In DepthAstrophysics

Hawking's bid to save quantum theory from black holes

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Science  23 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6382, pp. 1316-1317
DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6382.1316

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Summary

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, he had spent lonely decades trying in vain to unify the theories of gravity and electromagnetism. Stephen Hawking, the great British physicist who died last week at age 76, also worked until the end. But he focused on perhaps the most important problem in his area of physics, one his own work had posed: How do black holes preserve information encoded in the material that falls into them? Hawking realized in 1974 that through a subtle quantum effect a black hole can radiate energy and evaporate. But then a black hole should destroy any infalling information, which cannot come back out in the random radiation. Such information loss would wreck quantum mechanics, and Hawking spent much of his later years trying to figure out how a black hole could preserve information after all, even as the degenerative nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis rendered him immobile and able to speak only through a computerized voice synthesizer. Ironically, Hawking's disability may have helped him avoid the isolation that enveloped Einstein, as Hawking had to rely on collaborators to flesh out his ideas and so remained connected to his peers.