers, but if anything I’d guess that a Large Earth Collider would actually be insufficient.

Either way, Hawking is just doing standard science popularization, which isn’t exactly newsworthy. Once again, “interpret something Hawking said in the most ridiculous way possible” seems to be the du jour replacement for good science writing.

Editors, Please Stop Misquoting Hawking

If you’ve been following science news recently, you’ve probably heard the apparently alarming news that Steven Hawking has turned his back on black holes, or that black holes can actually be escaped, or…how about I just show you some headlines:




Now, Hawking didn’t actually say that black holes don’t exist, but while there are a few good pieces on the topic, in many cases the real message has gotten lost in the noise.

From Hawking’s paper:


What Hawking is proposing is that the “event horizon” around a black hole, rather than being an absolute permanent boundary from which nothing can escape, is a more temporary “apparent” horizon, the properties of which he goes on to describe in detail.

Why is he proposing this? It all has to do with the debate over black hole firewalls.

Starting with a paper by Polchinski and colleagues a year and a half ago, the black hole firewall paradox centers on contradictory predictions from general relativity and quantum mechanics. General relativity predicts that an astronaut falling past a black hole’s event horizon will notice nothing particularly odd about the surrounding space, but that once past the event horizon none of the “information” that specifies the astronaut’s properties can escape to the outside world. Quantum mechanics on the other hand predicts that information cannot be truly lost. The combination appears to suggest something radical, a “firewall” of high energy radiation around the event horizon carrying information from everything that fell into the black hole in the past, so powerful that it would burn our hypothetical astronaut to a crisp.

Since then, a wide variety of people have made one proposal or another, either attempting to avoid the seemingly preposterous firewall or to justify and further explain it. The reason the debate is so popular is because it touches on some of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics.

Now, as I have pointed out before, I’m not a good person to ask about the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. (Incidentally, I’d love it if some of the more quantum information or general relativity-focused bloggers would take a more substantial crack at this! Carroll, Preskill, anyone?) What I can talk about, though, is hype.

All of the headlines I listed take Hawking’s quote out of context, but not all of the articles do. The problem isn’t so much the journalists, as the editors.

One of an editor’s responsibilities is to take articles and give them titles that draw in readers. The editor wants a title that will get people excited, make them curious, and most importantly, get them to click. While a journalist won’t have any particular incentive to improve ad revenue, the same cannot be said for an editor. Thus, editors will often rephrase the title of an article in a way that makes the whole story seem more shocking.

Now that, in itself, isn’t a problem. I’ve used titles like that myself. The problem comes when the title isn’t just shocking, but misleading.

When I call astrophysics “impossible”, nobody is going to think I mean it literally. The title is petulant and ridiculous enough that no-one would take it at face value, but still odd enough to make people curious. By contrast, when you say that Hawking has “changed his mind” about black holes or said that “black holes do not exist”, there are people who will take that at face value as supporting their existing beliefs, as the Borowitz Report humorously points out. These people will go off thinking that Hawking really has given up on black holes. If the title confirms their beliefs enough, people might not even bother to read the article. Thus, by using an actively misleading title, you may actually be decreasing clicks!

It’s not that hard to write a title that’s both enough of a hook to draw people in and won’t mislead. Editors of the world, you’re well-trained writers, certainly much better than me. I’m sure you can manage it.

There really is some interesting news here, if people had bothered to look into it. The firewall debate has been going on for a year and a half, and while Hawking isn’t the universal genius the media occasionally depicts he’s still the world’s foremost expert on the quantum properties of black holes. Why did he take so long to weigh in? Is what he’s proposing even particularly new? I seem to remember people discussing eliminating the horizon in one way or another (even “naked” singularities) much earlier in the firewall debate…what makes Hawking’s proposal novel and different?

This is the sort of thing you can use to draw in interest, editors of the world. Don’t just write titles that cause ignorant people to roll their eyes and move on, instead, get people curious about what’s really going on in science! More ad revenue for you, more science awareness for us, sounds like a win-win!

Hawking vs. Witten: A Primer

Have you seen the episode of Star Trek where Data plays poker with Stephen Hawking? How about the times he appeared on Futurama or the Simpsons? Or the absurd number of times he has come up in one way or another on The Big Bang Theory?

Stephen Hawking is probably the most recognizable theoretical physicist to laymen. Wheelchair-bound and speaking through a voice synthesizer, Hawking presents a very distinct image, while his work on black holes and the big bang, along with his popular treatments of science in books like A Brief History of Time, has made him synonymous in the public’s mind with genius.

He is not, however, the most recognizable theoretical physicist when talking to physicists. If Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory were a real string theorist he wouldn’t be obsessed with Hawking. He might, however, be obsessed with Edward Witten.

Edward Witten is tall and has an awkwardly high voice (for a sample, listen to the clip here). He’s also smart, smart enough to dabble in basically every subfield of theoretical physics and manage to make important contributions while doing so. He has a knack for digging up ideas from old papers and dredging out the solution to current questions of interest.

And far more than Hawking, he represents a clear target for parody, at least when that parody is crafted by physicists and mathematicians. Abstruse Goose has a nice take on his role in theoretical physics, while his collaboration with another physicist named Seiberg on what came to be known as Seiberg-Witten theory gave rise to the cyber-Witten pun.

If you would look into the mouth of physics-parody madness, let this link be your guide…

So why hasn’t this guy appeared on Futurama? (After all, his dog does!)

Witten is famous among theorists, but he hasn’t done as much as Hawking to endear himself to the general public. He hasn’t written popular science books, and he almost never gives public talks. So when a well-researched show like The Big Bang Theory wants to mention a famous physicist, they go to Hawking, not to Witten, because people know about him. And unless Witten starts interfacing more with the public (or blog posts like this become more common), that’s not about to change.