Sunday, January 08, 2017
Stephen Hawking turns 75. Congratulations! Here’s what to celebrate.
Hawking became “officially famous” with his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time.” Among physicists, however, he’s more renowned for the singularity theorems. In his 1960s work together with Roger Penrose, Hawking proved that singularities form under quite general conditions in General Relativity, and they developed a mathematical framework to determine when these conditions are met.
Before Hawking and Penrose’s work, physicists had hoped that the singularities which appeared in certain solutions to General Relativity were mathematical curiosities of little relevance for physical reality. But the two showed that this was not so, that, to the very contrary, it’s hard to avoid singularities in General Relativity.
Only a year later, in 1974, Hawking published a seminal paper in which he demonstrates that black holes give off thermal radiation, now referred to as “Hawking radiation.” This evaporation of black holes results in the black hole information loss paradox which is still unsolved today. Hawking’s work demonstrated clearly that the combination of General Relativity with the quantum field theories of the standard model spells trouble. Like the singularity theorems, it’s a result that doesn’t merely indicate, but prove that we need a theory of quantum gravity in order to consistently describe nature.
While the 1974 paper was predated by Bekenstein’s finding that black holes resemble thermodynamical systems, Hawking’s derivation was the starting point for countless later revelations. Thanks to it, physicists understand today that black holes are a melting pot for many different fields of physics – besides general relativity and quantum field theory, there is thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, and quantum information and quantum gravity. Let’s not forget astrophysics, and also mix in a good dose of philosophy. In 2017, “black hole physics” could be a subdiscipline in its own right – and maybe it should be. We owe much of this to Stephen Hawking.
In the 1980s, Hawking worked with Jim Hartle on the no-boundary proposal according to which our universe started in a time-less state. It’s an appealing idea whose time hasn’t yet come, but I believe this might change within the next decade or so.
After this, Hawking tries several times to solve the riddle of black hole information loss that he posed himself, most recently in early 2016. While his more recent work has been met with interest in the community, it hasn’t been hugely impactful – it attracts significantly more attention by journalists than by physicists.
As a physicist myself, I frequently get questions about Stephen Hawking: “What’s he doing these days?” – I don’t know. “Have you ever met him?” – He slept right through it. “Do you also work on the stuff that he works on?” – I try to avoid it. “Will he win a Nobel Prize?” – Ah. Good question.
Hawking’s shot at the Nobel Prize is the Hawking radiation. The astrophysical black holes which we can presently observe have a temperature way too small to be measured in the foreseeable future. But since the temperature increases for smaller mass, lighter black holes are hotter, and could allow us to measure Hawking radiation.
Black holes of sufficiently small masses could have formed from density fluctuations in the early universe and are therefore referred to as “primordial black holes.” However, none of them have been seen, and we have tight observational constraints on their existence from a variety of data. It isn’t yet entirely excluded that they are around, but I consider it extremely unlikely that we’ll observe one of these within my lifetime.
For what the Nobel is concerned, this leaves the Hawking radiation in gravitational analogues. In this case, one uses a fluid to mimic a curved space-time background. The mathematical formulation of this system is (in certain approximations) identical to that of an actual black hole, and consequently the gravitational analogues should also emit Hawking radiation. Indeed, Jeff Steinhauer claims that he has measured this radiation.
At the time of writing, it’s still somewhat controversial whether Steinhauer has measured what he thinks he has. But I have little doubt that sooner or later this will be settled – the math is clear: The radiation should be there. It might take some more experimental tinkering, but I’m confident sooner or later it’ll be measured.
Sometimes I hear people complain: “But it’s only an analogy.” I don’t understand this objection. Mathematically it’s the same. That in the one case the background is an actually curved space-time and in the other case it’s an effectively curved space-time created by a flowing fluid doesn’t matter for the calculation. In either situation, measuring the radiation would demonstrate the effect is real.
However, I don’t think that measuring Hawking radiation in an analogue gravity system would be sufficient to convince the Nobel committee Hawking deserves the prize. For that, the finding would have to have important implications beyond confirming a 40-years-old computation.
One way this could happen, for example, would be if the properties of such condensed matter systems could be exploited as quantum computers. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Thanks to work built on Hawking’s 1974 paper we know that black holes are both extremely good at storing information and extremely efficient at distributing it. If that could be exploited in quantum computing based on gravitational analogues, then I think Hawking would be in line for a Nobel. But that’s a big “if.” So don’t bet on it.
Besides his scientific work, Hawking has been and still is a master of science communication. In 1988, “A Brief History of Time” was a daring book about abstract ideas in a fringe area of theoretical physics. Hawking, to everybody’s surprise, proved that the public has an interest in esoteric problems like what happens if you fall into a black hole, what happed at the Big Bang, or whether god had any choice when he created the laws of nature.
Since 1988, the popular science landscape has changed dramatically. There are more books about theoretical physics than ever before and they are more widely read than ever before. I believe that Stephen Hawking played a big role in encouraging other scientists to write about their own research for the public. It certainly was an inspiration for me.
So, Happy Birthday, Stephen, and thank you.