Stephen Hawking and the Black Hole Information Paradox

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The trouble with physics, according to renowned 20th century quantum theorist David Bohm, is how it limits existence to whatever can be located, analyzed and manipulated. What about the conscious mind that senses and reasons and desires? Fixated on the outer and dismissing the inner, physics has become a black hole from which no light can escape.

In 1974 Stephen Hawking detected a wrinkle in the space-time vortex through which matter spirals into collapsed suns known as black holes. Though Einstein treated space in a purely geometric way, quantum theory tells us it’s actually “foaming” at all times with paired particles, one positive and one negative, that annihilate each other as soon as they meet up. Imagining what happens to newly minted particles at the gravitational boundary of a black hole, Hawking realized that in some cases the particle carrying a negative charge gets drawn past the “event horizon” before it can meet up with and annihilate its twin, which then escapes. Since all the incorporated particles carry negative energy, the black hole shrinks. If no ordinary matter is drawn inside, over time it “evaporates” until nothing is left.

According to thermodynamics, energy is neither created nor destroyed. The conservation of energy is the reason new particles are balanced between positive and negative energy. Because matter at the infinitesimal scale is indefinite and probabilistic, the quantum equivalent is the conservation of information. Quantum states are indeed very informative. Radiation emitted from the sun can tell us what went into it in the first place. Since black holes don’t radiate, all that information is locked up inside, which is fine as long as it’s still in there somewhere. But the black hole gets the last laugh when it evaporates, taking all that information to the grave.

Hawking concluded that information, unlike energy, really can die. So theorists began looking for a kink in quantum theory that would allow information to be destroyed. They found nothing. The final straw was Juan Maldacena’s 2004 discovery that the gravity-dominated world of the black hole is mathematically equivalent to the quantum world of the particle. “I found that there’s a mathematical dictionary that allows you to go back and forth between the languages of these two worlds.” Black hole evaporation could now be described from a strictly quantum standpoint, meaning the process does indeed abide by quantum principles. Like the smile on the Cheshire cat, information somehow outlives the system that formerly housed it.

The principle of entanglement, by which particles with a shared history retain a “nonlocal” informational conduit, offers a way out of the dilemma but at the cost of a colossal “firewall” disrupting the event horizon, an impossibility in light of Einstein’s theory of gravity, of which black hole theory is a wholly owned subsidiary. On the basis of general relativity. there cannot be any disturbance at the event horizon. Though doomed from that point on, an astronaut wouldn’t notice a thing upon crossing it.

So Hawking cobbled together an alternative model that gets rid of the problem at the cost of eliminating from black holes their defining feature. According to Hawking, there’s no such thing as a celestial object from which nothing can escape. Turns out light can wiggle its way out of there after all. True, the information it carries is gibberish, but that’s only because its quantum states have been scrambled in the chaos of the redefined ex-black hole boundary.

To banish a conundrum, Hawking mangles well-established theory. Yet it’s all for naught. No resolution of the black hole information paradox is possible because no actual problem has been defined. To understand why this is, we must follow Bohm’s lead and look within.

One of my favorite walks is through the woods above a creek not far from my house. In the course of this walk, I pass a no trespassing sign attached to a tree by an old stone fence — or at least it used to be a no trespassing sign. In fact the lettering long ago faded away. Anyone who didn’t see it 20 or 30 years ago would think it’s just a piece of wood nailed to a tree, as if the tree doesn’t already have enough of its own. Does this mean information has been destroyed? Has this former sign violated the sanctity of physical law?

What does it mean to preserve information? How is it that I remember the sign, but the piece of wood doesn’t? Did it ever really constitute a sign, or was this simply an interpretation on the part of me and whoever else walked by it in years past? Are you really reading words on a webpage, or is this sentence just so many pixels arranged in such a way that you interpret them as words? Where precisely are the words?

The answer is nowhere. Words aren’t material and neither is quantum information. There is, however, an important distinction: whereas words exist in the mind of the individual, quantum information exists in the mind of the cosmos.

Unlike tangible objects, each of which occupies a single position at a precise moment, an electron is composed of “superpositions,” not only in terms of location but mass, speed, direction and spin. When we measure an electron, we find a particle with a definite existence. But as soon as we look away, it’s just stacks of information, a buzzing hive of possibilities, much like the contents of our minds.

At the core of quantum mechanics is the “wave function,” which allows researchers to mathematically chart the seamless flow of one quantum state into another. A measurement, on the other hand, seems to cause the wave function to collapse, taking all that information with it and leaving behind a simple material object. Left to its own devices, the wave function spreads out continuously, propagating superpositions without end. Tangible existence, on the other hand, consists of a sequence of discrete moments, each one housing a well defined state.

QM confronts us with a world split in two, but the apparent division is only an artifact of differing perspectives. In the context of continually regenerating presence, the tangible is quantum. In the context of a sequence of completed moments, the quantum is tangible. To act is to round off one moment and invite the next, which is why the act of measurement shifts the perspective from generative time to spent time.

Whether quantum or human, information is in the continuous present of what we call “mind,” not the fleeting instants of what we call “matter.” I remember the no trespassing sign because, as a living being, I’m a direct expression of flowing presence, a self-contained ever-expanding packet of duration prolonging whatever came before — even decades before. The piece of wood nailed to the tree can’t remember the no trespassing sign because it’s limited to a series of definite moments, each one distinct from the ones before and after. Only in the context of temporal continuity is there memory, the enduring presence of what, from the material perspective, is long gone.

Information can’t be lost when a black hole evaporates, as it was never an aspect of tangible existence to begin with. Despite the readings of a measuring apparatus, from its own perspective the quantum is never quite lured into the trap of definite form in a distinct moment to be instantly sucked into a dead past. When it comes to information, the next moment never arrives because the quantum, like the conscious, is forever now.   

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