Sunday, July 09, 2017

Stephen Hawking’s 75th Birthday Conference: Impressions

I’m back from Cambridge, where I attended the conference “Gravity and Black Holes” in honor of Stephen Hawking’s 75th birthday.

First things first, the image on the conference poster, website, banner, etc is not a psychedelic banana, but gravitational wave emission in a black hole merger. It’s a still from a numerical simulation done by a Cambridge group that you can watch in full on YouTube.

What do gravitational waves have to do with Stephen Hawking? More than you might think.

Stephen Hawking, together with Gary Gibbons, wrote one of the first papers on the analysis of gravitational wave signals. That was in 1971, briefly after gravitational waves were first “discovered” by Joseph Weber. Weber’s detection was never confirmed by other groups. I don’t think anybody knows just what he measured, but whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t gravitational waves. Also Hawking’s – now famous – area theorem stemmed from this interest in gravitational waves, which is why the paper is titled “Gravitational Radiation from Colliding Black Holes.”

Second things second, the conference launched on Sunday with a public symposium, featuring not only Hawking himself but also Brian Cox, Gabriela Gonzalez, and Martin Rees. I didn’t attend because usually nothing of interest happens at these events. I think it was recorded, but haven’t seen the recording online yet – will update if it becomes available.

Gabriela Gonzalez was spokesperson of the LIGO collaboration when the first (real) gravitational wave detection was announced, so you have almost certainly seen her. She also gave a talk at the conference on Tuesday. LIGO’s second run is almost done now, and will finish in August. Then it’s time for the next schedule upgrade. Maximal design sensitivity isn’t expected to be reached until 2020. Above all, in the coming years, we’ll almost certainly see much better statistics and smaller error bars.

The supposed correlations in the LIGO noise were worth a joke by the session’s chairman, and I had the pleasure of talking to another member of the LIGO collaboration who recognized me as the person who wrote that upsetting Forbes piece. I clearly made some new friends there^^. I’d have some more to say about this, but will postpone this to another time.

Back to the conference. Monday began with several talks on inflation, most of which were rather basic overviews, so really not much new to report. Slava Mukhanov delivered a very Russian presentation, complaining about people who complain that inflation isn’t science. Andrei Linde then spoke about attractors in inflation, something I’ve been looking into recently, so this came in handy.

Monday afternoon, we had Jim Hartle speaking about the No-Boundary proposal – he was not at all impressed by Neil Turok et al’s recent criticism – and Raffael Bousso about the ever-tightening links between general relativity and quantum field theory. Raffael’s was the probably most technical talk of the meeting. His strikes me as a research program that will still run in the next century. There’s much to learn and we’ve barely just begun.

On Tuesday, besides the already mentioned LIGO talk, there were a few other talks about numerical general relativity – informative but also somehow unexciting. In the afternoon, Ted Jacobson spoke about fluid analogies for gravity (which I wrote about here), and Jeff Steinhauer reported on his (still somewhat controversial) measurement of entanglement in the Hawking radiation of such a fluid analogy (which I wrote about here.)

Wednesday began with a rather obscure talk about how to shove information through wormholes in AdS/CFT that I am afraid might have been somehow linked to ER=EPR, but I missed the first half so not sure. Gary Gibbons then delivered a spirited account of gravitational memory, though it didn’t become clear to me if it’s of practical relevance.

Next, Andy Strominger spoke about infrared divergences in QED. Hearing him speak, the whole business of using soft gravitons to solve the information loss problem suddenly made a lot of sense! Unfortunately I immediately forgot why it made sense, but I promise to do more reading on that.

Finally, Gary Horowitz spoke about all the things that string theorists know and don’t know about black hole microstates, which I’d sum up with they know less than I thought they do.

Stephen Hawking attended some of the talks, but didn’t say anything, except for a garbled sentence that seems to have played back by accident and stumped Ted Jacobson.

All together, it was a very interesting and fun meeting, and also a good opportunity to have coffee with friends both old and new. Besides food for thought, I also brought back a conference bag, a matching pen, and a sinus infection which I blame on the air conditioning in the lecture hall.

Now I have a short break to assemble my slides for next week’s conference and then I’m off to the airport again.


  1. I look forward to conversations you ahd about the Danish paper. Are the videos of the technical talks recorded. I know it was webcast live.

  2. Interesting stuff Sabine. For some strange reason your blog seems to be mirroring what I've been looking into recently. Have a nice trip to Trieste. And check out what Einstein said in 1930: "the strange conclusion to which we have come is this - that now it appears that space will have to be regarded as a primary thing and that matter is derived from it, so to speak".

    ..."I’m off to the airport again" "8^>)

    Sabine Hossenfelder, Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies
    Title: Yet another model for modified gravity
    "I will construct a covariant Lagrangian that reproduces Verlinde’s ansatz and show what additional insights this brings."

    Are theorists allowed to solve problems rather than propagate them (presumably via proposed new undetectable carrier bosons)?
    ...Where are the experimentalists? Empirical answers may be loudly invisible.

  4. Thanks! (Always enjoy your posts, here and elsewhere...)

  5. Did Bob Wald say anything interesting in his closing remarks?

  6. It takes a rare talent to describe a conference on advanced theoretical physics and make it all seem rather funny ! The comment about some concept making sense and then immediately forgetting why it made sense totally cracked me up (and brought back any number of similar memories from conferences I've attended). :D


  7. Leo,

    He said that Hawking misspelled "gauge" in his paper on black hole radiation (the longer one).

  8. Shantanu,

    I don't know. But it would be rather strange to have a webcast and not record it, no? I'll let you know if I see any recordings go online.

  9. I, too, would like to access the technical talks - as an unapologetic amateur, I need to play and re-play these, so I can especially try to understand the reasoning 'on display'... then maybe the physics could make a bit more sense - before like you, I forget it!!.

  10. The conference videos are now online on the conference website. The session chair is Neil Cornish, a student of John Moffat and an LSC member.

  11. The first time I met Hawking was in 1991 or 1992 at Meudon. He was invited by B. Carter. I was a PhD student at the time.
    The last time I met him was during this exciting conference. Unfortunately we won't meet him again as today he passed away. RIP


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