Stephen Hawking now thinks "there are no black holes"

The physicist, whose pioneering work on black holes in the 1970s made him a household name, has proposed a radical fudge to try and resolve a baffling paradox.

For a scientist whose career was made by his work on black holes, it might seem a little confusing to read that Stephen Hawking now thinks that they don’t exist. But that’s what “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes”, the study Hawking published last week on arXiv, says: “there are no black holes”.

While this might seem surprising - after all, there’s a huge amount of (indirect) evidence that black holes exist, including a massive one several million times the mass of our Sun at the centre of the Milky Way - it’s really not. It’s Hawking’s latest attempt to solve a paradox that he, and other astrophysicists, have been grappling with for a couple of years.

So what’s he talking about? Here’s the background: black holes are objects which are so massive, with such strong gravity, that even light can’t escape. The distance from the black hole, beyond which nothing gets out, is the event horizon. However, Hawking made his name in the 1970s when he published a paper showing that black holes don’t just suck stuff up, endlessly - they spew out a beam of so-called “Hawking radiation” as they absorb other matter. That means black holes actually lose mass over time, eventually whittling away to nothing.

Black holes are frustrating, though, because their extreme gravity exposes the major inadequacy in our current scientific understanding of the universe - we don’t know how to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. With general relativity, we can make accurate predictions about objects with certainty, but on the tiny scale of quantum mechanics it’s only possible to talk about the behaviour of objects in terms of probability. When we do the maths on what happens to things that fall into black holes, using relativity gives results that break quantum mechanics; the same goes vice versa.

One of the key things about quantum mechanics is that it tells us information can’t be destroyed - that is, if you measure the radiation given off by a black hole, you should be able to build up a picture of what matter fell into the hole to create it. However, if general relativity holds, and nothing can escape from inside the event horizon, then that should apply to that quantum information - any radiation that’s coming out is, Hawking showed, random. It’s the black hole “information paradox”. Either give up quantum mechanics, or accept that information can die.

Hawking was in the “information can die” camp, until 2004, when it became clear - thanks to string theory - that quantum mechanics held up (and there’s an excellent in-depth explanation of this in Nature that explores this story more fully if interested). There was just one problem - nobody could work out *how* information was getting out of black holes, even if it was happening mathematically.

And, just in case this wasn’t all entirely confusing, it turns out that our best post-2004 theory about what’s been going on gives rise to an entirely new paradox - the “firewall”.

It’s to do with quantum entanglement, where two particles are created that are identical on the quantum level. The way it works isn’t exactly clear yet - it could be something to do with string theory and wormholes - but it means that measuring the properties of one particle will give readings that mirror those found on its entangled particle. It might lead to teleportation technology, but scientists aren’t sure yet.

Joseph Polchinski from the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California published a paper in 2012 that worked out the information paradox could be solved if Hawking radiation was quantum entangled with the stuff falling in. But, due to the limitations of entanglement, if this is true, that would mean that at the event horizon a massive amount of energy was given off by particles entering and leaving.

Hence “firewall” - anything crossing the event horizon would be burnt to a crisp. And even though most scientists, including Polchinski, thought this couldn’t possibly be right - it completely contradicts a lot of the stuff underlying general relativity, for example - nobody’s yet managed to disprove it.

The choice for physicists, once again, was to: a) accept the firewall, and throw out general relativity, or b) accept that information dies in black holes, and quantum mechanics is wrong.

Still with me? Here’s where Hawking’s latest paper comes in.

(That title - “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes” - might make some more sense too, hopefully.)

Hawking’s proposed solution, building on an idea first floated in 2005, is that the event horizon isn’t as defined as we’ve come to imagine it. He instead proposes something called an “apparent horizon”, which light and other stuff can escape from:

"The absence of event horizons mean that there are no black holes - in the sense of regimes from which light can't escape to infinnity. There are however apparent horizons which persist for a period of time."

Black holes should be treated more like massive galactic washing machines. Stuff falls in and starts getting tossed around, mixed up with other stuff in there, and only eventually is allowed to escape out again when ready. This happens because the quantum effects around a black hole, like weather on Earth, churn so violently and unpredictably that it’s just impossible to either predict the position of an event horizon or expect uniform effects for stuff crossing it. While the theoretical basis, that information is preserved, remains, in practice it's so difficult as to be impractical.

It’s a fudge of an idea, which tries to have its general relativity and quantum mechanics cakes, and eat them, too. Possible weaknesses, as Nature points out, are that it could imply that escaping from black holes is easier than it is in reality. It could also be the apparent horizons are just as much of a firewall as the traditional conception of an event horizon. Hawking's peers have yet to have a go at assessing his idea, so we'll have to wait to see whether the idea has merit - or whether it merely gives rise to yet more paradoxes.

Hawking in Cambridge, September 2013. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.