Stephen Hawking’s Black Hole Paradox Explained in Animation

Many of us have heard of Stephen Hawking but know him only as a symbol of a powerful mind dedicated for a lifetime to the thorniest problems in astrophysics. Even more of us have heard of black holes but know of them only as those dangerous things in sci-fi movies that suck in spaceships. But if we gain an understanding of Hawking's work on black holes, however basic, we gain a much clearer view of both entities and what they mean to the human endeavor of grasping the workings of reality. What it all has to do with "one of the biggest paradoxes in the universe," and why that paradox "threatens to unravel modern science," provide the subject matter for the animated TED-Ed lesson above.

In order to explain what's called the "Black Hole Information Paradox," astrophysicist Fabio Pacucci must first explain "information," which in this usage constitutes every part of the reality in which we live. "Typically, the information we talk about is visible to the naked eye," he says. "This kind of information tells us that an apple is red, round, and shiny." But what physicists care about is "quantum information," which "refers to the quantum properties of all the particles that make up that apple, such as their position, velocity and spin." The particles that make up every object of the universe have "unique quantum properties," and the laws of physics as currently understood hold that "the total amount of quantum information in the universe must be conserved."




Smash the apple into sauce, in other words, and you don't create or destroy any quantum information, you just move it around. But in the parts of spacetime with gravity so strong that nothing can escape them, better known as black holes, that particular law of physics may not apply. "When an apple enters a black hole, it seems as though it leaves the universe, and all its quantum information becomes irretrievably lost," says Pacucci. "However, this doesn’t immediately break the laws of physics. The information is out of sight, but it might still exist within the black hole’s mysterious void."

Then we have Hawking Radiation, the eponymous genius' contribution to the study of black holes, which shows that "black holes are gradually evaporating," losing mass over "incredibly long periods of time" in such a way that suggests that "a black hole and all the quantum information it contains could be completely erased" in the process. What might go into the black hole as an apple's information doesn't come out looking like an apple's information. Quantum information seems to be destroyed by black holes, yet everything else about quantum information tells us it can't be destroyed: like any paradox, or contradiction between two known or probable truths, "the destruction of information would force us to rewrite some of our most fundamental scientific paradigms."

But for a scientist in the Hawking mold, this difficulty just makes the chase for knowledge more interesting. Pacucci cites a few hypotheses: that "information actually is encoded in the escaping radiation, in some way we can’t yet understand," that "the paradox is just a misunderstanding of how general relativity and quantum field theory interact, that "a solution to this and many other paradoxes will come naturally with a 'unified theory of everything,'" and most boldly that, because "the 2D surface of an event horizon" — the inescapable edge of a black hole — "can store quantum information," the boundary of the observable universe "is also a 2D surface encoded with information about real, 3D objects," implying that "reality as we know it is just a holographic projection of that information." Big if true, as they say, but as Hawking seems to have known, the truth about our reality is surely bigger than any of us can yet imagine.

via Brain Pickings

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Richard Feynman’s Technique for Learning Something New: An Animated Introduction

I sometimes wonder: why do people post amateur repair videos, made with smartphones in kitchens and garages, with no obvious commercial value and, often, a level of expertise just minimally above that of their viewers? Then I remember Richard Feynman’s practical advice for how to learn something new—prepare to teach it to somebody else.

The extra accountability of making a public record might provide added motivation, though not nearly to the degree of making teaching one's profession. Nobel-winning physicist Feynman spent the first half of his academic career working on the Manhattan Project, dodging J. Edgar Hoover's FBI at the beginning of the Cold War, and making major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics.




But he has become as well-known for his teaching as for his historic scientific role, thanks to the enormously popular series of physics lectures he developed at Caltech; his funny, accessible, best-selling books of essays and memoirs; and his willingness to be an avuncular public face for science, with a knack for explaining things in terms anyone can grasp.

Feynman revealed that he himself learned through what he called a "notebook technique," an exercise conducted primarily on paper. Yet the method came out of his pedagogy, essentially a means of preparing lecture notes for an audience who know about as much about the subject as you did when you started studying it. In order to explain it to another, you must both understand the subject yourself, and understand what it's like not to understand it.

Learn Feynman’s method for learning in the short animated video above. You do not actually need to teach, only pretend as if you're going to—though preparing for an actual audience will keep you on your toes. In brief, the video summarizes Feynman’s method in a three-step process:

  1. Choose a topic you want to understand and start studying it.
  2. Pretend you’re teaching the idea to someone else. Write out an explanation on the paper…. Whenever you get stuck, go back and study.
  3. Finally do it again, but now simplify your language or use an analogy to make the point.

Get ready to start your YouTube channel with homemade language lessons, restoration projects, and/or cooking videos. You may not—nor should you, perhaps—become an online authority, but according to Feyman, who learned more in his lifetime than most of us could in two, you’ll come away greatly enriched in other ways.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Queen Guitarist Brian May Is Also an Astrophysicist: Read His PhD Thesis Online

Photo by ESO/G. Huedepohl, via Wikimedia Commons

Queen couldn't possibly have been Queen without Freddie Mercury, nor could it have been Queen without Brian May. Thanks not least to the recent biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, the band's already larger-than-life lead singer has become even larger still. But its guitarist, despite the film's surface treatment of his character, is in his own way an equally implausible figure. Not only did he show musical promise early, forming his first group while still at school, he also got his A Levels in physics, mathematics, and applied mathematics, going on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Physics with honors at Imperial College London.

Naturally, May then went for his PhD, continuing at Imperial College where he studied the velocity of, and light reflected by, interplanetary dust in the Solar System. He began the program in 1970, but "in 1974, when Queen was but a princess in its infancy, May chose to abandon his doctorate studies to focus on the band in their quest to conquer the world." So wrote The Telegraph's Felix Lowe in 2007, the year the by-then 60-year-old (and long world-famous) rocker finally handed in his thesis. "The 48,000-word tome, Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, which sounds suspiciously like a Spinal Tap LP, was stored in the loft of his home in Surrey." You can read it online here.




According to its abstract, May's thesis "documents the building of a pressure-scanned Fabry-Perot Spectrometer, equipped with a photomultiplier and pulse-counting electronics, and its deployment at the Observatorio del Teide at Izaña in Tenerife, at an altitude of 7,700 feet (2567 m), for the purpose of recording high-resolution spectra of the Zodiacal Light." Space.com describes the Zodiacial Light as "a misty diffuse cone of light that appears in the western sky after sunset and in the eastern sky before sunrise," one that has long tricked casual observers into "seeing it as the first sign of morning twilight." Astronomers now recognize it as "reflected sunlight shining on scattered space debris clustered most densely near the sun."

In his abstract, May also notes the unusually long period of study as 1970-2007, made possible in part by the fact that little other research had been done in this particular subject area during Queen's reign on the charts and thereafter. Still, he had catching up to do, including observational work in Tenerife (as much of a hardship posting as that isn't). Since being awarded his doctorate, May's scientific activities have continued, as have his musical ones and other pursuits besides, such as animal-rights activism and stereography. (Sometimes these intersect: the 2017 photobook Queen in 3-D, for example, uses a VR viewing device of May's own design.) The next time you meet a youngster dithering over whether to go into astrophysics or found one of the most successful rock bands of all time, point them to May's example and let them know doing both isn't without precedent.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Pioneering Computer Scientist Grace Hopper Shows Us How to Visualize a Nanosecond (1983)

Human imagination seems seriously limited when faced with the cosmic scope of time and space. We can imagine, through stop-motion animation and CGI, what it might be like to walk the earth with creatures the size of office buildings. But how to wrap our heads around the fact that they lived hundreds of millions of years ago, on a planet some four and a half billion years old? We trust the science, but can’t rely on intuition alone to guide us to such mind-boggling knowledge.

At the other end of the scale, events measured in nanoseconds, or billionths of a second, seem inconceivable, even to someone as smart as Grace Hopper, the Navy mathematician who invented COBOL and helped built the first computer. Or so she says in the 1983 video clip above from one of her many lectures in her role as a guest lecturer at universities, museums, military bodies, and corporations.




When she first heard of “circuits that acted in nanoseconds,” she says, “billionths of a second… Well, I didn’t know what a billion was…. And if you don’t know what a billion is, how on earth do you know what a billionth is? Finally, one morning in total desperation, I called over the engineering building, and I said, ‘Please cut off a nanosecond and send it to me.” What she asked for, she explains, and shows the class, was a piece of wire representing the distance a signal could travel in a nanosecond.

Now of course it wouldn’t really be through wire — it’d be out in space, the velocity of light. So if we start with a velocity of light and use your friendly computer, you’ll discover that a nanosecond is 11.8 inches long, the maximum limiting distance that electricity can travel in a billionth of a second.

Follow the rest of her explanation, with wire props, and see if you can better understand a measure of time beyond the reaches of conscious experience. The explanation was immediately successful when she began using it in the late 1960s “to demonstrate how designing smaller components would produce faster computers,” writes the National Museum of American History. The bundle of wires below, each about 30cm (11.8 inches) long, comes from a lecture Hopper gave museum docents in March 1985.

Photo via the National Museum of American History

Like the age of the dinosaurs, the nanosecond may only represent a small fraction of the incomprehensibly small units of time scientists are eventually able to measure—and computer scientists able to access. “Later,” notes the NMAH, “as components shrank and computer speeds increased, Hopper used grains of pepper to represent the distance electricity traveled in a picosecond, one trillionth of a second.”

At this point, the map becomes no more revealing than the unknown territory, invisible to the naked eye, inconceivable but through wild leaps of imagination. But if anyone could explain the increasingly inexplicable in terms most anyone could understand, it was the brilliant but down-to-earth Hopper.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to the Forgotten Pioneer in Quantum Theory, Grete Hermann

From Aeon Video comes a short, vividly-animated tribute to Grete Hermann (1901-1984), the German mathematician and philosopher who made important, but often forgotten, contributions to quantum mechanics. Aeon introduces the video with these words:

In the early 20th century, Newtonian physics was upended by experiments that revealed a bizarre subatomic universe riddled with peculiarities and inconsistencies. Why do photons and electrons behave as both particles and waves? Why should the act of observation affect the behaviour of physical systems? More than just a puzzle for scientists to sort out, this quantum strangeness had unsettling implications for our understanding of reality, including the very concept of truth.

The German mathematician and philosopher Grete Hermann offered some intriguing and original answers to these puzzles. In a quantum universe, she argued, the notion of absolute truth must be abandoned in favour of a fragmented view – one in which the way we measure the world affects the slice of it that we can see. She referred to this idea as the ‘splitting of truth’, and believed it extended far beyond the laboratory walls and into everyday life. With a striking visual style inspired by the modern art of Hermann’s era, this Aeon Original video explores one of Hermann’s profound but undervalued contributions to quantum theory – as well as her own split life as an anti-Nazi activist, social justice reformer and educator.

The short was directed and animated by Julie Gratz and Ivo Stoop, and produced by Kellen Quinn.

via Aeon

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Stephen Hawking’s Final Book and Scientific Paper Just Got Published: Brief Answers to the Big Questions and “Information Paradox”

How did it all begin?  Is there a god? Can we predict the future? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? For decades, many of us turned to Stephen Hawking for answers to those questions, or at least supremely intelligent suggestions as to where the answers might lie. But the celebrated astrophysicist's death earlier this year — after an astonishingly long life and career, given the challenges he faced — took that option away. It turns out, though, that we haven't actually heard the last of him: his last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (whose trailer you can watch just above), came out just this week.

"The book is quintessential Hawking," writes physics professor Marcelo Gleiser at NPR. "He starts by addressing the questions in physics and cosmology that he dedicated his intellectual life to answer, using easy-to-follow arguments and drawing from everyday images and thought experiments." Hawking's answers to the big questions figure into his view of not just the world but all existence: he believes, writes Gleiser, "that humanity's evolutionary mission is to spread through the galaxy as a sort of cosmic gardener, sowing life along the way. He believes, even if not without worry, that we will develop a positive relationship with intelligent machines and that, together, we will redesign the current fate of the world and of our species."




In parallel with his career as a public figure and writer of popular explanatory books, which began with 1988's A Brief History of Time, Hawking performed scientific research on black holes. The Guardian's science editor Ian Sample describes it as a "career-long effort to understand what happens to information when objects fall into black holes," capped off by a posthumously published paper titled "Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair." "Toss an object into a black hole and the black hole’s temperature ought to change," writes Sample. "So too will a property called entropy, a measure of an object’s internal disorder, which rises the hotter it gets." In the paper Hawking and his collaborators show that "a black hole’s entropy may be recorded by photons that surround the black hole’s event horizon, the point at which light cannot escape the intense gravitational pull. They call this sheen of photons 'soft hair'."

If that sounds tricky to understand, all of us who have appreciated Hawking's writing know that we can at least go back to his books to get a grip on black holes and the questions about them that get scientists most curious. Much remains for future astrophysicists to work on about that "information paradox," to do with where, exactly, everything that seemingly gets sucked into a black hole actually goes. “We don’t know that Hawking entropy accounts for everything you could possibly throw at a black hole, so this is really a step along the way,” Hawking's collaborator Malcolm J. Perry tells Sample. “We think it’s a pretty good step, but there is a lot more work to be done.” As Hawking surely knew, the big questions — in physics or any other realm of existence — never quite get fully answered.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Particle Accelerators, 3D Modeling & Artificial Intelligence

Everyone knows that Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, entombing the Roman town of Pompeii in ash. Almost everyone knows that it also did the same to several other towns, including wealthy Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples. Countless scholars have dedicated their lives to studying these unusually well-preserved first-century ruins and the historical treasures found within. We now understand a great deal about the layout, the structures, the social life of Herculaneum, but some aspects remain unknowable, such as the contents of the scrolls, charred beyond recognition, that fill its libraries — or at least that remained unknowable until now.

"In the 18th century, workmen employed by King Charles III of Spain, then in charge of much of southern Italy, discovered the remains of a magnificent villa, thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (known as Piso), a wealthy statesman and the father-in-law of Julius Caesar," writes Smithsonian's Jo Marchant. There, "in what was to become one of the most frustrating archaeological discoveries ever, the workmen also found approximately 2,000 papyrus scrolls." But since the heat and gases of Vesuvius had turned them "black and hard like lumps of coal"  — and indeed, some of Charles III's workmen mistook them for coal and threw them away — attempts to open them "created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text."

The time of Charles III barely had sufficient know-how to avoid destroying the scrolls of Herculaneum, let alone to read them. That task turns out to demand even the most cutting-edge technology we have today, including custom-made 3D modeling software, artificial intelligence, and the most advanced x-ray facilities in existence. Marchant's article focuses on an American computer scientist named Brent Seales (Professor and Chair of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky), whose quest to read the Herculaneum scrolls has become a quest to develop a method to virtually "unroll" them. This requires not just the computing power and logic to determine how these blackened lumps (Seales calls two of them "Fat Bastard" and "Banana Boy") might originally have opened up, but the most advanced particle accelerators in the world to scan them in the first place.

You can read more about Seales' work with the Herculaneum scrolls, which after twenty years has shown real promise, at Mental Floss and Newsweek. Though quite expensive (demand for "beam time" on a particle accelerator being what it is), hugely time-consuming, and occasionally, in Seales' words, "excruciatingly frustrating," the invention of a reliable method for reading these and other seemingly lost texts from antiquity could make substantial additions to what we think of as the canon. (The texts revealed so far have had to do with the ideas of Epicurus, a primer on whose philosophy we've previously featured on Open Culture.) But gaining the fullest possible understanding of what our ancestors knew in the first century may first require a few more 21st-century developments in physics and computer science yet.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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