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Stephen Hawking has a new mind-bending theory about black holes, the bizarre cosmic objects that cemented his reputation as the world's most famous living scientist. Rather than getting sucked into a singularity of confusion, read our explainer
What exactly is a black hole?
Good question. According to theoretical physicists, they used to be regions of space-time – the fabric that makes up the universe – that have become so dense that their huge gravity generates an event horizon, from inside which nothing, not even light, can escape. Then in 1974, Hawking added quantum mechanics to the black hole picture and sparked a row that has raged on until the present day.
The theory of Hawking radiation also suggested that when a black hole dies, it takes everything inside with it, but that is a big quantum no-no. Quantum physics says that information about matter is never destroyed, even when it falls into a black hole. Other theorists suggested solving this "information paradox" by allowing information to escape from the black hole as it evaporated. Hawking disagreed – until 30 years later, when he showed how it might be possible and was forced to concede a seven-year-old wager with another physicist.
It's yet another quantum versus relativity showdown!
Indeed. Firewalls mean that one of the two theories is wrong, so physicists have been scrambling to find a compromise that doesn't produce these flaming problems. Now Hawking has waded in and says the solution is to give up the very thing that makes black holes so intriguing – the event horizon.
Does it matter if Hawking is right?
If black holes are how he describes, it could lead to a better understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity. "We might learn some new physics, which may have real implications about the non-trivial structure of the universe," says Braunstein. But he also points out that we might not.
Does Hawking mind being wrong?
Everyone hates being wrong – and Hawking is human. On his 70th birthday, he told New Scientist that he regards his idea that information was destroyed by black holes, which later turned out to be wrong, as his "biggest blunder" – in science, at least.
I'm not a scientist by any means but if the multiverse theory is true why can't the black holes be bridges between universes? Maybe energy can only be transmitted to another universe after it has been compressed to a smaller size.