Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Not all publicity is good publicity, not even in science.

“Any publicity is good publicity” is a reaction I frequently get to my complaints about flaky science coverage. I find this attitude disturbing, especially when it comes from scientists.

[img src:]

To begin with, it’s an idiotic stance towards journalism in general – basically a permission for journalists to write nonsense. Just imagine having the same attitude towards articles on any other topic, say, immigration: Simply shrug off whether the news accurately reports survey results or even correctly uses the word “immigrant.” In that case I hope we agree that not all publicity is good publicity, neither in terms of information transfer nor in terms of public engagement.

Besides, as United Airlines and Pepsi recently served to illustrate, sometimes all you want is that they stop talking about you.

But, you may say, science is different. Scientists have little to lose and much to win from an increased interest in their research.

Well, if you think so, you either haven’t had much experience with science communication or you haven’t paid attention. Thanks to this blog, I have a lot first-hand experience with public engagement due to science writers’ diarrhea. And most of what I witness isn’t beneficial for science at all.

The most serious problem is the awakening after overhype. It’s when people start asking “Whatever happened to this?” Why are we still paying string theorists? Weren’t we supposed to have a theory of quantum gravity by 2015? Why do physicists still don’t know what dark matter is made of? Why can I still not have a meaningful conversation with my phone, where is my quantum computer, and whatever happened to negative mass particles?

That’s a predictable and wide-spread backlash from disappointed hope. Once excitement fades, the consequence is a strong headwind of public ridicule and reduced trust. And that’s for good reasons, because people were, in fact, fooled. In IT development, it goes under the (branded but catchy) name Hype Cycle

[Hype Cycle. Image: Wikipedia]

There isn’t much data on it, but academic research plausibly goes through the same “through of disillusionment” when it falls short of expectations. The more hype, the more hangover when promises don’t pan out, which is why, eg, string theory today takes most of the fire while loop quantum gravity – though in many regards even more of a disappointment – flies mostly under the radar. In the valley of disappointment, then, researchers are haunted both by dwindling financial support as well as by their colleagues’ snark. (If you think that’s not happening, wait for it.)

This overhype backlash, it’s important to emphasize, isn’t a problem journalists worry about. They’ll just drop the topic and move on to the next. We, in science, are the ones who pay for the myth that any publicity is good publicity.

In the long run the consequences are even worse. Too many never-heard-of-again breakthroughs leave even the interested layman with the impression that scientists can no longer be taken seriously. Add to this a lack of knowledge about where to find quality information, and inevitable some fraction of the public will conclude scientific results can’t be trusted, period.

If you have a hard time believing what I say, all you have to do is read comments people leave on such misleading science articles. They almost all fall into two categories. It’s either “this is a crappy piece of science writing” or “mainstream scientists are incompetent impostors.” In both cases the commenters doubt the research in question is as valuable as it was presented.

If you can stomach it, check the I-Fucking-Love-Science facebook comment section every once in a while. It's eye-opening. On recent reports from the latest LHC anomaly, for example, you find gems like “I wish I had a job that dealt with invisible particles, and then make up funny names for them! And then actually get a paycheck for something no one can see! Wow!” and “But have we created a Black Hole yet? That's what I want to know.” Black Holes at the LHC were the worst hype I can recall in my field, and it still haunts us.

Another big concern with science coverage is its impact on the scientific community. I have spoken about this many times with my colleagues, but nobody listens even though it’s not all that complicated: Our attention is influenced by what ideas we are repeatedly exposed to, and all-over-the-news topics therefore bring a high risk of streamlining our interests.

Almost everyone I ever talked to about this simply denied such influence exists because they are experts and know better and they aren’t affected by what they read. Unfortunately, many scientific studies have demonstrated that humans pay more attention to what they hear about repeatedly, and we perceive something as more important the more other people talk about it. That’s human nature.

Other studies that have shown such cognitive biases are neither correlated nor anti-correlated with intelligence. In other words, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re not biased. Some techniques are known to alleviate cognitive biases but the scientific community does not presently used these techniques. (Ample references eg in “Blind Spot,” by Banaji, Greenwald, and Martin.)

I have seen this happening over and over again. My favorite example is the “OPERA anomaly” that seemed to show neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light. The data had a high statistical significance, and yet it was pretty clear from the start that the result had to be wrong – it was in conflict with other measurements.

But the OPERA anomaly was all over the news. And of course physicists talked about it. They talked about it on the corridor, and at lunch, and in the coffee break. And they did what scientists do: They thought about it.

The more they talked about it, the more interesting it became. And they began to wonder whether not there might be something to it after all. And if maybe one could write a paper about it because, well, we’ve been thinking about it.

Everybody who I spoke to about the OPERA anomaly began their elaboration with a variant of “It’s almost certainly wrong, but...” In the end, it didn’t matter they thought it was wrong – what mattered was merely that it had become socially acceptable to work on it. And every time the media picked it up again, fuel was added to the fire. What was the result? A lot of wasted time.

For physicists, however, sociology isn’t science, and so they don’t want to believe social dynamics is something they should pay attention to. And as long as they don’t pay attention to how media coverage affects their objectivity, publicity skews judgement and promotes a rich-get-richer trend.

Ah, then, you might argue, at least exposure will help you get tenure because your university likes it if their employees make it into the news. Indeed, the “any publicity is good” line I get to hear mainly as justification from people whose research just got hyped.

But if your university measures academic success by popularity, you should be very worried about what this does to your and your colleagues’ scientific integrity. It’s a strong incentive for sexy-yet-shallow, headline-worthy research that won’t lead anywhere in the long run. If you hunt after that incentive, you’re putting your own benefit over the collective benefit society would get from a well-working academic system. In my view, that makes you a hurdle to progress.

What, then, is the result of hype? The public loses: Trust in research. Scientists lose: Objectivity. Who wins? The news sites that place an ad next to their big headlines.

But hey, you might finally admit, it’s just so awesome to see my name printed in the news. Fine by me, if that's your reasoning. Because the more bullshit appears in the press, the more traffic my cleaning service gets. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Friday, April 21, 2017

No, physicists have not created “negative mass”

Thanks to BBC, I will now for several years get emails from know-it-alls who think physicists are idiots not to realize the expansion of the universe is caused by negative mass. Because that negative mass, you must know, has actually been created in the lab:

The Independent declares this turns physics “completely upside down”

And if you think that was crappy science journalism, The Telegraph goes so far to insists it’s got something to do with black holes

Not that they offer so much as a hint of an explanation what black holes have to do with anything.

These disastrous news items purport to summarize a paper that recently got published in Physics Review Letters, one of the top journals in the field:
    Negative mass hydrodynamics in a Spin-Orbit--Coupled Bose-Einstein Condensate
    M. A. Khamehchi, Khalid Hossain, M. E. Mossman, Yongping Zhang, Th. Busch, Michael McNeil Forbes, P. Engels
    Phys. Rev. Lett. 118, 155301 (2017)
    arXiv:1612.04055 [cond-mat.quant-gas]

This paper reports the results of an experiment in which the physicists created a condensate that behaves as if it has a negative effective mass.

The little word “effective” does not appear in the paper’s title – and not in the screaming headlines – but it is important. Physicists use the preamble “effective” to indicate something that is not fundamental but emergent, and the exact definition of such a term is often a matter of convention.

The “effective radius” of a galaxy, for example, is not its radius. The “effective nuclear charge” is not the charge of the nucleus. And the “effective negative mass” – you guessed it – is not a negative mass.

The effective mass is merely a handy mathematical quantity to describe the condensate’s behavior.

The condensate in question here is a supercooled cloud of about ten thousand Rubidium atoms. To derive its effective mass, you look at the dispersion relation – ie the relation between energy and momentum – of the condensate’s constituents, and take the second derivative of the energy with respect to the momentum. That thing you call the inverse effective mass. And yes, it can take on negative values.
If you plot the energy against the momentum, you can read off the regions of negative mass from the curvature of the resulting curve. It’s clear to see in Fig 1 of the paper, see below. I added the red arrow to point to the region where the effective mass is negative.
Fig 1 from arXiv:1612.04055 [cond-mat.quant-gas]

As to why that thing is called effective mass, I had to consult a friend, David Abergel, who works with cold atom gases. His best explanation is that it’s a “historical artefact.” And it’s not deep: It’s called an effective mass because in the usual non-relativistic limit E=p2/m, so if you take two derivatives of E with respect to p, you get the inverse mass. Then, if you do the same for any other relation between E and p you call the result an inverse effective mass.

It's a nomenclature that makes sense in context, but it probably doesn’t sound very headline-worthy:
“Physicists created what’s by historical accident still called an effective negative mass.”
In any case, if you use this definition, you can rewrite the equations of motion of the fluid. They then resemble the usual hydrodynamic equations with a term that contains the inverse effective mass multiplied by a force.

What this “negative mass” hence means is that if you release the condensate from a trapping potential that holds it in place, it will first start to run apart. And then no longer run apart. That pretty much sums up the paper.

The remaining force which the fluid acts against, it must be emphasized, is then not even an external force. It’s a force that comes from the quantum pressure of the fluid itself.

So here’s another accurate headline:
“Physicists observe fluid not running apart.”
This is by no means to say that the result is uninteresting! Indeed, it’s pretty cool that this fluid self-limits its expansion thanks to long-range correlations which come from quantum effects. I’ll even admit that thinking of the behavior as if the fluid had a negative effective mass may be a useful interpretation. But that still doesn’t mean physicists have actually created negative mass.

And it has nothing to do with black holes, dark energy, wormholes, and the like. Trust me, physics is still upside up.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Catching Light – New Video!

I have many shortcomings, like leaving people uncertain whether they’re supposed to laugh or not. But you can’t blame me for lack of vision. I see a future in which science has become a cultural good, like sports, music, and movies. We’re not quite there yet, but thanks to the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) we’re a step closer today.

This is the first music video in a series of three, sponsored by FQXi, for which I’ve teamed up with Timo Alho and Apostolos Vasileiadis. And, believe it or not, all three music videos are about physics!

You’ve met Apostolos before on this blog. He’s the one who, incredibly enough, used his spare time as an undergraduate to make a short film about gauge symmetry. I know him from my stay in Stockholm, where he completed a masters degree in physics. Apostolos then, however, decided that research wasn’t for him. He has since founded a company – Third Panda  – and works as freelance videographer.

Timo Alho is one of the serendipitous encounters I’ve made on this blog. After he left some comments on my songs (mostly to point out they’re crappy) it turned out not only is he a theoretical physicist too, but we were both attending the same conference a few weeks later. Besides working on what passes as string theory these days, Timo also plays the keyboard in two bands and knows more than I about literally everything to do with songwriting and audio processing and, yes, about string theory too.

Then I got a mini-grant from FQXi that allowed me to coax the two young men into putting up with me, and five months later I stood in the hail, in a sleeveless white dress, on a beach in Crete, trying to impersonate electromagnetic radiation.

This first music video is about Einstein’s famous thought experiment in which he imagined trying to catch light. It takes on the question how much can be learned by introspection. You see me in the role of light (I am part of the master plan), standing in for nature more generally, and Timo as the theorist trying to understand nature’s working while barely taking notice of it (I can hear her talk to me at night).

The two other videos will follow early May and mid of May, so stay tuned for more!

Update April 21: 

Since several people asked, here are the lyrics. The YouTube video has captions - to see them, click on the CC icon in the bottom bar.

I am part of the master plan
Every woman, every man
I have seen them come and go
Go with the flow

I have seen that we all are one
I know all and every one
I was here when the sun was born
Ages ago

In my mind
I have tried
Catching light
Catching light

In my mind
I have left the world behind

Every time I close my eyes
All of nature's open wide
I can hear her
Talk to me at night

In my mind I have been trying
Catching light outside of time
I collect it in a box
Collect it in a box

Every time I close my eyes
All of nature's open wide
I can hear her
Talk to me at night

[Repeat Chorus]

[Interlude, Einstein recording]
The scientific method itself
would not have led anywhere,
it would not even have been formed
Without a passionate striving for a clear understanding.
Perfection of means
and confusion of goals
seem in my opinion
to characterize our age.

[Repeat Chorus]

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book review: “A Big Bang in a Little Room” by Zeeya Merali

A Big Bang in a Little Room: The Quest to Create New Universes
Zeeya Merali
Basic Books (February 14, 2017)

When I heard that Zeeya Merali had written a book, I expected something like a Worst Of New Scientist compilation. But A Big Bang in A Little Room turned out to be both interesting and enjoyable, if maybe not for the reason the author intended.

If you follow the popular science news on physics foundations, you almost certainly have come across Zeeya’s writing before. She was the one to break news about the surfer dude’s theory of everything and brought black hole echoes to Nature News. She also does much of the outreach work for the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi).

Judged by the comments I get when sharing Zeeya’s articles, for some of my colleagues she embodies the decline of science journalism to bottomless speculation. Personally, I think what’s decaying to speculation is my colleagues’ research, and if so then Nature’s readership deserves to know about this. But, yes, Zeeya is frequently to be found on the wild side of physics. So, a book about creating universes in the lab seems in line.

To get it out of the way, the idea that we might grow a baby universe has, to date, no scientific basis. It’s an interesting speculation but the papers that have been written about it are little more than math-enriched fiction. To create a universe, we’d first have to understand how our universe began, and we don’t. The theories necessary for this – inflation and quantum gravity – are not anywhere close to being settled. Nobody has a clue how to create a universe, and for what I am concerned that’s really all there is to say about it.

But baby universes are a great excuse to feed real science to the reader, and if that’s the sugar-coating to get medicine down, I approve. And indeed, Zeeya’s book is quite nutritious: From entanglement to general relativity, structure formation, and inflation, to loop quantum cosmology and string theory, it’s all part of her story.

The narrative of A Big Bang in A Little Room starts with the question whether there might be a message encoded in the cosmic microwave background, and then moves on to bubble- and baby-universes, the multiverse, mini-black holes at the LHC, and eventually – my pet peeve! – the hypothesis that we might be living in a computer simulation.

Thankfully, on the latter issue Zeeya spoke to Seth Lloyd who – like me – doesn’t buy Bostrom’s estimate that we likely live in a computer simulation:
“Arguments such as Bostrom’s that hinge on the assumption that in the future physically evolved cosmoses will be outnumbered by a plethora of simulated universes, making it vastly more likely that we are artificial intelligences rather than biological beings, also fail to take into account the immense resources needed to create even basic simulations, says Lloyd.”
So, I’ve found nothing to complain even about the simulation argument!

Zeeya has a PhD in physics, cosmology more specifically, so she has all the necessary background to understand the topics she writes about. Her explanations are both elegant and, for all I can tell, almost entirely correct. I’d have some quibbles on one or the other point, eg her explanation of entanglement doesn’t make clear what’s the difference between classical and quantum correlations, but then it doesn’t matter for the rest of the book. Zeeya is also careful to state that neither inflation nor string theory are established theories, and the book is both well-referenced and has useful endnotes for the reader who wants more details.

Overall, however, Zeeya doesn’t offer the reader much guidance, but rather presents one thought-provoking idea after the other – like that there are infinitely many copies of each of us in the multiverse, making every possible decision – and then hurries on.

Furthermore, between the chapters there are various loose ends that she never ties together. For example, if the creator of our universe could write a message into the cosmic microwave background, then why do we need inflation to solve the horizon problem? How do baby universes fit together with string theory, or AdS/CFT more specifically, and why was the idea mostly abandoned? It’s funny also that Lee Smolin’s cosmological natural selection – an idea according to which we should live in a universe that amply procreates and is hence hugely supportive of the whole universe-creation issue  – is mentioned merely as an aside, and when it comes to loop quantum gravity, both Smolin and Rovelli are bypassed as Ashtekhar’s “collaborators,” (which I’m sure the two gentlemen will just love to hear).

For what I am concerned, the most interesting aspect of Zeeya’s book is that she spoke to various scientists about their creation beliefs: Anthony Zee, Stephen Hsu, Abhay Ashtekar, Joe Polchinski, Alan Guth, Eduardo Guendelman, Alexander Vilenkin, Don Page, Greg Landsberg, and Seth Lloyd are familiar names that appear on the pages. (The majority of these people are FQXi members.)

What we believe to be true is a topic physicists rarely talk about, and I think this is unfortunate. We all believe in something – most scientists, for example believe in an external reality – but fessing up to the limits of our rationality isn’t something we like to get caught with. For this reason I find Zeeya’s book very valuable.

About the value of discussing baby universes I’m not so sure. As Zeeya notes towards the end of her book, of the physicists she spoke to, besides Don Page no one seems to have thought about the ethics of creating new universes. Let me offer a simple explanation for this: It’s that besides Page no one believes the idea has scientific merit.

In summary: It’s a great book if you don’t take the idea of universe-creation too seriously. I liked the book as much as you can possibly like a book whose topic you think is nonsense.

[Disclaimer: Free review copy.]

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why doesn’t anti-matter anti-gravitate?

Flying pig.
Why aren’t there any particles that fall up in the gravitational field of Earth? It would be so handy – If I had to move the couch, rather than waiting for the husband to flex his muscles, I’d just tie an anti-gravitating weight to it and the couch would float to the other side of the room.

Newton’s law of gravity and Coulomb’s law for the electric force between two charges have the same mathematical form, so how come we have both positive and negative electric charges but not both negative and positive gravitational masses?

The quick answer to the question is, well, we’ve never seen anything fall up. But if there was anti-gravitating matter, it would be repelled by our planet. So maybe it’s not so surprising we don’t see any of it here. Might there be anti-gravitating matter elsewhere?

It’s a difficult question, more difficult than even most physicists appreciate. The difference between gravity and the electromagnetic interaction – which gives rise to Coulomb’s law – is the type of messenger field. Interactions between particles are mediated by fields. For electromagnetism the mediator is a vector-field. For gravity it’s a more complicated field, a 2nd rank tensor-field, which describes space-time itself.

In case an interaction is quantized, the interaction’s field is accompanied by a particle: For electromagnetism that’s the photon, for gravity it’s the (hypothetical) graviton. The particles share the properties of the field, but for the question of whether or not there’s anti-gravity the quantization of the field doesn’t play a role.

The major difference between the two cases comes down to a sign. For a vector-field, as in the case of electromagnetism, like charges repel and unlike charges attract. For a 2nd rank tensor field, in contrast, like charges attract and unlike charges repel. This already tells us that an anti-gravitating particle would not be repelled by everything. It would be repelled by normally gravitating mass – which we may agree to call “positive” – but be attracted by gravitational masses of its own kind – which we may call “negative.”

The question then becomes: Where are the particles of negative gravitational mass?

To better understand the theoretical backdrop, we must distinguish between inertial mass and gravitational mass. The inertial mass is what gives rise to an object’s inertia, ie its resistance to acceleration, and is always positive valued. The gravitational mass, on the other hand, is what creates the gravitational field of the object. In usual general relativity, the two masses are identical by assumption: This is Einstein’s equivalence principle in a nutshell. In more detail, we’d not only talk about the equivalence for masses, but for all types of energies, collected in what is known as the stress-energy-tensor. Again, the details get mathematical very fast, but aren’t so relevant to understand the general structure.

All the particles we presently know of are collected in the standard model of particle physics, which is in agreement with data to very high precision. The standard model also includes all anti-particles, which are identical to their partner-particles except for having opposite electric charge. Is it possible that the anti-particles also anti-gravitate?

Theory clearly answer this question with “No.” From the standard model, we can derive how anti-matter gravitates – it gravitates exactly the same way as normal matter. And observational evidence supports this conclusion as follows.

We don’t normally see anti-particles around us because they annihilate when they come in contact with normal matter, leaving behind merely a flash of light. Why there isn’t the same amount of matter and anti-matter in the universe nobody really knows – it’s a big mystery that goes under the name “baryon asymmetry” – but evidence shows the universe is dominated by matter. If we see anti-particles – in cosmic rays or in particle colliders – it’s usually as single particles, which are both too light and too short-lived to reliably measure their gravitational mass.

That, however, doesn’t mean we don’t know how anti-matter behaves under the influence of gravity. Both matter and anti-matter particles hold together the quarks that make up neutrons and protons. Indeed, the anti-particles’ energy makes a pretty large contribution to the total mass of neutrons and protons, and hence to the total mass of pretty much everything around us. This means if anti-matter had a negative gravitational mass, the equivalence principle would be badly violated. It isn’t, and so we already know anti-matter doesn’t anti-gravitate.

Those with little faith in theoretical arguments might want to argue that maybe it’s possible to find a way to make anti-matter anti-gravitate only sometimes. I am not aware of any theorem which strictly proves this to be impossible, but neither is there – to my best knowledge – any example of a consistent theory in which this has been shown to work.

And if that still wasn’t enough to convince you, the ALPHA experiment at CERN has not only created neutral anti-hydrogen, made of an anti-proton and a positron (an anti-electron), but has taken great strides towards measuring exactly how anti-hydrogen behaves in Earth’s gravitation field. Guess what? So far there is no evidence that anti-hydrogen falls upwards – though the present measurement precision only rules out that the anti-hydrogen’s gravitational mass is not larger than (minus!) 65 times its inertial mass.

[Correction added April 19: There is not one but three approved experiments at CERN to measure the free fall of anti hydrogen: AEGIS, ALPHA-g and GBAR.]

So, at least theoretical physicists are pretty sure that none of the particles we know anti-gravitates. But could there be other particles, which we haven’t yet discovered, that anti-gravitate?

In principle, yes, but there is no observational evidence for this. In contrast to what is often said, dark energy does not anti-gravitate. The distinctive property of dark energy is that the ratio of energy-density over pressure is negative. For anti-gravitating matter, however, both energy-density and pressure change sign, so the ratio stays positive. This means anti-gravitating matter, if it exists, behaves just the same way as normal matter does, except that the two types of matter repel each other. It also doesn’t give rise to anything like dark matter, because negative gravitational mass would have the exact opposite effect as needed to explain dark matter.

To be fair, I also don’t know of any experiment that explicitly looks for signatures of anti-gravitational matter, like for example concave gravitational lensing. So, strictly speaking, it hasn’t been ruled out, but it’s a hypothesis that also hasn’t attracted much professional interest. Many theoretical physicists who I have talked to believe that negative gravitational masses would induce vacuum-decay because particle pairs could be produced out of nothing. This argument, however, doesn’t take into account that the inertial masses remain positive which prohibits pair production. (On a more technical note, it is a little appreciated fact that the canonical stress-energy tensor isn’t the same as the gravitational stress-energy tensor.)

Even so, let us suppose that the theoretically possible anti-gravitating matter is somewhere out there. What would it be good for? Not for much, it turns out. The stuff would interact with our normal matter even more weakly than neutrinos. This means even if we’d manage to find some of it in our vicinity – which is implausible already – we wouldn’t be able to catch it and use it for anything. It would simply pass right through us.

The anti-gravitating weight that I’d want to tie to the couch, therefore, will unfortunately remain fiction.

[This post previously appeared on Starts With A Bang.]

Friday, April 07, 2017

Book review reviewed: “The Particle Zoo” by Gavin Hesketh

The Particle Zoo: The Search for the Fundamental Nature of Reality
By Gavin Hesketh
Paperback Edition
Quercus (15 Jun. 2017)

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Gavin Heskeths book The Particle Zoo. I found his introduction to quantum field theory very well done. Considering that he can’t rely on equations, Hesketh gets across a lot of details (notably, what Feynman diagrams do and don’t depict).

However, I was quite unhappy with various inaccuracies in the book, particularly concerning the search for physics beyond the standard model.

But then something amazing happened! Hesketh sent me an email a few days ago, saying he read my review and revised the manuscript for the paperback edition to address the criticism. While the changes between the two editions will not be large, it usually doesn’t take more than a sentence or two to add some context or a word of caution. And so, I’m happy to endorse the paperback edition of The Particle Zoo which (according to amazon) will appear on June 15th.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Dear Dr. B: Why do physicists worry so much about the black hole information paradox?

    “Dear Dr. B,

    Why do physicists worry so much about the black hole information paradox, since it looks like there are several, more mundane processes that are also not reversible? One obvious example is the increase of the entropy in an isolated system and another one is performing a measurement according to quantum mechanics.

    Regards, Petteri”

Dear Petteri,

This is a very good question. Confusion orbits the information paradox like accretion disks orbit supermassive black holes. A few weeks ago, I figured even my husband doesn’t really know what the problem is, and he doesn’t only have a PhD in physics, he has also endured me rambling about the topic for more than 15 years!

So, I’m happy to elaborate on why theorists worry so much about black hole information. There are two aspects to this worry: one scientific and one sociological. Let me start with the scientific aspect. I’ll comment on the sociology below.

In classical general relativity, black holes aren’t much trouble. Yes, they contain a singularity where curvature becomes infinitely large – and that’s deemed unphysical – but the singularity is hidden behind the horizon and does no harm.

As Stephen Hawking pointed out, however, if you take into account that the universe – even vacuum – is filled with quantum fields of matter, you can calculate that black holes emit particles, now called “Hawking radiation.” This combination of unquantized gravity with quantum fields of matter is known as “semi-classical” gravity, and it should be a good approximation as long as quantum effects of gravity can be neglected, which means as long as you’re not close by the singularity.

Illustration of black hole with jet and accretion disk.
Image credits: NASA.

Hawking radiation consists of pairs of entangled particles. Of each pair, one particle falls into the black hole while the other one escapes. This leads to a net loss of mass of the black hole, ie the black hole shrinks. It loses mass until entirely evaporated and all that’s left are the particles of the Hawking radiation which escaped.

Problem is, the surviving particles don’t contain any information about what formed the black hole. And not only that, information of the particles’ partners that went into the black hole is also lost. If you investigate the end-products of black hole evaporation, you therefore can’t tell what the initial state was; the only quantities you can extract are the total mass, charge, and angular momentum- the three “hairs” of black holes (plus one qubit). Black hole evaporation is therefore irreversible.

Irreversible processes however don’t exist in quantum field theory. In technical jargon, black holes can turn pure states into mixed states, something that shouldn’t ever happen. Black hole evaporation thus gives rise to an internal contradiction, or “inconsistency”: You combine quantum field theory with general relativity, but the result isn’t compatible with quantum field theory.

To address your questions: Entropy increase usually does not imply a fundamental irreversibility, but merely a practical one. Entropy increases because the probability to observe the reverse process is small. But fundamentally, any process is reversible: Unbreaking eggs, unmixing dough, unburning books – mathematically, all of this can be described just fine. We merely never see this happening because such processes would require exquisitely finetuned initial conditions. A large entropy increase makes a process irreversible in practice, but not irreversible in principle.

That is true for all processes except black hole evaporation. No amount of finetuning will bring back the information that was lost in a black hole. It’s the only known case of a fundamental irreversibility. We know it’s wrong, but we don’t know exactly what’s wrong. That’s why we worry about it.

The irreversibility in quantum mechanics, which you are referring to, comes from the measurement process, but black hole evaporation is irreversible already before a measurement was made. You could argue then, why should it bother us if everything we can possibly observe requires a measurement anyway? Indeed, that’s an argument which can and has been made. But in and by itself it doesn’t remove the inconsistency. You still have to demonstrate just how to reconcile the two mathematical frameworks.

This problem has attracted so much attention because the mathematics is so clear-cut and the implications are so deep. Hawking evaporation relies on the quantum properties of matter fields, but it does not take into account the quantum properties of space and time. It is hence widely believed that quantizing space-time is necessary to remove the inconsistency. Figuring out just what it would take to prevent information loss would teach us something about the still unknown theory of quantum gravity. Black hole information loss, therefore, is a lovely logical puzzle with large potential pay-off – that’s what makes it so addictive.

Now some words on the sociology. It will not have escaped your attention that the problem isn’t exactly new. Indeed, its origin predates my birth. Thousands of papers have been written about it during my lifetime, and hundreds of solutions have been proposed, but theorists just can’t agree on one. The reason is that they don’t have to: For the black holes which we observe (eg at the center of our galaxy), the temperature of the Hawking radiation is so tiny there’s no chance of measuring any of the emitted particles. And so, black hole evaporation is the perfect playground for mathematical speculation.

[Lots of Papers. Img: 123RF]
There is an obvious solution to the black hole information loss problem which was pointed out already in early days. The reason that black holes destroy information is that whatever falls through the horizon ends up in the singularity where it is ultimately destroyed. The singularity, however, is believed to be a mathematical artifact that should no longer be present in a theory of quantum gravity. Remove the singularity and you remove the problem.

Indeed, Hawking’s calculation breaks down when the black hole has lost almost all of its mass and has become so small that quantum gravity is important. This would mean the information would just come out in the very late, quantum gravitational, phase and no contradiction ever occurs.

This obvious solution, however, is also inconvenient because it means that nothing can be calculated if one doesn’t know what happens nearby the singularity and in strong curvature regimes which would require quantum gravity. It is, therefore, not a fruitful idea. Not many papers can be written about it and not many have been written about it. It’s much more fruitful to assume that something else must go wrong with Hawking’s calculation.

Sadly, if you dig into the literature and try to find out on which grounds the idea that information comes out in the strong curvature phase was discarded, you’ll find it’s mostly sociology and not scientific reasoning.

If the information is kept by the black hole until late, this means that small black holes must be able to keep many different combinations of information inside. There are a few papers which have claimed that these black holes then must emit their information slowly, which means small black holes would behave like a technically infinite number of particles. In this case, so the claim, they should be produced in infinite amounts even in weak background fields (say, nearby Earth), which is clearly incompatible with observation.

Unfortunately, these arguments are based on an unwarranted assumption, namely that the interior of small black holes has a small volume. In GR, however, there isn’t any obvious relation between surface area and volume because space can be curved. The assumption that such small black holes, for which quantum gravity is strong, can be effectively described as particles is equally shaky. (For details and references, please see this paper I wrote with Lee some years ago.)

What happened, to make a long story short, is that Lenny Susskind wrote a dismissive paper about the idea that information is kept in black holes until late. This dismissal gave everybody else the opportunity to claim that the obvious solution doesn’t work and to henceforth produce endless amounts of papers on other speculations.

Excuse the cynicism, but that’s my take on the situation. I’ll even admit having contributed to the paper pile because that’s how academia works. I too have to make a living somehow.

So that’s the other reason why physicists worry so much about the black hole information loss problem: Because it’s speculation unconstrained by data, it’s easy to write papers about it, and there are so many people working on it that citations aren’t hard to come by either.

Thanks for an interesting question, and sorry for the overly honest answer.