New Castle News

January 29, 2014

Our Opinion: Hawking backtracks a bit on a key claim

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The universe is a vast and complex place, with countless mysteries waiting to be discovered.

But we all know about black holes. They are areas in space — typically at the center of galaxies — that are so incredibly dense their gravitational pull sucks in everything around them.

This pull is so powerful that not even light can escape from a black hole — hence its name.

Knowledge of black holes has entered the popular culture from a variety of sources, such as assorted science fiction programs. Even Disney had a movie about the concept back in the 1970s.

But the driving force behind the concept of black holes has been Dr. Stephen Hawking, the wheelchair-bound physicist who has become everyone’s favorite science geek. He is widely regarded as having one of the greatest scientific minds on the planet and despite his popularity with average folk, he remains a highly respected figure in the field of astrophysics.

Yet now Hawking is rejecting his prior claims regarding black holes, sort of. Most significantly, Hawking now believes that material actually escapes from these phenomenon, at least over time.

What prompted this revision on Hawking’s part seems to be tied to what’s known as the “event horizon.” This is the theoretical area surrounding a black hole that could best be described as the point of no return. Once anything crosses a black hole’s event horizon, it has been believed, it cannot escape the hole’s pull.

But what actually happens at an event horizon? Various theories have been proposed, ranging from nothing much (unless the black hole’s pull is resisted) to an encounter with a so-called firewall that incinerates everything that reaches it.

These theories, and other aspects regarding the understanding of black holes, produced scientific paradoxes. For instance, if black holes are part of the universe, and matter within the universe cannot be destroyed, how can it be that matter can cross an event horizon and still be part of the universe?

Such uncertainty and speculation about black holes has sparked scientific imagination for decades. One of the most intriguing concepts ties black holes to the notion of worm holes. These are theoretical distortions in space that essentially operate as short cuts in the universe. Enter a worm hole, it’s believed, and you can find yourself light years away from your original location in an instant.

Now, however, Hawking’s theoretical revision suggests black holes are not absolute. This may put a crimp in a lot of upcoming science fiction sagas.

Of course, all of this remains a matter of speculation and indirect analysis. There are no black holes to directly observe in the vicinity of Earth — which is a good thing. So the truth about them remains open to conjecture.