Saturday, July 26, 2008

Leonard Susskind's "Black Hole War"

Here's where things get weird. I read in today's Los Angeles Times, despite its inexorable descent into diminishing satisfaction, this interview with a quantum physicist who appears to be rivalling his rival Stephen Hawking for self-promotion. The Bronx-born plumber's son may lack Hawking's gee-whiz wheelchair and robotic voice decoder for attention-getting, but he appears to be doing well in getting his argument out there, going so far in his chutzpah as printing in his book Hawking's letter of concession. Here's the L.A. Times review of the book: "Black Hole War" review by Jesse Cohen.

By the way, their Sunday Book Review, rumor has it, will be axed. I concocted a "Not the L.A. Times Book Review" blogspot name as a backup, on my wife's suggestion, for the nones. It's a pity when the second-largest city in the nation cannot give even half-- in sixty-nine fashion now spooning with the Op-Ed section on the Lord's Day-- of ten or so pages to a few titles worthy of interest. The attempted intellectual elevation of the LATBR (not that it'd be recognized on the level of NYTBR or NYRB) under former editor Steve Wasserman's but a memory now. I recall fondly him giving over a whole issue to new studies of the Spanish Civil War. So much for smarts in this city. No wonder we get stereotyped. Better that the Times devote, today, column inches to one columnist's trouble with her cellphone, vying with last Saturday's guest writer's Volvo repairs for scintillating absorption in this burg of the same.

Back to headier content, however briefly condensed for laymen like me, I found myself intrigued by this conversation. Susskind's clearly hawking his rivalry with Hawking, sort of trash-talking his opponent to set up a grudge match, but I suppose he'd never survive a round in the ring without some cheering from his Caltech and MIT and Oxbridge peers in what surely must be a grueling battle of brawny brains.

Here's the excerpt from: "Hawking Nemesis Leonard Susskind Speaks" with Jim Johnson.

What is the great resolution you referred to?

One result is something called Black Hole Complementarity. Let's say Alice falls into a black hole while Bob stays on the outside and watches. Nothing drastic happens to her when she crosses the event horizon [the point of no return around a black hole]. Of course she's eventually going to get it. On the other hand, there is another picture of the black hole, where every bit of information that you throw onto the horizon of a black hole gets sort of stuck on the horizon and builds up a soup of information bits. And this soup is hot, about a 100 billion billion billion degrees.

So Alice would get burned up?

We have a dilemma. One theory, based on general relativity, simply says Alice just floats past the horizon. That would be Alice's view of things. But Bob's view of things, if he believes in quantum mechanics, is that Alice falls into this soup of hot bits and her molecules are ripped apart. So, which one is correct? Alice can't both be killed at the horizon and not killed at the horizon. The answer is they are both correct.

How can that be?

These two ideas are not in conflict because to be in conflict, there has to be a contradiction. Well, nobody can see a contradiction for the simple reason that nobody can send a message from the inside of a black hole. Alice can't send a message saying, "Bob, I'm OK, don't worry about me," because the message can't get out of the black hole. Yet everything Bob sees is consistent with saying that Alice was thermalized.

It's difficult to see how both can be true.

We've had these things before in Einstein's thought experiments. Einstein, in the special theory of relativity, proved that different observers, in different states of motion, see different realities.

There's another strange theory that's come out of this battle, isn't there?

Yes, the Holographic Principle. A hologram is a two-dimensional sheet, such as film, which codes three-dimensional information. A simple way to say it is that the black hole horizon is like a hologram. The horizon of the black hole is like the film, and the image is the stuff that falls into the black hole. It's extremely unintuitive. According to this theory, the exact description of a region of space -- no matter how big -- is like a film on the boundary, where complicated and extremely scrambled versions of that space are going on. So in that sense, the universe is like a hologram.

I wonder if Susskind mentions Teilhard de Chardin. His concept of the noosphere might bridge the religious-rational divide elegantly. Here's a quote, thanks to Wikipedia, from 1959's "The Phenomena of Man" that jibes well with physics, Buddhists, post-Christians, and our secular age's search for meaning:
Our century is probably more religious than any other. How could it fail to be, with such problems to be solved? The only trouble is that it has not yet found a God it can adore.

Teilhard constructed his model upon Julian Huxley's notion that humanity is consciousness becoming aware of itself. In turn, building upon this Jesuit's intricate phenomenology, which suggested an "totalizing" imminence of the divine plan with our own human culmination as we built atoms and cells into a gradually more spiritual being that would merge with an Omega Point that pulls us towards Itself, I read Tipler's "The Physics of Immortality." Even more advanced than Teilhard's "Phenomenon"-- which I recommend to my wife and anybody inspired by her blogpost on whether there was a divine power that'd save us and our planet from our own destructive drive. I did manage to not only finish Tipler but I snuck in a citation to my dissertation. Surely the only book on physics I ever made it through.

I've never taken "Physics for Poets," but there's an imaginative dimension to Omega Point and singularity that complements what I've been pondering in my recent forays into learning about Buddhist concepts of primordial mind, continuing existence, and the lack of a start or finish to creation. Driving along today, I was flipped off after I honked when cut off dangerously by a young Asian woman in an SUV. This is the second such age-ethnic-gender bird-saluter I've encountered lately, by the way. I took it as a chance not only to toot to protect me and my sons, but to hope that she'd find instant karma further on down the 405. Still, I've been trying to be patient and more forgiving on and off the road. Not at my Omega Point yet, I linger in limbo.

Stuck in traffic earlier this afternoon I wondered where bardos met paperbacks, as the Omega Point certainly's fertilized pulp's pages. All I could guess: Arthur C. Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God" story or Philip K. Dick's "Man in the High Castle" novel. However, Clarke's "Childhood's End" deserves a shout-out as a supreme example of humanity's progress towards alien-directed deification. inter alia. [Cf. this Religions in Literature website, updated last 2002: Tibetan Buddhism & the Dalai Lama in Science Fiction.]

Last night, less entertainingly but more instructively, I began Thubten Chodron's "Open Heart, Clear Mind," a primer applying Tibetan Buddhist ideas to psychology and everyday life as we Westerners encounter it. She remarked how life's seen in this eternal light as unending, and she alluded to the fact that science itself does not sustain a notion that my medieval forebears called "ex nihilo." Now, I hesitated, this can't be true, can it?

This led me this morning, after I found out about Susskind, to recall Dennis Overbye's June 5, 2007 article "The Universe, Beyond All Understanding" in the New York Times. He thinks that as the universe grows colder and larger, we on earth will gradually lose our perspective on the rest of the universe, as it recedes from our vision and our comprhension. Are we meant not to find any Grand Unified Theory?

Overbye mentions how pre-Big Bang, astronomers posit that some background radiation must have existed. This led me back in my thoughts to Chodron's remarks and then this morning to Susskind's explanation of how information may be erased from our computer, say, but it never vanishes. Perhaps we do endure as a consciousness, not a carbon-based shell. Science insists upon the extinguishing of our spark when the last EKG flatlines. Yet, the clear light, the entry into a kaleidoscopic thrill ride, the explosion of our soul into space as we die: is this not as probable for us as afterlife Alices as what mortal Bob sees? Energy and matter, as Chodron agrees, exchange forms but they do not create themselves from nothing. As with Buddhism, she tells us that it's like a buffet table where we can roam freely, taking what we like. It's not a set of dogmas.

For physicists, so long shackled by their own immutable laws, they too perhaps find themselves freed after Einstein (see Rodger's comment below this post) to graze at a groaning smorgasbord of possibilities. Susskind tells how Bob and (Carol and Ted and?) Alice are both correct. Susskind again, as this dilemma bears repeating:
One theory, based on general relativity, simply says Alice just floats past the horizon. That would be Alice's view of things. But Bob's view of things, if he believes in quantum mechanics, is that Alice falls into this soup of hot bits and her molecules are ripped apart.

It's Schrödinger's Cat all over again, if not Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cousin. The smile's there and the cat's no longer there. Life's vanished from the corpse yet the spirit lives. The mind's in the body but not of it.

Perhaps death can be conquered, as Tipler-- one of the co-formulators of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle that argues how we emerged to understand a universe designed for us to evolve to understand it-- over a decade ago hoped for, in a book with a hundred pages appendixed for his colleagues, crammed with formulae. Tipler suggested that at an event horizon, our information dispersed at our death could be reconfigured and we could be resurrected. Susskind sees our data boiled and bubbling but not exactly eradicated at this horizon. Chodron believes we survive our death in altered form. We can, she and Susskind and Tipler might agree, merge into luminous emptiness after all, the force that's always emanated beyond reason or calculation.

The "Tibetan Book of the Dead" presents the astral body-soul with its own self-projections that if recognized as such-- floating into space towards nirvana vs. the illusion of being thermalized-- will bring the spirit into an awakened merging with the universal unity. The medieval visions I studied surely terrified my ancestors with everlasting torments or inspired them with endless bliss. Even their equivalents scared me, growing up post-Vatican II, ineradicably marking my formative years. Perhaps that accounts for my determination to face these overwhelming vistas, despite my own ignorance. We all, with diagrams or doctrines, dogma or "dzogchen," build our models of what awaits us beyond our own horizon, observing like Bob our own version of inexplicable events to come, and like Alice enduring what we cannot articulate in language, mathematics, or ideas in our present earthly form.

Illustration: 1899 page from "Alice in Wonderland," from


Anonymous said...

Aren't your remarks about Hawking a mite stiff? You sound almost as if he contracted ALS to promote his theories.

I first learned about Hawking over 30 years ago from his Scientific American article on what became known as Hawking radiation. (Speaking of physics for poets: Energy can escape from black holes by moving backwards in time ... Words to live by.) He ended, I clearly recall: "It thus seems that Einstein was doubly wrong when he said, 'God does not play dice.' Consideration of particle emission from black holes suggests that God not only plays dice but sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen." Then I read his author bio and learned about his disability. Welllll ... Rodger Cunningham

Fionnchú said...

Point taken, Rodger, but I did not mean to trash-talk Hawking so much as play up the wrestlemania-level type of rivalry that Susskind appears wanting to rouse so as to get attention away from Hawking and his hi-tech chair back to the fight itself. It amuses me when scientists engage in the same type of pre-fight pumping-up and putting-down of their opponent, I suppose. It draws in viewers, and interviewers, right?

JTankers said...

I think the following apparent reference to Steven Hawking on Cosmic Variance and his disputed Hawking Radiation theory is appropriately humorous and very relevant:

"... if you hold you mouth just right, the antielectron looks like an electron with negative energy moving backward in time. But never mind that. Anti-electrons, or positrons, do indeed exist, they move forward in time, and they have positive energy."