New controversy over black holes draws in Stephen Hawking

Did Stephen Hawking really claim there are no black holes? Science is a complicated, ever-changing discipline, as much as lay people like to imagine otherwise. Based on reason and logic, science seems like it should be absolute, but unfortunately those scientists on the edge of its new frontiers find it to be anything but.

Looking back to Einstein’s theories

News, however, depends on those attention-grabbing headlines, and the controversy over Stephen Hawking’s comments about black holes isn’t as black and white as the media would make it out to be. In fact, black holes themselves have been the subject of ongoing study and controversy since 1915, when Albert Einstein posited his equations about relativity, which thus impacted our notions of gravity, according to

Following on from Einstein was Physicist Karl Schwarzchild, who developed theories about “the gravitational field outside of a spherical distribution of mass,” concluding that objects could collapse in on themselves, with not even light being able to escape. With a black hole, there is a delineation between the light escaping and the light trapped, and this is known as the “event horizon,” an issue that will come into play with Hawking.

“General relativity and quantum mechanics don’t play well together”

Part of the problem stems, notes Australian Scientist Geriant Lewis, with the fact that “general relativity and quantum mechanics don’t play well together.” To oversimplify, quantum mechanics cannot account for gravity, and general relativity depends upon the concept.

In the 1970s, Stephen Hawking famously tried to unite these two sets of ideas, but the snag (and what’s causing complications now) is the “event horizon,” which is not a clean line but instead a messy place where particles pop in and out of existence.

That is, according to Hawking, black holes leak radiation into surrounding space and, over time, black holes eventually disappear. Oops. According to Time magazine, “Quantum theory says that information can be neither created nor removed from the universe.” So, for some years now, some scientists have been saying that the “event horizon” is a firewall, while others say it is undetectable. Clearly, these ideas are at odds.

Here comes Hawking and the “apparent horizon”

This is where Stephen Hawking and his new study come in. By mixing the ideas of quantum mechanics with general relativity, Hawking finds there is not an “event horizon” (a well defined line), but instead a more nebulous one, an “apparent horizon.” Unlike the “event horizon,” which traps matter and radiation into the black hole, there is an “apparent horizon,” which allows for leakage. Furthermore, this trapping is only temporary. Eventually matter, radiation and (most important) information are released back.

As a result, Hawking is not saying black holes don’t exist, just that they are much more complex than originally envisioned by science. And while Hawking is a giant among scientists (after all, he’s had cameos on both “The Simpsons” and “Star Trek”), one paper or idea doesn’t make him correct, even if his ideas are beyond the comprehension of most of us.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson or headline from all this is that history has shown that scientific thought and conclusions are just the best of what mankind has come up with so far. Science is not finished, and current scientific theories are just that. Whether black holes are black or maybe grey with ill-defined edges is something we may not even know in our lifetimes.