Matt McHugh
Matt - Blog - August 2007


Blog Archive Page

Beauty, Truth, and other Miscalculations
August 15, 2007

So I'm watching this Science Channel show about Stephen Hawking's black hole theories. I'm one of the many folks who bought A Brief History of Time, kept it on my nightstand for six months while I fargled through its 140 pages, barely grasping a word of it, 'cept for the bit about the paradoxical impossibility of a two-dimensional dog...since it would be bisected by its digestive tract. Yep. That's about all I got out of it. I suppose Hawking simply cuts such a powerful image in the popular consciousness because he's a ruined body with a brilliant mind. Closest thing to a head-in-a-jar that we're likely to see in our lifetimes. But I digress...

So, grasping zippo of contemporary physics, this show did a decent job of explaining to me the crux and controversy of Hawking's main theory: i.e., that matter drawn into a black hole will eventually simply cease to exist. This undermines the bedrock concept of the physical world that matter, energy, anything, is neither created nor destroyed, but simply transformed. According to the show, that whole rubric of "conservation" is no longer discussed in terms of matter but as "information," taking the view the arrangement of subatomic particles that makes all things is simply information encoded in structure. I'm probably oversimplifying, I may be misunderstanding, but that's what I got from it. In any case, the notion that it is lost, that it can wink of out existence in a black hole, is nothing short of scientific heresy (an expression I hadn't heard since Planet of the Apes).

After assorted challenges to this and lots of time to think about it--because that is what Hawking does--he has amended his theory to state (again, if I'm getting it right) that information/matter does not cease to exist since there are other universes and dimensions without black holes, and the net effect across all these negates any loss. What it didn't go quite so far as to say is that if a black hole is crushed to an infinitely dense, infinitesimally small point in one dimension and ceases to be, it transmutes to another and expands. Every black hole collapsing in our universe becomes a Big Bang that gives birth to another. That's my leap and one that seems perfectly elegant to my scientifically inept, mathematically oblivious mind. As physicists are apt to say: it is a theory that is so beautiful it must be true.

And there's the rub. Whether it's from my sci-fi fueled fantasies or the rational extension of rigorous calculus, that idea--that there are ideas so innately elegant they merit an almost a priori claim to truth--presents a problem. Plato and Aristotle came up with lots of damned clever ways to explain the world that were eventually invalidated by empirical science. Newton, too (so I'm told... his stuff still has the ring of truth to my eye). And all modern physics is based on mathematics over empiricism. Nobody's studied a black hole, really. They just worked out what it must be like if it's, in fact, what it seems like. I just get the sense that someday the crew of some spaceship scooping plasma from an event horizon is going to look at our geniuses as a bunch of quaintly misguided self-deluders. The day somebody actually measures what really happens, all those blackboard jockeys will likely look pretty silly, I'd wager. Just because something seems to you so beautiful it must be true, doesn't necessarily mean it is.

That's my big take away from the work of Stephen Hawking. That, and a two-dimensional dog would make a shitty pet.

-- mm

  |  Blog Archive Page

This Website and all contents © 2002-2007 Matt McHugh. All rights reserved.